Bærer vitne om urettferdighet
The clock tells me it is nearly eight in the evening when someone knocks impatiently on the paper-thin door to my small room in Jordan, quietly whispering my name from outside, pleading for me to open the door.
“What do you want?” I reply; my voiced filled with interest, but also resentment. I am too scared to open up, but too curious to keep quiet.
Minutes later I realise that outside is a short, chubby guy twice my age, impatiently knocking on my door, desperate to come in because he wants to get into my bed. He knows where I live because he’s been following me.
I force the guy away, with the help of my new friends next door, but again I am stuck with the fear of being raped while I am doing my job. Simply because I am a girl it is getting increasingly harder to feel safe.
If I were a woman living in Jordan and had opened that door, consequently been raped in my tiny hotel room with the dim light revealing my naked body and absolute disgust, then my father or brother would have had the right to kill me afterwards because I would have brought shame upon my family.
I could have been killed in the name of honour, and neither my family nor the rapist would ever face prosecution.
However, try to report on the gratuitous use of violence against women –the violence behind closed doors, the brutal rapes and abuse, the killings in the name of honour – and that is “lack of cultural understanding”, pure and simple, dangerously present but comfortably isolated from reason, cause or history.
Indeed, few issues have excited as much debate and fascination as the subject of women and Islam, and I truly wanted this story to be about something else, but sometimes stories knock on your door, and this time it literally did.
UNICEF defines ‘honour killings’ as an ancient practice in which men kill female relatives in the name of family ‘honour’ for forced or suspected sexual activity outside marriage, even when they have been victims of rape.
Although such crimes are widely known to be under-reported, the U.N. Population Fund estimates that more than 5,000 women are killed for reasons of honour every year. These killings have, according to published reports, been common in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt, the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Jordan and several countries in Europe.
In that shady hotel room in Jordan I started to ask myself why so many girls are punished in the most terrible way by relatives who believe they have law and religion on their side. Why does society accept and sometimes even encourage a thing that seems to have no foundation in Shari’a or religion? Could politics play a part?
Some explanations can be found in culture. The Arab society is an utterly patriarchal one in which men are expected to be stronger than woman. One of the effects is that men have a lot more freedom, especially when it comes to the sexual sphere. But that cannot only be accredited to Islam because it is also a consequence of social circumstances and of customary behaviour.
It would be sound to remember that the Western morality still has traces of this too. «Honour» killings of women reflect longstanding patriarchal-tribal traditions. In a bizarre duality, women are viewed on the one hand as fragile creatures who need protection and on the other as evil Jezebels from whom society needs protection.
Patriarchal tradition casts the male as the sole protector of the female, and in some cases this means that he must have total control of her. If his protection is violated, he loses honour because either he failed to protect her or he failed to bring her up correctly.
But why are they called «honour-killings» as if if the word «honour» somehow justifies the action of «killing»? The simple answer to this is that in some countries it actually does. According to article 340 of the Jordanian criminal code, «a husband or a close blood relative who kills a woman in a situation highly suspicious of adultery will be totally exempt from sentence.»
It is laws like this and ignorance that hamper the ability of authorities to stop honour killings. The police and other officials pass off the crimes as domestic matters or just accept or ignore the killings. The unsuccessful attempt to amend the penal code is proof of how strong customs are, and how little willingness we find to alter the existing power structure of which these killings form part, and continue to enforce.
In Jordan, if a woman seeks protection from the police because she fears that her family wants to kill her, she will be held in indefinite detention in a local prison. Once a woman has sought protection from the government and has been placed in prison, she is prohibited from leaving the prison even though she has committed no crime.
Ironically, women can only be released into the custody of a family member – perhaps the very persons she was afraid would kill her. If these women are killed, they are buried in unmarked graves and their very existence often denied. In some cases, however strange it may seem, being in prison can be women’s only rescue – as long as she is not released she cannot suffer the wrath of her family.
A number of women are in this sort of «protective custody» in Jordan, often after having been raped – an absurd situation in which the victim’s only possibility is to be imprisoned in order to avoid an even worse assault, and the offender might still be at large.
In autumn 2003 a law raising the punishment for honour killings was proposed in parliament in Jordan. Islamists and conservatives opposed to the new law said it would encourage vice and destroy social values. In August, the upper house (or senate) upheld both bills after they were rejected by the lower house. But Jordanian MPs argued that more lenient punishments will violate religious traditions and damage the fabric of Jordan’s conservative society, where men have the final say.
In this case, Islam is used to legitimise the suppression of women, consequently keeping the suppresser in power. But I have also experienced the same attitudes and suppression against women both in Christian and Hindu societies, ranging from India, to Tanzania and Lebanon. Consequently the suppression is not foremost due to religious ideologies then, but to the fact, that almost every society has its roots in a patriarchal and class-divided system.
Today, also the rise of fundamentalist movements keep women in an inferior position, since all fundamentalisms attempt to return to a «golden age» where a woman’s position is extremely important to them in order to keep society away from modern «evils». These movements are, however, political in their essence, even when they use religion as an excuse to obtain their goals.
To me it wouldn’t matter what the excuses were, and who’s honour that was taken away, if that man came into my room and destroyed my life. There is no excuse for rape, and certainly no honour in killing. Consequently that there are hundreds of girls who have disappeared under these circumstances and no one knows, or apparently cares, where they have gone, feels like the greatest betrayal of all, both from a religious and political point of view.