Putting "Honor" in Perspective in Jordan

by Maryum Saifee

Putting "Honor" in Perspective in Jordan: A Personal Story, A Critical Response

        After bottomless cups of steaming hot tea and endless chatter in Arabic, my translator Lamya's face froze with shock. She carefully handed the overexposed photograph with worn edges back to our host. The lines on her forehead multiplied and Lamya abruptly stopped whispering English translations into my ear. I knew the photograph had triggered something.

        How could an image depicting a group of young women pharmacists posing nonchalantly outside a street cafe cause such a reaction?

        "Maryum, I must go now," she said abruptly. I reminded her that she had promised to stay for dinner. It was my second day as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jordan and I wanted her to stay and continue translating so that I could have more substantive conversation with my new host family. When my pleading failed, I gave up and walked Lamya to the door.

        Before leaving, she asked me if I would walk her home. Like all of the houses in this village, hers was simple and functional, made of lackluster, grayish-beige blocks of concrete. Yet it contrasted beautifully against the lavender and salmon-infused sky of that evening's sunset. The air was hard to breathe. It was filled with dust from a sandstorm earlier in the afternoon. We walked for a few minutes in silence before I asked her about the photograph. She warned me that what I was about to hear would be upsetting.

        "One of the women in that photograph is dead. Her name was Taghrid," Lamya said flatly. Had Taghrid been alive, she would have been one of my host sisters.

        One after another, the details poured out. Taghrid's cousin had accused her of being promiscuous. Taghrid had shamed the family. Her father called on his son Muhammad, only fifteen at the time, to carry out the murder. Lamya guessed Muhammad was chosen because he would get a lesser prison term as a minor. Muhammad killed Taghrid almost five years ago. He had been released from prison less than a year ago.

        Only after the autopsy did my host family learn that Taghrid was a virgin. Only after it was too late did my host family discover that Taghrid's cousin had lied. He had wanted to marry her and she had refused. So, he lied out of spite. I thought to myself how could one rumor lead to a young woman's execution and her brother's lost childhood in prison. This was clearly not a crime committed in a fit of rage. This was premeditated and precalculated.

        For the girls in the village, Taghrid had been a role model. Despite tremendous economic hardship, she had managed to make high enough grades to gain entry into pharmacy school. Taghrid's death was not just a tragedy for the family, but for the young girls of this village who dreamed to be like her one day.

        When my host sister May handed Lamya the photograph, she told Lamya the story of Taghrid’s death. It was at that moment, she said, she stopped translating and had wanted to leave.

        I left Lamya's house in disbelief. By the time I walked back to my host family's home, it was dark. The entire family had congregated on the veranda and my host mother motioned for me to sit down. There was only one empty seat between my host father and Muhammad. I settled into my chair trying hard to hide my unease. Muhammad offered me a cigarette and I refused. My host mother smiled approvingly as though I had passed an unwritten test. I produced an awkward smile and tried not to think about what Lamya had just told me.

        May neatly placed eleven glasses on a copper tray for the ten family members and for me. She poured tea into each glass, one after the next. It was a routine she would repeat roughly five to six times per day. May handed me my glass first and then began to serve the rest of the family. What was going through May's mind every time she served her brother who killed her sister and the father who ordered her execution?

        I watched her serve her father, then Muhammad, and then her siblings. I couldn't help but think how normal this family appeared on the surface. Had Lamya not come over, I never would have known the family secret. I thought it odd that May shared the secret so openly. Maybe she knew that village gossip would eventually spread. Better that the truth be told by her than second-hand.

        I didn't sleep that night. Part of me wanted to stay, but I knew I would never be comfortable becoming a part of my host family. Lamya and I told the Peace Corps director in Jordan what had happened and we convinced them to relocate me. While I left my host family's village behind, Taghrid's story never left my memory.

        Taghrid was the victim of an honor crime. An honor crime is an act of violence committed by a male against a female relative for actions that the family perceives as having shamed the family. In societies where honor crimes occur, the woman's death is thought to be a means of restoring family honor.

        Many Western media outlets attribute honor killings to "Islamic tradition"; however, these crimes are committed across religious lines by both Christians and Muslims and are not limited to countries governed under Islamic law. In fact, honor crime legislation in many Middle Eastern states actually derives from French Napoleonic code rather than Qura'nic text. States that have legislation allowing for a reduced penalty for honor crimes span the globe and underscore the point that honor crimes are not just a Muslim phenomenon. They include Argentina, Brazil, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Peru, Syria, Venezuela and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

        Honor killings must be placed in the broader context of violence against women. While sounding exotic because mainstream media outlets associate the practice with "tribalism" and the "Middle East," it bears a striking resemblance to patterns of domestic violence in the United States. Like domestic violence, honor crimes are fundamentally about power and control.

