Honor killing demands global response

Editor’s note: Special thanks to Jessica Morgan, director of the Minnesota Women’s Center, and Muhammad Elrashidi, president of the Muslim Student Association for their guidance on this story.

It is better to have one person die than to have the whole family die of shame or disgrace.” Currently serving time in prison, the Jordanian man who said the above had just recently put four bullets into his sister’s head — in their living room — and was very proud of it. It’s called an honor killing. Honor killing is when a male relative decides to take the life of his female relative because, for one reason or another, she tarnished the family image. In the above brother’s case, his sister supposedly had been raped, so he shot her; it was her fault she got raped.
This recent horror tale was exposed by Diane Sawyer on “20/20.” She interviewed the brother face to face, and the impact of seeing the smugness on his face is something that will never leave me. The village where he lived considers him a hero. Additional graphic footage on the show revealed another slain sister lying in the street with a crowd of villagers celebrating her brutal killing in the name of honor. CNN also recently did a live coverage as well, but finding information on honor killing is not easy. It’s another one of the world’s dirty secrets.
In Egypt, Nora Marzouk Ahmed was murdered by her father, Khaled Al-Qudra, in 1997. He cut her head off, seven days after she eloped. Back in Jordan, there are about 25 honor killings a year, a quarter of the country’s homicides. It’s an ancient custom and it took a woman reporter for the Jordan Times, Rana Husseini, to be the first to break the story of honor killing to the world.
Suspicion is enough to warrant death. Also in Jordan, two sisters were burned to death only to have an autopsy reveal that they weren’t the alleged virgins the family thought they were. No arrests were made.
Queen Noor of Jordan was asked why the killers get such lenient sentences. She says because it’s ancient cultural traditions. Queen Noor claims to be on a campaign to end honor killings. She is a member and former president of the International Steering Committee on the Economic Advancement of Rural Women as well as current president of the General Federation of Jordanian Women.
Amman, Jordan is one of the most modern capitals in the Arab world. A growing democracy offers hope that through due process, perhaps this ancient tradition can ultimately be sent to its grave, and the desert cowboys who think they can murder women — their own family — in the name of honor will meet global condemnation of the fiercest kind. There is no justification for honor killing, not in the name of cultural relativism, not in the name of any God, not in the name of anything.
I called Jessica Morgan at the Minnesota Woman’s Center on campus. Her comments were crucial to tempering my outrage. She asked me important questions like, “Who gets to judge it; who gets to justify it?” Through our conversation, I was forced to see honor killing within the cultural context it exists. But fortunately, within a global context, exclusive cultural tradition is no longer a defense for murder or hurting anyone in any way. This is not an argument about when murder is justifiable, such as an act of self-defense. Shooting your sister in the head for having sex is not an act of self-defense. It is a brutal murder; a crime of the worst order.
Morgan offered assurance that people will get involved, if they see. People can talk. People can persuade. Support messages can be sent to Queen Noor. On a foreign policy level, sanctions are in order, but given the United States’ relationship with Jordan — a most lucrative one at that — diplomats seem all too willing to look the other way. Morgan says there are ways to maintain the strength of our cultures without hurting others. God, I hope she’s right.
Don’t think this honor thing has merit. The brother who thinks it’s OK to blow away his sister in the name of family honor, is also proud of the fact that he can go out with girls and do whatever he likes “but my sister can’t do that.” Morgan wondered if he felt any sadness. In the interview, he was asked if he regretted what he did. “No, I would do it again and again.”
Allegedly, hundreds of women are killed every year in Gaza, the West Bank, Turkey, Egypt and throughout other parts of the Mideast. How many on an international scale is unknown. Back in 1997, when Ahmed was murdered by her father, who was then attorney general in the Palestinian National Authority, he told a woman’s group that he suspected close to 70 percent of all murders in Gaza and the West Bank are honor killings.
Article 341 of Jordanian law considers murder a legitimate act of defense when “the act of killing another or harming another was committed as an act in defense of his life, or his honor, or somebody else’s life or honor.” Man, what a ticket to ride. Let’s say eliminating Article 341 is another place to start.
Another call to Muhammad Elrashidi, president of the Muslim Student Association, helped immensely to put this horrible human act into perspective. Elrashidi also saw the “20/20” broadcast, and condemns honor killing. He stressed the importance of ensuring that readers do not associate honor killing with the Islamic faith. The brother who shot his sister is a Druze, and the honor killing he committed has no Islamic or other religious basis. Under Islamic law, in the case of adultery, four witnesses are required along with a full trial, and if the accuser can’t prove the accusation, the accuser will be punished. Honor killing is tribal or cultural, and, as Elrashidi so poignantly illustrated, they happen all over the world by gangs and individuals from China to Brazil.
Wherever honor killing prevails, and whatever the definition of honor may be, there is no justification on any level for such continued brutal assaults directed toward women.
Jerry Flattum is the opinions editor. His column appears every Friday.