Jordanian Journalist Breaks Taboos Campaigning Against Violence

Human Rights
Dua Khalil is stoned to death in Iraq for being seen with a man of another religion. A woman is shot dead in Jordan after her photo appears on her brother's friend's cellphone. Muqadas Bibi's throat and those of her young sisters are slit by her stepfather in Pakistan after she leaves her abusive husband. Every year, across religious and national boundaries, around 5,000 women and girls are murdered by family members in so-called honor killings. "There is nothing honorable in these crimes," says Rana Husseini, award-winning Jordanian journalist and author of the forthcoming Murder in the Name of Honor, who has dedicated her career to exposing and fighting such crimes.

Husseini came across her first case -- a 16-year old girl murdered by her brother -- just a few months after she joined the Jordan Times as a young crime reporter in 1993, having returned to Jordan with degrees from Oklahoma City University. "This girl was a victim five or six times," she recalls. Raped and impregnated by another brother, she was married off to a man 50 years her senior following a secret abortion. The marriage lasted six months. "The day he divorced her, they killed her," says Husseini. They claimed she had deliberately seduced her brother.

Husseini was shocked to discover more and more such stories. The women's killers "would empty a gun, would stab them thirty, forty, fifty times, would burn them..." Although such killings were rarely talked about in Jordan, Husseini felt it was her duty as a journalist and as a woman to document these women's murders. "I wanted to be their voice," she says.

Almost immediately, she encountered a major obstacle -- public ignorance, buoyed up by media silence. At the time writing about these cases was taboo. Around 20 to 25 "honor" killings take place in Jordan each year, according to Husseini, most of them in poorer, densely populated parts of the capital city, Amman. Yet with no stories in the Arabic press, many readers initially claimed that Husseini was exaggerating. Her first such article in the English-language Jordan Times resulted in an angry phone call from a woman intellectual, she recalls. "She was yelling at my editor that I'm tarnishing Jordan's image." Her editors -- both men -- and the newspaper gave her their complete support, without which she believes her work could never have reached the level it has today. Readers, shocked and convinced by her reporting, reacted with calls for government action. A movement began to take shape.

In 1998, Husseini received the Reebok Human Rights Award, the first of many international honors recognizing her work. "This award steered a lot of things in Jordan," she says. It brought visibility -- including, crucially, international media attention and notice by NGOs -- and credibility to Husseini's campaign against "honor" crimes. She joined with others to form the Jordanian National Committee to Eliminate So-called Crimes of Honor, which campaigned to raise awareness and call for legal reform. "We conducted a public movement -- as they say here, a civil movement," says Husseini.

The result has been a near-revolution over 14 years in media dialogue and public awareness. Now, Husseini notes, even the Arabic press in Jordan covers issues such as domestic violence, child abuse and sexual abuse, all taboo in the early '90s. While she would welcome better reporting on the murders themselves, most newspaper coverage, she says, is balanced. She points to the importance of press freedom (introduced to Jordan in the early '90s) and of the Internet, citing a chat on Facebook where Jordanian women discussed "honor" killings. Online, she notes, "people can form lobby groups, they can form pressure groups; it's very important."

While official figures for "honor" murders tend to be lower than those collected by Husseini, the data's very existence is a step forward. "At least the government acknowledges the problem," she says. "This is an important success, because then you can push them to find solutions."

Activists have also joined Husseini's calls for judicial and legislative reform. In a country where the maximum penalty for murder is death, Husseini discovered that "honor" killers tended to be sentenced to only 3 months to 2 years in prison. "If you rob a house you get a higher sentence than for killing a woman!" she notes. Much of this leniency hinges on legal provisions such as Article 98 of the penal code, which allows for reduced sentences when a person kills in a "fit of fury." Killers who planned their crime would turn themselves in, some confessing with a degree of pride, then later, in court, claim sudden rage over a sister's or niece's allegedly bad behavior.

While activists continue to campaign for reform of Article 98, the government did amend a provision in 2001 that allowed husbands who killed allegedly adulterous wives to go unpunished. While this has little practical impact -- it has only been used, according to Husseini, once in around 40 years -- she counts it as an important symbolic start.

While serious flaws remain, awareness-training programs for judges and prosecutors result today in more serious consequences for the murder of women. In a testament to her impact, some judges now even call Husseini after they have issued a strong sentence in such cases. "They come and tell me 'Hey, Rana we issued this verdict,'" she grins.

As for future change, "it's all about civil society and the grassroots," says Husseini. The media has an even bigger role to play. And reform of the male-oriented education system is crucial. "Once you properly teach your children," notes Husseini, "things will change in the future."

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