A woman is shown in 1998 being held in protective custody at Amman's Juweidah Prison after her family threatened to kill her over an extramarital affair. (Scott Peterson)

Activists Hope ‘Honor Killing’ of Jordanian Teen will be Turning Point

Outrage over 14-year old’s death could spur Amman to improve legal, protective services for women at risk     

A 14-year-old’s death late last week at the hands of her father in a so-called honor killing has raised temperatures in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

An honor killing is where a male kills a female relative, believing this will preserve the family’s reputation. The practice remains prevalent throughout the Middle East.

According to a preliminary investigation, Ahlam, the victim, was in government care after members of her family questioned her well-being. Critics say the decision to release her highlights shortcomings in the country’s legal services and general assistance for domestic violence victims.

Jordanians took to social media to express their disgust after an anonymous eyewitness gave a first-hand account of the girl’s death online, followed by other witnesses alleging that Ahlam’s father calmly drank tea by her body.

“I’m embarrassed to live in a country where honor killings are so neglected and overlooked… Sorry we failed you Ahlam… Do better Jordan,” Rashed said on Twitter under the hashtag #justiceforahlam.

According to local news reports, the father has been charged with murder.

Women’s activists hope the fury over the girl’s death will spur Amman to speed up related reforms to close loopholes in the justice system.

Rana Husseini, author of Murder in the Name of Honour and senior reporter at The Jordan Times, told The Media Line: “People are outraged. They feel that enough is enough.”

She points to social media as a positive tool for making a difference.

“You can tell more what people are thinking as they use petitions and online platforms to voice what they want,” she said.

“Of course, there are some people who still say she deserved to die, but all in all, I think the majority of people in Jordan are [livid] about this murder,” Husseini added. “Let’s hope that it will be a new point whereby the government will really adopt serious measures or try to at least investigate what went on.”

Of course, there are some people who still say she deserved to die, but all in all, I think the majority of people in Jordan are [livid] about this murder. Let’s hope that it will be a new point whereby the government will really adopt serious measures or try to at least investigate what went on

Rothna Begum, senior women’s-rights researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told The Media Line that males kill female relatives for numerous reasons.

“It could be because they don’t like [her] or want to control her. A revenge killing, a murder stemming from disapproval over a woman’s action, which can be anything… in order to purge themselves of the shame that they believe a woman has brought to the family,” Begum explained.

She notes that these murders occur globally under different nomenclature, but the terminology used in the Middle East has its own implications.

“The term itself is highly problematic because it suggests there is some kind of… honor in actually killing, when there is no such thing,” she said.

“By placing the blame on the victim, perpetrators use it as a way to [avoid] prosecution,” she stated. “[It] gives them societal legitimacy for their actions, followed subsequently by the state’s inaction over such crimes.”

Aref Abu-Rabia, professor of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has written extensively on the subject and says honor killings are often the first assumption in cases where women are killed – which is not always true.

“It is important to note that in many instances, when the press reports that a woman has been killed in Arab society, the case is immediately framed as an honor killing even if this may not be so,” he told The Media Line.

“There are cases in which a domestic quarrel over this or that matter that has nothing to do with sexual norms escalates from verbal to physical violence that gets out of hand, resulting in women being killed,” he explained.

Begum says that Articles 98 and 99 of Jordan’s penal code provide the government legal grounds for turning the other cheek in instances of honor killings.

Article 98, the “Fit of Fury” defense, allows perpetrators to blame their own actions on rage stemming from actions by the victim. Article 99 cuts the murderer’s sentence in half when the members of a victim’s family choose not to pursue legal recourse or forgive the killer.

While Jordan has changed some of its laws, including Article 340, which allows judges to issue sentences that are less severe for males who kill or harm a female relative for adultery, Article 99 remains one of the country’s most frequently invoked statutes.

“Article 99 is the real problem we are seeing,” Begum said. “The victim’s family is often the… family [of] the killer, and the reforms that have taken place haven’t really taken that into account.”

Begum argues that Amman should follow the lead of the Palestinian Authority, which uses the criminal code of Jordan but has repealed Article 340 and restricts the use of articles 98 and 99 so that they cannot be used for honor killings.

“Jordan has yet to really go far enough in terms of how these articles are invoked,” she said. “These reforms are important because [they] should act as a deterrent for men who should realize they won’t be able to get away with killing women and girls.”

These reforms are important because [they] should act as a deterrent for men who should realize they won’t be able to get away with killing women and girls

The numbers of honor killings in the Hashemite Kingdom have dropped to 15-20 a year from 25-30 just two decades ago, which journalist and author Husseini believes is a sign of success.

“There has been a lot of social and governmental and official work on the issue of so-called honor crimes,” she said. “We succeeded as women’s groups and activists to push the government to amend laws so that men who kill a female relative get tough sentences, and these murders are treated like any other murder.”

While honor killings occur less frequently now, overall violence against women in Jordan has increased. The Ministry of Social Development reported 5,240 incidents in 2018, and Begum argues that further action is required.

“Deep-rooted discrimination, the bedrock of such violence, needs to be addressed by campaigns and education curricula that challenge the expectation that women are supposed to [adhere to] a higher standard of behavior,” she said.

Ben-Gurion University’s Abu-Rabia believes the coronavirus pandemic is also a factor, with safe spaces for women, like schools and places of work, no longer available.

“I think that coronavirus impacts tensions inside the family because they are under quarantine, fear, uncertainty and unemployed,” he stated.

“All the family is… together: There no schools or social activities or extracurricular activities,” he added. “This may cause violence and maybe increase [instances of] separation or divorce… and maybe killing.”

Begum agrees, saying that Middle Eastern countries often lack the infrastructure and legislation to support women at risk in times of pandemic.

“They’ve done very little to put into place the emergency response measures to deal with what has been termed the ‘silent pandemic,’” she said.

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