Story by Jessica Gagne and Ally Legend Siegel // Photo by Valerie Sarnataro
AMMAN, Jordan – There are at least a dozen women in Jordan who are currently taking shelter in the country’s prisons for fear of being murdered at the hands of their fathers or brothers.
Their so-called crime: For some, it might be adultery. For others, it might be something as simple as falling in love with the wrong man. For still others, their “crime” is being the victim of rape.
This is what women’s rights activists in the Middle East call honor crimes, or acts of violence perpetrated against women in the name of preserving a family’s good name. Contributing to the brutality of the issue is that women in Jordan who face the practice have nowhere to hide, because no one will shelter them if they try to escape. As a result, some commit themselves to prison in an effort to save their own lives.
“This is a problem because the abuser remains free while the abused ends up in prison,” said Deena Dajani, co-creator of the “No Honor in Crime” movement of women speaking out against honor crimes. “They commit no crimes to begin with but spend the rest of their lives among real criminals.”
Dajani, who lives in Amman and created the movement as a Web campaign, explains that even if a woman voluntarily checks in to prison for protection, she cannot check herself out. Since no official crime was committed, the legal system has no bearing on her release; only her family can set the process in motion.
“You are not able to leave prison unless your family promises not to kill you and pays a hefty guarantee, or someone shows up willing to marry you,” she said. “Most of the women end up in prison for the rest of their lives after signing in at the age of 18 or so.”
There is no way to quantify how many women are currently sitting in prison in exile from their murderous families. One figure counted among activists of known prisoners puts the number at 13, but experts say it’s likely many more.
In the 2009 book, “Murder in the Name of Honor,” author and awarding-winning woman’s rights activist Rana Husseini wrote about honor crimes she encountered working as a journalist for The Jordan Times. She noted that many women face problems even while in prison, such as families plotting ruses to get a woman released, only to kill her once she’s brought home. Husseini also noted that running away is just as helpless an option as hiding out.
“[Women can’t run away] because if anybody sees her, they will immediately call her family and they will come and kill her,” said Husseini in a recent interview. “It’s not like in the United States where you can relocate to another state and work as a waitress or something.”
Husseini says that honor crimes happen in many different religions and all over the world, even in the United States, where they might instead be referred to as crimes of passion. The ancient practice was actually brought to the Middle East from medieval Europe. What distinguishes the crimes in this region, however, is that perpetrators are generally celebrated for their willingness to protect the family’s name. And while King Abdullah II in 2009 created a judiciary tribunal to hear only honor crime cases, the government has yet to make any significant official moves to end the practice and protect the women who suffer these crimes.
“There are a lot of things we still need to work on in terms of women’s rights,” Husseini said. “It’s hard for the government to give you anything on a gold plate, or silver platter. You have to fight for it.”
Some of the recent highly publicized honor crime deaths in Jordan include an uncle who threw his niece in a well because she was rumored to have had sexual relations; a man who stabbed his pregnant sister and mutilated her body because he thought she cheated on her husband, and; two sisters killed by their three brothers with an ax when one sister ran away with the man she loved.
One organization in Amman working aggressively for political change is the Sisterhood Is Global Institute, an international woman’s rights movement with branches in more than 80 countries. Amman’s SIGI chapter provides free legal assistance and counseling services for women who are suffering with domestic violence. The group – comprised of lawyers, therapists and counselors – brings more than 30 cases a year to court in Jordan, and gives about 1,000 consultations annually.
Asma Khadar, a lawyer and administrative head of SIGI, said in a recent interview that conditions are slowly improving on a judicial level. In the recent past, for example, men convicted of honor crimes would receive sentences of only three to six months in prison. But since working with SIGI, Khader has seen an increase in the length of sentences. She also said judges treat these cases more seriously.
“There are 12 to16 honor crime cases a year, and now only two to three of these cases get low sentences,” said Khader, who is also a former minister of culture in Jordan.
Also, there are now two shelters in Amman for victims of domestic violence, including one – Dar el Wifaq al-Sary – that’s run by the government. While experts say that doesn’t even begin to address the need in a city of 2.8 million people, it’s at least a start.
Khader attributes the continuing perpetuation of honor crimes to Jordan’s historical conventions that prove very difficult to change. “We face challenges of tradition,” she said. “If left up to the people, change would come a lot slower.”
Khader is confident, however, that with increased knowledge about woman’s rights issues, the strength of Jordanian women will carry them closer to justice. She is already seeing a significant shift in the women in question, she said. They are starting to stand up for themselves.
“Some women are saying ‘I am not afraid anymore,’” Khadar said. “They are saying, ‘I want a place where I can go and complain.’”