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Imprisoned for Her Own Protection

Seven years ago, Fatima fell in love with the wrong man. Her family would not allow her to marry him. To put pressure on them to change their mind, she had sex with the man and presented her family with a fait accompli. Her strategy did not work. When her father threatened to kill her, she fled to the local police station.

Fatima (not her real name) has now been in an Amman prison for seven years. She is not serving a sentence nor is she accused of a crime. She is in prison for her own protection. And it is there that she expects to rot, because her father still vows to kill her if she comes out.

As is by now depressingly routine in Jordan, when faced with an errant daughter and a murderous father, it is the daughter who ends up in jail. In a sense, Fatima is lucky. Unlike the victims of the recently reported honor crimes in Turkey and Iraq, often buried by strangers because their families won’t even claim their bodies, Fatima is alive. But while she and those like her in Jordan have evaded death, they languish in jail.

According to the Jordanian authorities, Fatima is in prison for her own protection. She can leave whenever she wants to — so long as she is escorted by a close male relative who vouches to be responsible for her safety. But of course there is no such relative; the only candidate is her father, his vow intact. (There are many reports of a father or brother promising not to harm the woman, and then, when she is released into his custody, killing her on the spot.) She says she would leave and take her chances if she could do so alone, quietly and secretly. But that is not an available option; for a woman to leave prison unescorted by a male relative would be a disgrace. So Fatima, who is now 25 years old, can do nothing but wait for her 64-year-old father to die.

I met Fatima in the Women’s Rehabilitation and Correction Center in Jweideh, Jordan. The director of the prison, Major Hana Afghani, would not or could not tell me exactly how many of the Center’s 97 inmates held under “administrative detention” are there for their own protection from a murderous relative. The women themselves told me there are at least 15; other sources estimate as many as 40 or more.

How credible are the threats from which they have fled? According to the most reliable statistics, which are those maintained by Rana Husseini, a journalist in Amman who reports on each honor killing, no matter how it is later characterized by the police or the courts, there are about 20 to 25 such killings each year in Jordan. (This does not usually require detailed investigative journalism. Most perpetrators turn themselves in and proudly declare to the press and the police they have cleansed the honor of their family. The murderers have typically spent days or weeks planning the murder and sometimes the trigger is actually pulled by a very young brother who is immune from any prosecution.)

So Fatima and the dozens of women like her who are deemed to have strayed see the threats of their brothers or fathers or uncles as quite real. (Death threats by a husband are much less frequent. The “sins” of a woman are attributed to her blood family, and the duty to erase the shame falls to them.) Nor are those in jail, the new political prisoners of the Hashemite Kingdom, the only victims of this wretched system; one must also count the effect of such a system on the freedom of every woman in Jordan.

Those in jail have very few options. In Jordan’s small, close-knit and traditional culture, they have little chance of hiding or leaving the country. There are no shelters in Jordan save one six-bed facility maintained by an NGO. (The government still has not delivered on its promise, made five years ago, to establish its own.) If the family does not forgive her, then such a woman typically must choose between imprisonment and death.

All the women I met during my visit to the Women’s Rehabilitation and Correction Center were young, in their 20s or early 30s. They have been in prison for six, eight, nine years, their youth wasted. Three told me they would leave despite the dangers if the authorities would allow them to. One told me that the district’s administrative governor had said to her, “Bring me someone who will guarantee your safety and I will let you leave.” She replied, “I have been here for five years with no visitors. How can I find such a person?” Another said, “I am dead either way. I prefer to take my chances.” Another, who had survived her uncle’s attempt to murder her nine years earlier — he had shot her twelve times — was now willing to take her chances because that uncle had died.

The detention of these women is an open secret. Jordan’s Campaign to Eliminate So-Called Crimes of Honor seeks to amend certain sections of the Jordanian Penal Code that allow the murderers of a supposedly errant female relative to serve a brief sentence, invariably less than a year. This is a worthy goal and a crucial reform. But it is equally crucial that no woman be imprisoned “for her own protection” while the criminal who threatens her walks free.

The government of Jordan condemns honor killings, but condemnation alone is not enough. Safety for threatened women is an immediate need, in the form of safe shelters or even resettlement in a safe locale. The men who threaten them, often in the presence of police or other officials, should be prosecuted. The courts must stop treating these murderers as if they acted in a momentary rage when in fact almost every honor killing is obviously premeditated. And the West should keep up the heat on Jordan to fulfill their promises of respect for the human rights of women.

Kathleen Peratis is a member of the board of directors of Human Rights Watch and is the chair of its Women’s Rights Division.

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