My personal thoughts on Islamic Topics, not a form of ijtihad rather than applying my mind.

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Location: Cairo, Egypt

Monday, October 04, 2004

Bloodstained Honour

The Parliament in Jordan has overwhelmingly rejected a proposed law imposing harsher punishments on men who kill female relatives in what are paradoxically termed as "honour killings" in September 2003. They claimed that the proposed amendments to the original law were superficial and did not deal with the root of the issue. But what is the root of the issue?

Many a dictionary defines honour as the good name, an excellent reputation, and relates it to dignity and distinction. I fail to see the connection between plain murder and the above mentioned exalted words. Social scientists have studied the concept of honour and concluded that it evolved into being a symbol of value and identity. This is quite prevalent, more so in the oriental world, where honour and ‘saving face’ still mean so much more than anywhere else. But why is it that honour is related solely to women? I believe that attributing all this importance to keeping a reputation from being sullied by mere accusations is just another way of oppressing and controlling women. In addition these accusations are to a large extent unproven, yet oddly enough still acted upon. Killing these women places such weight on the men’s honour, yet shows no regard whatsoever of their victims lives. Quite a contradiction in terms isn’t it? These so called honour killings occur for a variety of offences, including allegations of premarital or extramarital sex, refusing an arranged marriage, attempting to obtain a divorce, or simply talking with a man.

Let’s take a look at the Jordanian case and try to see where the misconception about murder being honourable, let alone Islamic came from. Jordan, a signatory to the “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women” and the “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”, both of which proscribe discrimination based on sex, still practices discrimination within its borders. The Jordanian Penal Code considers “honour killings” of Jordanian women a lesser crime and in many cases even justified. This has become something akin to an open invitation or a Carte Blanche to murder women for other reasons such as inheritance battles, greed, hate and covering up incestuous rape, hiding it conveniently as an honour saving measure. Sadly this has resulted in the fact that ‘crimes of honour’ constitute about one third of the total number of Jordan’s homicides. Article 340 of the Jordanian Penal Code exempts or reduces the punishment of the individuals convicted of murdering women in the name of so called honour. Article 98 reduces the sentence for the perpetrator of a "fit of fury" crime committed in response to a wrongful and serious act on the part of the victim. The bizarre thing is that none of these laws specify what an illegitimate or wrongful act might be, yet they have been used to justify minimizing the punishment of offenders for so called honour crimes.

These vigilantes are sentenced to as little as six months in prison, if at all. This reduces the punishment to being only a ridiculous symbolic farce. On the other hand many potential victims are placed in prison, in protective custody, as the only means to ensure their safety, side by side with convicted criminals. Statistics show that in 2001 almost half of all female prison inmates were there as a protective measure, some as long as three years. The irony of it all lies in the fact that according to Jordanian law, a woman cannot be released from prison unless a male relative comes to sign her out. But it is those very relatives that these women were trying to escape from. Some families sign a pledge not to harm the woman, but they nevertheless slit her throat as soon as she is released back into their custody. Official statistics indicate that the majority of the women killed in honour crimes were teen-agers, who were never allowed to have a life, but were sentenced to death by slander. The autopsies on the victims revealed more than 90% of them to be virgins, yet they were killed for an imaginary crime. For the most part the innocent victims were buried quietly in unmarked graves, still disgraced for no reason, even in death.

In an attempt to protect his female population, King Abdullah passed a temporary bill imposing harsher penalties for perpetrators of honour killings. Sadly the Jordanian Parliament voted to dissolve the bill. Jordanian members of parliament argued that “more punishments would violate religious traditions and damage the fabric of Jordan's conservative society, where men have the final say”. Obviously this final say includes whether women should be allowed to live. Attributing this alleged right to religion is absolutely preposterous. Let’s take a look at how Islam deals with this matter and then we can judge whether it is really due to religion or only because in some societies women are still seen as “only commodities owned by men” as Carolyn Hannan, director of the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, said.

