Words by Lara Bellone d’Altavilla & Sam Sykesi
Design by Lina A.
This article is part of the “Emigration & Desolation” issue
In the summer of 2020, Jordanians were demanding justice in the wake of the ‘honor killing’ of 30-year-old Ahlam, a Jordanian woman who was brutally murdered by her father in Amman. Her screams for help were heard by neighbors as she ran into the streets covered in blood. Her father chased her and eventually beat her to death with a brick. Neighbors called the authorities, but it took too long for the police to arrive. Neighbors were horrified to see Ahlam’s father sitting beside his daughter’s corpse after he murdered her, drinking a cup of tea.
According to local sources, Ahlam suffered her father’s physical abuse for years, but there were no prior charges pressed against him. Ahlam’s murder calls attention to the greater issue of ‘honor killings’ in Jordan. In July, there had been nine reported cases discussed in the media in 2020, with many more that were unreported; an average of 15-20 cases are reported each year.
Jordan’s lenient laws against perpetrators of ‘honor killings’ has come under increasing scrutiny in Jordan and in the international community. Activists are working against three laws that relate specifically to honor killing, including: (a) Articles 98 and 99 related to reduced sentencing for men who commit honor crimes; (b) Article 52, which prevents the filing of charges on behalf of children killed by their families in honor crimes; and (c) Article 308, which forces victims of rape (who may become victims of honor killing) to marry their rapist.
Activists are demanding the abolition of Articles 98 and 99 of the Jordanian Penal Code, which permit prosecutors to give men reduced sentences for when a woman commits a ‘crime’ that tarnishes her family’s ‘honor’1 (Roya News, 2020). In 2017, Article 98 was amended to remove the word ‘honor’ and replaced with the justification phrase ‘fit of rage’ (Husseini, 2019). However, these laws still permit reduced sentencing of perpetrators who commit violence in a ‘fit of rage’2 in reaction to ‘unlawful or dangerous acts’ committed by the victim. Jordanian courts do not require the necessary evidence to prove that the victim committed an ‘unlawful or dangerous act’3 (Human Rights Watch, 2004). Reduced sentences associated with ‘honor killings’ typically amount to less than one year in prison.
Activists are also demanding the abolition of Article 52, which is used by families to waive their child’s right to life. Often in the case of an ‘honor killing’, families who commit these crimes will posthumously waive the victim’s right to life, meaning a complaint cannot be filed on the victim’s behalf (Human Rights Watch, 2004). This allows for perpetrators to escape sentences for murders committed against their children.4
Though Article 308, which permitted rapists to escape charges as long as they married their victim after, was abolished in 2017 after intense pressure from numerous women’s organizations, forced marriage is still common5 (Husseini, 2019). Despite its abolishment, there continues to be supporters of Article 308 as it is interpreted as a way of preserving a ‘woman’s honor’ in cases of rape, hence perserving the ‘families’ honor’ as well.
In addition to advocating the change of these laws, activists are calling for greater educational and economic empowerment for women to curb the prevalence of ‘honor killings’ across Jordan. The low rates of employment of women in Jordanian society, with only 14% employed, may influence widespread violence against women because they are restricted to the home and lack certain social mobility because of economic and education constraints6 (Al Khatib, 2020).
Sondos Abuaziza is an independent gender and sexuality activist that conducts workshops related to gender and identity in Amman. Abuaziza has previously worked with international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on women empowerment projects and continues to be involved with the Rainbow Street LGBTQ initiative. She is currently launching a new initiative, Identity (Hweh), which focuses on serving minorities in Jordan and raising awareness about various topics related to gender & sexuality amongst activists and humanitarian workers.
What are some of the cultural and religious roots of ‘honor killings’, and why does this practice remain present in Jordanian society?
Jordan is a family-oriented country; therefore, it is hard to change individual’s mentalities. For example, if an individual is vocal in supporting women and LGBTQ rights to their family, he/she will have to make efforts in defending themselves. Therefore, individuals speaking out on these social issues need to consider not only their parents’ reaction, but also the reactions of their uncles, cousins, and extended family. This social structure is one of the reasons why we still have ‘honor killings’. Another reason is that religion is embedded into certain parts of our constitution. For this reason, those wanting to make any changes to the law are accused of going against Islam with the Quran being used as a tool against them. However, most Jordanian laws do not include anything from the Quran unless it is related to personal state laws and women. Regardless, the Quran does not defend ‘honor killings’ in any way, showing the contradictions of the government and lawmakers.
