January 30, 2008 / 12:19 AM / 10 years ago

Jordan still wrestles with "honor" crimes

JERASH, Jordan (Reuters) - Strangled by her brother, the 17-year-old girl died in a squalid Palestinian refugee camp that clings to a hillside near the Jordanian town of Jerash.

The woman, who had been married for eight months, was the second killed in Jordan this month in a so-called “honor” crime -- the murder of a woman accused of shaming her family.

Every year thousands of women are killed for notions of family honor worldwide, mainly in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, but also in Muslim communities in the West.

Jordan’s penal code still offers leniency to a man who commits such a crime in a “fit of rage.” High-profile campaigns to change the law, which have sometimes had royal family support, have failed to sway tribal-dominated parliaments.

But the debate has dragged the issue into the open and, unusually in the Arab world, Jordan has begun tackling other once-taboo areas such as domestic violence and child abuse.

“Talking about it is a first step to finding a solution,” said Eva Abu Halaweh, a 34-year-old human rights lawyer and director of Mizan, a private group working with women at risk.

But in the impoverished backstreets of the Jerash refugee camp, relatives of the murdered girl -- no names in the case have been made public -- greet strangers with a wall of silence.

“What’s already happened is enough,” a woman snapped before shooing children inside and closing the door of the family’s cinderblock home in an alley with an open drain running down it.

The victim’s husband, a young man in a baseball cap, stood chatting with friends on a corner, but bolted into his house rather than talk about his wife’s death.

A Jordanian prosecutor has charged a 20-year-old man with premeditated murder. Local newspapers said he had stuffed a scarf in his sister’s mouth, choked her with an electric cable and smoked a pack of cigarettes before turning himself in.

Some versions of events say he had been angered by his sister’s absences from home.

“If she was guilty, then she deserved it,” said a college student in the refugee camp, who gave his name as Mohammed.

SOCIETY UNDER STRESS

Women can easily fall under male suspicion in Jordan’s conservative society, where tribal and Islamic traditions coexist uneasily with the inroads of modernity and consumerism.

“Honor” crimes are nothing new -- authorities in Jordan prosecuted 18 cases in 2006 and a similar number in 2007, although some rights activists say the real figures are higher.

The practice is commonest in tribal Muslim societies, even though many Islamic scholars say the Koran does not sanction it and warn Muslims against taking the law into their own hands.

“There are very few real honor killings,” Abu Halaweh said at Mizan’s bustling Amman office. “Many murders are for other reasons like disputes over inheritance. Of course the killers and their lawyers will always look for ways to avoid penalties.”

Perpetrators of “honor” crimes may escape with six months to two years in jail. Few suffer social stigma.

Attitudes are slowly changing, rights campaigners say. Judges are less ready to accept the “fit of fury” defense, and efforts to deal with broader domestic violence are under way.

A year ago, the Ministry of Social Development set up Dar al-Wifaq (house of reconciliation), which has helped 290 women and girls referred by police because they had run away from home or had been battered, sexually abused or neglected.

Abu Halaweh’s group helps run shelters for vulnerable women who would otherwise be put in police protective custody -- some have spent years in enforced refuge from their families.

“They need protection, then reintegration,” Abu Halaweh said, stressing the need to work with the families of victims.

She cited two women, who both survived after being shot by relatives, who had returned home after mediation and psychological support for both parties. “One was pregnant after being raped, but now the family has accepted her,” she said.

CHILD ABUSE

Jordan has recognized that children as well as women can suffer physical, sexual or emotional abuse within the family.

“We were the first Arab country to admit there is abuse and to say we should deal with it,” said Nancy Naghour, manager of Dar al-Aman, a government-funded centre that has provided temporary shelter and therapy for abused children since 2000.

Dar al-Aman (House of Safety) also counsels the families, aiming to ensure the children can eventually return home safely.

In one room at the centre, a comfortable apartment block on the edge of Amman that can house 32 children, youngsters drawing at a table respond cheerily when greeted. In another, a newly arrived boy of 11 with tormented eyes still seems ill at ease.

A bill to protect children and women from violence at home has passed parliament’s lower house and awaits senate approval.

It sets up conciliation committees to give women a chance to halt abuse without pressing charges or seeking a divorce.

“Women hesitate to complain about their husbands, fathers or brothers. They don’t want them to be sent to prison or fined,” Abu Halaweh said. “At the same time, there is a new generation of women and many say they won’t accept violence.”

Jordan has made a start on tackling issues that many Arab countries barely acknowledge, but women’s rights advocates say the persistence of “honor” crimes shows it still has far to go.

“We’ve had it in the public domain quite some time, but there are no changes,” said Amal Sabbagh, a lecturer at Jordan University’s Centre for Women’s Studies. “People are happy with the status quo. We go through the motions of change.”

Editing by Sara Ledwith

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