One of the first cases of an accusation against a married woman in Islam occurred right in the Prophet’s own family, a century and a half ago. Aisha, his wife, was herself accused of sullying her husband’s honour. But how did he react to that? Let’s hear the story. Aisha was accompanying her husband with a caravan on an expedition. During the preparations to leave, she discovered that she had dropped her necklace while she had gone into the desert earlier to relieve herself. So she went back to recover it. In her absence the caravan had set off towards Medina, not realising that she was not inside her houdaj, (a seat fitted with a canopy, placed on the back of a camel). When Aisha returned to the site of the camp with her necklace, she found that the caravan had already left. She decided to wait, thinking that they would eventually notice she was missing and come back for her. She waited and even slept the night in that same spot. A young soldier, Safwan Ibn al Mu’atill, a rearguard, whose duty it was to follow the caravan to retrieve any lost object or straying animal, found her the next day. Safwan had her mount his camel and led it to Medina, walking on foot all the way. They arrived after some time under everyone’s stare, which soon started lots of gossiping that rapidly turned to scandal. The gossip didn’t just originate from people who were lukewarm towards Mohamed, but also came from some of his ardent supporters. Some even suggested he divorce her to end this shameful episode. Mohamed, the man, was very much disturbed by all of this, as he favoured Aisha. Being human, he perhaps had his own nagging suspicions, though he believed her when she vouched for her innocence. To try and cool off the emotions running high, Aisha left for her parent’s home and stayed there for a month, while Mohamed was trying to come to terms with his problem and find a solution and Aisha was waiting for something to exonerate her. She was vindicated through a revelation of a Koranic verse. Not only that, but the Koran also dealt with those who started to gossip and all those who would start any similar action henceforward, demanding their punishment in this life as well as later by saying : [24.4] “And those who accuse free women, then do not bring four witnesses, flog them, (giving) eighty stripes, and do not admit any evidence from them ever; and these it is that are the transgressors”. And also [24.23] “Surely those who accuse chaste believing women, unaware (of the evil), are cursed in this world and the hereafter, and they shall have a grievous chastisement”.

Pretty clear isn’t it? A mere accusation should result in flogging and curses the accuser in this life and thereafter. So what about those who don’t only accuse, but judge, sentence and carry out the punishment themselves, based on nothing but an allegation, a rumour, idle gossip or unfounded doubts?

So, is honour killing in any way related to Islam? Yes and no. It depends on what you mean by that question. If you mean that is it a practice in predominantly Muslim countries, then the answer is “yes”. Honour killings have been reported from Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kurdistan and also recently from Europe, mainly carried out by Muslim immigrants. If you mean that the perpetrators of these crimes look to Islam and the Koran for justification, then the answer is “no”. Many conservative Muslims who won’t even dream of committing murder themselves believe the alleged conduct of those women (the victims) to be abhorrent to Islam. They go one step further and accuse the NGOs who support these victims and try to do something about this problem, as aiding in the degeneration of morality. Unfortunately this group is much larger than those who kill women for “honour” and also those who try to help end it. The saddest part is that the truth about attempting to justify this crime is not Islamic, but only based on tribal tradition.

This practice dates back to pre-Islamic times, when women were viewed as property, not much different from camels, sheep and sacks of flower. Tribes would engage in battles and among the spoils of war were the women. The loss of women to another tribe was a grave shame and an absolute dishonour. History tells us that in a lot of Arab tribes women were mistreated. Some tribes even resented the birth of daughters so much that they buried them alive as infants. The men could only think about the possible future shame should their women be lost in tribal skirmishes to other tribes. The Koran tells us about that too [16.058 – 059] : “And when a daughter is announced to one of them, his face becomes black and he is full of wrath. He hides himself from the people because of the evil of that which is announced to him. Shall he keep it with disgrace or bury it (alive) in the dust? Now surely evil is what they judge.” And also [81.007 – 009]: “And when the female infant buried alive is asked. For what sin she was killed.” Islam prohibited this practice and asked all fathers to accept all children given to them, male or female, equally.

So to conclude, the practice of honour killing is certainly not an Islamic one. And it is not a problem of morality or of ensuring that women maintain their ‘virtue’, but rather it is a problem of male domination and power. Women are reduced to nothing more than objects or servants to the family, both physically and symbolically. And as we can see the Islamic legal safeguards and injunctions to protect women from such discrimination seem to have been forgotten. In fact the law enforcement agencies including police officers, judges and prison guards have all aided in keeping this despicable crime alive, through their lenience towards those men who have disgraced honour by committing such acts in the name of it. Confronting the problem requires a deep change in attitude to pervade all levels of society. In addition a legal reform must be implemented to protect the possible victims and punish the perpetrators severely to set an example. Only when those societies, who have carried over ancient practices from centuries ago into the twenty first century, start paying attention to meeting the basic human needs, will trends of discrimination start to fade.