        During my two years in Jordan, I made it a point to find out what Jordanians thought of honor crimes and used Taghrid's story as a way to start a dialogue on this sensitive topic. I remember a conversation with Maysoon, a Jordanian schoolteacher and close friend, about Taghrid. I recounted the details. She lamented what a shame it was that she was killed for no reason. I asked her if she would feel differently about her death had Taghrid not been a virgin. I was surprised by her answer-she stated that extramarital sex was explicitly forbidden according to Islam and that had she been guilty of promiscuity, she would have shamed the family and her death would be justified. While there is nothing explicit in the Qur'an that requires women to be killed if they engage in premarital sex, Maysoon's invocation of Islam to rationalize Muhammad's actions made me uneasy. I tried to argue that Taghrid's murder was unjust irrespective of the situation and in fact, Jordanian law was based on outdated French penal code, but she accused me of being too Americanized and not fully understanding Islam.

        I had always understood honor crimes to be outside the scope of Islam. Indeed, honor crimes took place in the region long before the prophet Muhammad established his first community of believers. But Maysoon's comments complicated something that seemed so straightforward. If Maysoon and other Muslims can justify an act rooted in pre-Islamic cultural practice in "Islamic" terms, I could not simply dismiss the relationship between Islam and honor as inconsequential.

        As we talked, I watched Maysoon nurse her two-week-old daughter. She was preparing dinner and asked me if I would hold the baby. With expert precision, she gently placed the baby in the nook between my elbow and left hand. While she diced cucumbers and I was left to hold the baby, more questions kept flooding my mind.

        How could a father order the execution of his own daughter? How could Maysoon and others use Islam to justify such a heinous act? Twenty years from now, what would happen to her baby if she were thought to shame the family? Could such a feeling of shame be so powerful that it justifies murder?

        I thought about my own father, a practicing Muslim, and the number of times I had disobeyed him during my turbulent teenage years. To have me executed because I may have disappointed him or shamed the family? It sounded ludicrous even in my mind's imagination. My father is a pious Muslim. Taghrid's father is also presumably a practicing Muslim. Islam as an explanation to justify the practice of honor killings was not convincing.

        The twenty to twenty-five cases of honor killings that are reported annually in Jordan show that the practice is not widespread. So while Maysoon and other Jordanians may have justified the practice on Islamic terms, many other Jordanians I spoke with claimed it contradicted Islamic values. I came across individuals and groups working to end the practice of honor crimes. The most prominent was MIZAN, a nonprofit established by Jordanian lawyers interested in promoting women's rights. MIZAN had been working for years on reforming Article 340 of the Jordanian penal code, which allows for a male to be eligible for a reduced penalty if he commits an act of violence or murder against a female relative perceived as shaming the family.

        If the Qur'an does not explicitly sanction honor crimes, then why would Maysoon and other Jordanians use Islam as a justification for the practice?

        A possible explanation lies in the political context of the time in which this question was asked. When I arrived in Jordan, the second Intifada had just erupted. In the months that followed, I watched the Israelis invade Jenin, the Americans occupy Afghanistan, and the buildup to an American invasion of Iraq. For many Jordanian Muslims, including Maysoon, Muslim countries were being attacked. For her, the Americans, the Israelis, and the inaction of the larger international community were to blame.

        A pretext for American intervention, particularly in the context of Afghanistan, was to save Afghan women from the veil, violence, and other vulgarities committed under the banner of Islam. In her now famous radio address, first lady Laura Bush connects her husband's invasion of Afghanistan to the fight for the dignity of Afghan women. If Laura Bush is conflating patriarchal traditions with Islam and is fighting against them, then Maysoon and other Muslims will strategically give the opposite response. They will regard such traditions, including honor crimes, as Islamic and worth defending.

        For Maysoon, defending honor crimes could have been more a rhetorical, political statement than a true belief in Islam sanctioning the execution of her own daughter. I wonder if I had not been an American asking the question about Taghrid, her answer would have been different.

        After 9/11, images of bright black eyes popping out of shadowy dark veils became ubiquitous. Books like Norma Khoury's Honor Lost topped bestseller lists and have only exacerbated the situation by connecting Islam to honor crimes. Muslim and non-Muslim authors alike have begun cashing in on the bandwagon to unearth the barbarities inherent in Islam.

        However, an eighteen-month investigation into Khoury's book by the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW) and the literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Malcolm Knox, concluded that the book was a fabrication. The investigation found "70 factual errors in terms of geography, Arabic language, honor killings, locations, history and religion," according to a Jordan Times article written by Jordanian journalist Rana Husseini, who also participated in the investigation.

        When Husseini discovered that Khoury's book was a hoax, she publicly condemned Khoury's false and sensationalized portrayal of honor crimes in Jordan as taking away from the tragedies of real honor crime victims. Khoury, for example, drastically inflated the number of honor crimes in Jordan to over 2,500 per year. Husseini is an activist who has worked tirelessly to raise awareness on honor crimes in Jordan and as she points out, sensationalist accounts like Khoury's book are counterproductive in dealing with such a sensitive issue.

        Despite the fact that honor killings occur across the globe and in non-Muslim societies, honor killing has now become synonymous with the plight of Muslim women. For the sake of the Taghrids of this world and the activists who are fighting to end this practice, the false link between honor crimes and Islam must be broken. We must spread awareness of this practice and the harm it does without sensationalizing it.