‘Honor killings’ have existed in Jordan for ages and the numbers continue to increase each year. This is not only due to increased reporting, but also due to revolutions happening within the region, including the Jordanian women’s revolution. Jordanian activism is more challenging compared to neighboring countries, such as Tunisia and Lebanon, especially since Jordanian laws have become stricter regarding freedom of speech. Still, Jordanian society is becoming more afraid and threatened by women since they are now in higher professional positions and are fiercely raising their voices through social media platforms and international conventions.
How has the Jordanian public responded toward the ‘honor killing’ of Ahlam?
Sadly, a huge group of Jordanian people are supportive of ‘honor killings’, but they hide these views from the international community by diplomatically describing themselves as developed and open minded. Now it is common to find a sexist man who says ‘I support women’, but shows aggression towards his wife, sister, or daughter. Therefore, there are no drastic changes in mentalities towards women’s equality, but rather people becoming more diplomatic in their responses on the topic of gender equality.
Each time an ‘honor killing’ occurs, there is a social media uproar for 1-2 days and then it instantly fades away. However, after Ahlam’s murder many people were outraged since there have been numerous ‘honor killings’ this year. There was an ‘honor killing’ of a 13-year-old girl at the beginning of the year and shortly after a Jordanian woman had her eye gouged out by her family. It is important to note that as of July 2020, more women and girls had been killed from ‘honor killings’ than people who had died from COVID-19 in Jordan.
Due to the outrage over Ahlam’s death, there were three organized demonstrations in July taking place by the Family Protection Department, at Fourth Circle, and in front of the Parliament building. Yet people did not know who planned these demonstrations since there tends to be little coordination amongst activists. This is due to activists trying to draw personal attention to themselves, which in my belief, is not the genuine core of activism. Therefore, more coordination is necessary in order for these demonstrations to better promote change.
Why are ‘honor killings’ overlooked or purposefully not discussed by the media, NGOs, and government in Jordan?
Our country wants to have an exceptional international image to the United Nations (UN) and other entities. This is why many human rights violations within Jordan are denied, including violations against women and LGBTQ individuals. This can be seen in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which is a report allowing UN member states’ representatives to report on human rights issues occurring in their country, including women’s issues7. The UN collects these reports in order to question governments about certain violations occurring in their countries8. In Jordan, our representatives for the UPR are corrupt and only report what the government wants the international community to be aware of. Due to the lack of accurate reporting, many activists, including myself, are working towards directly reporting to the UN since our government is lying about human rights abuses in the country, such as the annual number of ‘honor killings’.
Many NGOs and independent activists are working hard towards solving human rights issues in the country. These organizations receive large amounts of funding, but are corrupted. This system is highly embedded in politics, which does not want the issue of ‘honor killings’ to be addressed in the NGO sector. This causes NGOs to implement projects, such as purchasing sewing machines for village women, to enhance ‘women empowerment’. However, this creates a very misguided assumption of what women empowerment is and does not address prominent societal issues, such as gender-based violence. Further, these organizations do not value hiring open-minded, qualified staff, which leads to many cases of sexual harassment and homophobia in the workplace, yet no actions are being taken to solve these issues.
Many human rights advocates lack intersectionality in their actions with many Jordanian activists and politicians claiming they defend women’s rights, when in reality they do not defend women from different religions or of different sexual identities. For example, Parliament Representative Dima Tahboub holds a degree from the United Kingdom and describes herself as a champion of human rights. Yet, she cancelled the Mashrou’ Leila concert twice since the main singer is openly gay. She also successfully worked to have the LGBTQ magazine, My.Kali, banned in Jordan. Her lack of inclusiveness in her political work is problematic since she claims to defend women, but refuses to defend those from other religions and sexual backgrounds. The same can be seen in the humanitarian work of well-known feminist organizations, social media influencers, celebrities, and even Royal Family members, whom have remained silent on the issue of ‘honor killings’ for decades.
