Even by the debased standards of honor killings, what happened in Multar, Pakistan, three weeks ago was especially gruesome. There, Nazir Ahmed slit the throat of Muqadas, his 25-year-old stepdaughter, whom he suspected of adultery.
That by itself is barely worth an inch of space, let alone a headline. But Ahmed’s deed made it all the way to the wire services because he also cut the throats of his three small daughters, ages 8, 7 and 4. Why? Lest the taint of their half-sister eventually lead them down the same dishonorable path.
“We are poor people,” he said. “We have nothing else to protect but our honor.”
In a world of earthquakes and tsunamis, of war and of pestilence, it may seem a luxury — and a futile luxury, at that — to focus on so embedded a cultural custom as honor killing. Worldwide, as best the United Nations Population Fund can estimate, there are perhaps 5,000 victims annually. The fact that the numbers are hard to come by is a product of the underlying problem: It is not that the killers hide what they have done; public notice is, after all, part of the cleansing ritual. How else can the killing restore the family’s honor?
It is, instead, that government agencies don’t keep track. Why bother? If the case comes to criminal court at all, the punishment meted out is likely to be no more than a slap on the wrist.
I went to Jordan in 2003 for Human Rights Watch to look into the matter in a relatively modern country. In Jordan, thanks to a strong women’s movement and one intrepid reporter, Rana Husseini of The Jordan Times, every killing — one or two a month, as compared to 100 or so a month in Pakistan and about 35 a month in Yemen and in the West Bank — is reported.
While there, I learned something far more startling than the treatment of honor killers: I learned that most victims of honor crimes are not dead. For each woman who is killed by a brother or a father to cleanse the family honor — and those are the killers 99% of the time — there are tens or hundreds of women who live in dread of the murder that awaits them because of their alleged sexual indiscretions.
These women are already victims, and even Husseini cannot count them. They are marked for death and have nowhere to go to be safe. A handful of Jordanian women have actually given up their freedom, going into protective custody in a local women’s prison in order to save their lives, as I wrote on this page in 2003.
Many more don’t get that far. They are under pressure from their families to commit suicide, some try to escape their towns or countries, a lucky few gain asylum, and most — most have no alternative at all. They silently await their likely end.
The public outcry, when there is one, and local reformers, if there are any, usually put all their eggs in one basket — punishing the killers. This was the goal of the women’s movement in Jordan, which waged and lost a 10-year campaign to change the laws that effectively granted impunity to such killers. It was clear to me that the campaign for a new law was a diversion; no new law could bring justice to women so long as it was embedded in the same old corrupt and patriarchal system.
In fact, the culture is such that incarcerating the killer has become part of the deadly ritual: He gets a hero’s welcome upon release, sending an indelible message to his younger brothers and sisters. The rare honor killer who gets a long sentence is regarded in his own community as a prisoner of conscience.
Killers should be punished, but scarce resources should be devoted to making visible the thousands of terrified living women who know they are marked for death by their male relatives and who have nowhere to go to be safe.
Shelters for battered women are rare in the Muslim world. Traditionalists see them as a challenge to patriarchy and to the autonomy of the family and the tribe. Where they do exist, they are fragile and controversial, so much so that they cannot risk taking in women suspected of the “high crime” of dishonoring their families. In Jordan, the establishment of shelters for abused women was a political football for years, and, once established in 2004, women suspected of “dishonor” were effectively excluded, and the local women’s movement acquiesced as the price of getting a shelter at all.
Honor crimes are but one slice of the international scandal of abuse and oppression of women; creating safe places where women can escape violence is a necessary, but only a short-term, solution. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in a New York Times opinion column about a Pakistani woman named Mukhtaran Bibi who was sentenced to death by stoning because she had been raped: “We in the West could help chip away at that oppression, with health and literacy programs and by simply speaking out against it, just as we once stood up against slavery and totalitarianism.”
Surely an American administration that is so keen on bringing democracy to the Middle East and on equal rights for women might focus immediate attention on this scandalous corner of oppression, on the wretched refuse of a barbaric tradition. Surely Jordan, at least, seeks to be taken seriously as a society committed to unfolding freedom. Might not it therefore respond to the sorts of things Kristoff proposes, the more so if instead of “speaking out” we shout — loudly?
Kathleen Peratis, a partner in the New York law firm Outten & Golden, is a trustee of Human Rights Watch.