AMMAN, Jordan (WOMENSENEWS)–Early in her career, Rana Husseini stumbled upon a story that would define the focus of her work and shatter the silence around a crime that claims the lives of at least 25 women a year in Jordan.
The family of a 16-year-old girl had killed her after she was raped by her older brother.
“Her brother raped her several times until she became pregnant. She underwent an abortion and was forced to marry a man 50 years older, who divorced her six months later and she was immediately killed by her family because she was raped by her brother,” Husseini told Women’s eNews in an interview in her office in the English-language daily The Jordan Times, where she is a staff reporter.
“This crime and many other crimes committed under the name of honor killing–in addition to my discovery later of the lenient sentences those killers were getting and the lack of media coverage and people pretending that this issue does not exist–were the major factors that motivated me to work on this issue,” she added.
Since she took on the crime beat at The Jordan Times in 1993, Husseini has been relentless in her coverage of what are known as honor crimes, which constitute 25 percent of annual homicides in Jordan. In addition to frequently lecturing and participating in seminars on the subject, she reports almost weekly on this issue in coverage that includes crime stories and court verdicts.
Official statistics indicate that the majority of the women killed in honor crimes are teen-agers. Most are buried in unmarked graves, disgraced even in death. They become victims of family revenge for as little as speaking to an unrelated man or dating without parental permission. Even being raped is seen as having harmed the family’s reputation. Premarital sex is prohibited. When an unmarried woman becomes pregnant, the law not only considers it a crime, but also requires that her child be taken away at birth and raised at an orphanage.
Experts say the phenomenon is widespread among poorer, less educated, tribal societies with a tradition of self-administered justice, such as Jordan’s, and in underdeveloped countries in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and South America.
Battles for Change in Jordanian Law
Husseini received both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Oklahoma City University. Since returning to Jordan, she has fought for an amendment of the Jordanian penal code to give harsher punishment to those who kill in the name of honor.
Through her writing and her lectures in Jordanian, international universities and human-rights forums, Husseini has urged the government to address these crimes seriously and systematically.
The Jordanian government says the killings have subsided since Amman amended article 340 of its penal code in December 2001, annulling the clause that exempts from its penalties against any individual who kills his wife and the man with whom she is committing adultery.
Imad Sharqawi, a lawyer and a human-rights activist, said Husseini’s insistent reporting had a large influence on the government’s decision to partially amend the law pertaining to honor crimes. “Husseini was the first journalist to launch the campaign against honor crimes,” he said. “She succeeded in attracting the attention of the government and the lawmakers to this issue. Her voice was heard by the concerned establishments and the international organizations.”
Husseini, however, has by no means rested her case against the government’s handling of honor crimes. “The government made amendments to the wrong article because article 340 was only used once in 40 years,” she said. “Our problem is in article 98, which is being applied to almost all cases whereby a female is killed by her family in the name of honor.”
Referring to the amended article 340, she added, “These laws are not applied in court and have made no changes to court’s verdicts and killers are still getting away with minimum sentences.”
Critics of the legal system agree the sentences for honor crimes are still too lenient.
“Our society has traditions and customs and the judge is a member of this society. The honor cases are considered as criminal cases and the sentences depends on the sentiments of the judge,” said Sharqawi, the human-rights lawyer. “The judge’s background is part of this society and it normally affects his decision. But the judge must implement the law, which is also under the control of the court.”
Sharqawi said that the addition of Jordan’s first female judge, Taghreed Hikmat, will affect the sentences in these issues. “She is also a human-rights activist who works for the defense of the women’s rights,” he said. “Our society needs rehabilitation in this issue and the civil institutions have a lot to do.”
Opposes Equal-Opportunity Violence
In addressing the issue, the government kept a second clause that offers reduction in penalty for a man who kills his wife or female relative when the crime is connected to adultery. At the same time the government gave the similar right–of a softened penalty–to the woman who kills her husband if she finds him in bed with another woman.
Husseini objects to this equal-opportunity to legally commit violence. “We as a women’s movement never called for the right for a woman to kill her husband,” she said. “We are trying to eliminate the concept of killing and called for a fair trial.”
Government officials from the ministries of justice and interior were not available to comment on the recent changes in the legal system.
Through articles and petitions to parliament, Husseini said she has also called on lawmakers and religious leaders to “raise awareness about this crime and explain how it contradicts all religions and the basic human rights of any individual.”
Because of Husseini’s push to uncover honor crimes, the Jordanian press talks more freely about violence against women, according to colleagues. “Husseini’s reporting on the honor crimes raised concerns about the severity of this issue and shed light on the seriousness of the problem,” said Suha Ma’ayah, a reporter at the Arabic-language daily Al-Rai. According to Ma’ayah, the honor-crime issue was dealt with in a very superficial manner until Husseini started her reporting.
Husseini herself is not shy about accepting such praise, but she also shares it with others. “My constant reporting for The Jordan Times, a widely read daily; the work of women’s non-governmental organizations; the criticism made by many individuals and the pressure from the international community pushed the government to take action,” she said.
The royal family in Jordan has also become involved in the issue, with some members urging officials to take action to address the problem. Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan had established a Royal Commission on Human Rights and works closely with Arab first ladies on the issues of the Arab women including fighting so-called honor crimes.
Husseini also joined a group of activists in the early 1990s called the Jordanian National Committee to Eliminate the So-Called Crimes of Honor. The group marched on Parliament in the year 2000, pushing for an amendment to the penal code demanding women’s equality and safety, but the petition was rejected twice.
In addition to her job as a journalist, Husseini lectures on honor crimes in several international and Jordanian forums, including a lecture on “Crimes against Women Committed in the Name of Honor” at the 2001 Commission on Human Rights, in Geneva.
Withstands Opposition, Threats
Husseini’s determination to get violence against women on the public agenda has earned her the ire of conservatives in her country, with some accusing her of tarnishing the image of Muslims. Ma’ayah, who used to work with her at The Jordan Times, said that Husseini received telephone threats intended to stop her from reporting on honor crimes and continuing her activism on the issue.
“People’s comments could upset me in the beginning, but later I found that they become my boost factor to work harder and harder to expose the injustices that are being inflicted on women,” said Husseini, herself honored at the 2000 Human Rights Watch Annual Dinner and the recipient of several international awards, including the 1998 Reebok Human Rights Award.
This year, Women’s eNews will present Husseini with the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism during its May 20th ceremony in New York City to honor 21 Leaders for the 21st Century.
Besides her journalism work, Husseini is also a photographer, a regional consultant to the New York-based women’s rights group Equality Now and researches human rights violations against women and girls.
She has also worked as a regional consultant at the Amman-based office of the United Nations Development Fund for Women and has taught English in high schools.
Shafika Mattar is a reporter with The Associated Press in Amman, Jordan.