The government and NGOs try to present Jordan as an open society, but we are still not open in many aspects. There are many topics that we are not allowed to discuss freely, such as sex, politics, and religion. When discussing these topics, people have to carefully count their words, leading many not to say anything at all. This causes a lack of participation in demonstrations due to the suppression of freedom that exists. For example, women’s demonstrations in Jordan are not shown on public media due to governmental restrictions. If women had the freedom of expression to demand equal rights, then eventually people would consider changing their mentalities.
What laws need to change to prevent ‘honor killings’ and to insure perpetrators receive just punishments?
There is the Crime Prevention Law which includes the Administrative Detentions clause. Essentially, this law means that the governor has the right to take legal action against citizens if he thinks they will commit a crime in the future. This law is used against women disproportionately and allows governors to put women directly into prisons rather than detention centers. I personally know a woman who was imprisoned for more than 15 years under the Administrative Detention clause for simply helping her sister when she was being killed in the name of ‘honor’. Women suffer under the Administrative Detention clause since victims that report gender-based violence are taken into custody rather than the perpetrator. Governors are prematurely sentencing women and girls to detention centers when they have not even committed a crime. If this law were to change, it would be a significant step forward for women.
Since Ahlam’s death, people have created a petition on Facebook demanding that the government amend Articles 52, 98, & 99, but many people are unaware that some of these articles were amended in 2017. This is also unknown by activists themselves due to lack of knowledge, and affects the activism evolution regarding women’s rights. Administrative Detentions need to be permanently removed and tougher punishments enforced for perpetrators in these cases. Without these changes men committing these crimes will continue to be unafraid of the police.
Gender inequalities within Jordanian law are also seen in Article 308, which allowed a rapist to marry his victim. The government claims to have abolished this law; however, the percentage of women and girls forced to marry their rapists has continued to increase each year. Many parents still force their daughters to marry their rapists since it is shameful in Jordanian society to be raped, making the ideology behind Articles 52, 98, and 99 extremely antiquated.
How has reduced sentencing or lack of punishment for ‘honor killings’ relate to Ahlam’s murder? Could her death have been prevented?
If severe punishments were made against perpetrators, then it might have the effect of reducing the number of ‘honor killings’; but this alone will not solve the issue. This is because men like Ahlam’s father, who find it acceptable to kill their daughters, do not fear being sentenced to prison. Changing the laws would help reduce the number of ‘honor killings’, but other aspects of society must change as well, such as giving the freedom to discuss such topics and empowering women economically.
Labor statistics show a continuous regression of female employment in Jordan, further widening the gender gap. Despite there being a higher percentage of Jordanian women attending and graduating from universities, there are still far fewer women in the workplace. Simply changing the law is not enough to solve this problem. Increasing equal opportunities and creating safe places for women in the workplace could make an impact. These steps towards women’s legal rights and labor equality should have been taken 50 years ago and would have contributed to preventing the death of Ahlam.
Has the brutal murder of Ahlam sparked a movement for greater change? From whom are people demanding these changes
Unfortunately, ‘honor killings’ will continue, but this time Jordanian women are demanding justice for Ahlam’s murder because they are personally scared since she was similar to many Jordanian women. Just a few months ago in Palestine, the ‘honor killing’ of Israa Ghrayeb frightened Jordanian women since she was a relatable figure who used social media platforms and followed fashion trends. Murders like Israa’s and Ahlam’s make Jordanian women think that the same could happen to them.
Women see the reactions of people supporting Ahlam’s father and are disturbed that Jordanians would support such crimes. This led women to protest against the current laws and justice for Ahlam following her death. Due to difficulties, the organizers of spontaneous protests do not necessarily receive the needed governmental approvals for demonstrations, causing people to be afraid of participating. Further, the government restricts the media from publishing and posting about certain issues, which they did regarding Ahlam as well.
Laws and social movements should determine the actions of the government and Royal Family, rather than having a ‘top to bottom’ approach. If the King were to endorse non-tolerance towards ‘honor killings’ and violence against women, then inevitably some people would change their perceptions. And if laws were amended, then many others would also change their minds.
Ending ‘honor killings’ needs to be a joint effort between legal amendments, the Jordanian people, the Royal Family, and a strong women’s social justice movement. Together, this would deter the violent actions of men towards their daughters, sisters, and wives. A social movement such as this would further influence the people of Jordan. In order to do this, we must have the freedom to demonstrate for women’s rights to create these necessary changes.