In a Climate of Impunity
The murder of Hatun Sürücü in 2005 sparked a heated debate in Germany about crimes committed in the name of honor. What actually is honor killing?
Anja Wehler-Schöck: A honor killing is when a woman is murdered by a male member of her family in order to reestablish the family’s honor. The violation of honor ensues from an actual or alleged act of moral misconduct by the woman. This misconduct is typically sexual in nature, but it can assume many different forms: from general disobedience to contact with a man or an extramarital affair. It can even be the misfortune of having been a victim of an – often incestuous – rape.
How widespread is the practice of honor killing?
Wehler-Schöck: According to the estimates of the United Nations Population Fund, approximately 5,000 women and girls around the world are assassinated every year in honor killings. Pakistan, with around 500 cases a year, is considered to be one of the countries in which the highest number of honor killings occur. But it is difficult to work with precise numbers, as the number of unrecorded cases is very high. In many cases honor killings are not registered as such by the police – either because there is no awareness of it or because the murders were cleverly disguised as accidents or suicides.
Pakistan is an Islamic country. This confirms the predominant assumption that honor killings are the expression of an Islamic culture.
Wehler-Schöck: Because the majority of honor killings are committed in Islamic countries, it is assumed that this practice is connected with Islam. Islamic scholars and adherents of Islamic organizations are occasionally heard claiming that honor killing is justified or even called for by Islamic law.
However, neither the honor complex nor the practice of honor killings is rooted in Islam. The idea of transferring dishonor from one person to another or to a collective is foreign to Islam, for example. Moreover, the Koran contains a fundamental ban on murder. Individuals are also prohibited from taking the law into their own hands.
The honor complex I describe can be found everywhere where the societal structure is shaped by familialism, paternalism, and a strong religious influence. The practice of honor killings is found not only in Islamic and Arab countries, but, for example, also in some Latin American countries, such as Brazil and Ecuador.
You studied honor killings in Jordan and not, for instance, in Ecuador, which would have contradicted existing prejudices. Why?
Wehler-Schöck: : I felt it was important to study an Islamic, Arab country especially in order to pursue your previous question, that is, whether honor killing has roots in Islam, in Arab culture, or in tribal law. For me Jordan represented a particularly interesting case because the country has received an unusual amount of public attention in the recent years in the international discussion over honor killings.
Moreover, compared to other countries in which honor killings occur, Jordan stands out with several progressive measures directed toward violence against women. And not least of all, it should be kept in mind that the political climate also plays a certain role for such research. Unlike in Iran, for instance, or in Pakistan, liberalization has made a public debate over the problem of honor killing possible in Jordan.
What are the legal consequences of honor killings according to Jordanian law?
Wehler-Schöck: The crime “honor killing” does not exist in Jordanian law. Thus, the designation would most likely be second-degree homicide (prison sentence up to 15 years) or first-degree murder (death penalty). But these maximum penalties are seldom imposed. As a rule, the offenders in honor killing cases walk off with very mild sentences.
On one hand, this is because honor killing – as I’ve already mentioned – are often disguised as a suicide or accident, and the police and the judiciary show little motivation to investigate the circumstances of these cases more closely. On the other hand, Jordanian law has a number of provisions that allows for the mitigation of a sentence and even grounds for exculpation, which are frequently drawn on in honor killings.
Another interesting aspect is that families sometimes order a young member of the family to carry out the act, since persons under 18 years of age come under juvenile law. In most cases the question of instigation, complicity, or indirect involvement should be clarified. Yet such deliberations have thus far not been taken into consideration in the legal proceedings. Thus, overall a climate of impunity prevails with regard to honor killings. Of positive note, however, is a slight trend recently toward harsher sentences.
On one hand we have a climate of impunity. But on the other hand members of the royal family participated in a demonstration against honor killings. Was this only for the sake of publicity, or what is the royal house doing against the practice of honor killing?
Wehler-Schöck: The Jordan royal family emanates a certain liberality and advocates for social issues. Often, however, it involves symbolic acts – such as the participation in a demonstration – rather than lasting measures to improve the situation. In civil society the royal family’s approach is thus perceived very critically and seen as a strategy to put a damper on inconvenient acts in civil society by appropriating certain initiatives.
King Abdullah is not expected to take the offensive against honor killing in the near future. The situation in Jordan is marked by a sustained climate of political tension, which has intensified in the past few years. The government’s number one priority is thus internal security. Against this backdrop King Abdullah is neither willing nor in the position to risk pursuing further drastic reforms leading toward democracy and social liberalization, which could result in permanent changes.
Does the ongoing political conflict as well as the resulting economic uncertainty play a role in the problem of honor killing?
Wehler-Schöck: The situation of a constant threat has been used by the Jordanian government to justify the curtailment of political and social liberties. Human rights, particularly women’s rights, have had to retreat behind state security. Not only in the conservative camp is violence against women at times regarded as insignificant compared to "real" problems such as poverty and unemployment.
It is conceivable that the climate of sustained conflict has led to a brutalization of Jordanian society. According to an analysis by amnesty international, a higher incidence of honor killings can be observed in many societies whose everyday life is marked by violent conflicts.
Interview conducted by Naima El Moussaoui
© Qantara.de 2007
Anja Wehler-Schöck is a political scientist (Free University Berlin/ Institut d'Etudes Politique Paris) and works as a consultant for Gender, Family, and Youth Politics for a political foundation in Berlin.
Anja Wehler-Schöck: Ehrenmorde in Jordanien, Ursachen und mögliche Gegenstrategien, Frankfurt am Main 2007, Verlag Peter Lang.
Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce