As part of 16-day campaign against gender violence, activists demand stronger penalties for ‘honour’ crimes and an end to imprisonment of at-risk women
By Olivia Cuthbert
The Guardian (09.12.2016) – http://bit.ly/2gHNJkX – On 8 October, an 18-year-old man from the Jordanian city of Madaba was charged with killing his sister as she slept after allegedly finding her with a mobile phone the family didn’t know about. Five days later, two brothers were charged with murdering their sisters aged 27 and 34 at a farm on the outskirts of Jordan’s capital, Amman.
The victims were among five women killed during one week in Jordan for reasons related to family “honour”. Thirty-eight women have been victims of “honour” killings this year. The country typically reports between 15 and 20 such crimes a year, according to Human Rights Watch.
Women’s rights activists have used the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, which ends on Saturday, to call for stronger penalties against the perpetrators of “honour” crimes and to end the practice of imprisoning women at risk of being killed for their own protection.
In Jordan, women considered to be at risk can be detained indefinitely under the country’s 1954 Crime Prevention Law. Some spend years in prison before being granted release, which usually requires signed assurances from their families that they will not be harmed.
“It’s actually a violation of the constitution because freedom of movement is a constitutional right,” said Hadeel Abdul Aziz, executive director at the Justice Centre for Legal Aid in Jordan.
A 2014 report by Dignity, the Danish Institute Against Torture, on Conditions for Women in Detention in Jordan described how some women have resorted to “extreme and degrading measures, such as marrying men who have raped them in order to be released”.
“These are the saddest stories of all,” said Asma Khader, executive director of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute’s (Sigi) Jordan chapter, which provides legal, financial and psychosocial support to women in administrative detention. “Instead of protecting and supporting her, she is threatened [by relatives] as a person who has brought shame on the family and, in some cases, forced to marry her attacker.”
For many women in protective custody, marriage is the only route to release. Asheel, 30, spent seven months in detention after fleeing violent abuse at home. “At first being in prison seemed better than the beatings, but I was always afraid and there was nothing there to distract me from the worry. My options were to stay in prison or be married, so I preferred to marry. A lot of other girls did the same.”
Asheel’s husband is poor and they have little to live on, but he treats her and their children well. “I am happy now but I want all this to be deleted from my memory. I don’t wish any woman to face what has happened to me in my life.”
Sigi regularly visits women in protective custody at the Juweida women’s correctional and rehabilitation centre, to try to broker their release. This involves working with government bodies and families.
If the risk is from the father or brother, Sigi approaches family members who can influence them and prevent any attack.
“Unfortunately, we are not a forgiving society. For men particularly, the sense of shame lingers,” said Rana Sundos, programme and activities manager at Sigi. She added that “honour” crimes have sometimes been committed many years after a woman’s release. She recalls the sad outcome of a case involving a teenage girl who was placed in protective custody after the family threatened to kill her. She had become pregnant following an alleged assault.
“While she was in prison, the family came to the governor and signed a letter promising not to kill her, and she was released into their care. Within a few days, the brother had carried out the crime.” He bowed to pressure from relatives, said Sundos. “He told us: inside I loved my sister, she was the youngest, the fruit of our family. I didn’t want to kill her, but they said if you want to be a man, you must.”
A petition launched by the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW) last month to “stop murder crimes committed against women and girls” outlined the need for legal reform. It highlighted articles 340 and 98 of the penal code, which grant judges discretion to reduce sentences for the perpetrators of “honour” crimes in mitigating circumstances – including adultery and crimes committed in a fit of anger. The petition also called for an end to the detention of women for protective purposes.
“The presence of these articles contributes to the continuation of social attitudes that view the body of women as a vessel for family honour,” said Salma Nims, the JNCW’s secretary general.
Last week the country’s Iftaa’ Department, which is responsible for religious decrees, issued a fatwa for the first time, prohibiting the murder of women in the name of “honour”.
The government has also announced plans to open a shelter in which women can stay for protection, rather than go to jail. “We realise that these women deserve a better place to stay in than prison, and that is why we are opening a shelter for them,” Mohammad Ensour, director of the human rights and family affairs department at the justice ministry told the Jordan Times.
“We welcome this development, but the most important thing is to keep the location secret,” said Khader. While lives have been saved and many women released as a result of Sigi’s efforts, these women, she said, “are only partly free, because they can never walk outside without the fear that someone who knows them will be in the street”.
* Names have been changed to protect identities
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HRWF database of news and information on over 70 countries: https://hrwf.eu/newsletters/womens-rights-gender-equality/
List of hundreds of documented cases of believers of various faiths in 20 countries: https://hrwf.eu/forb/forb-and-blasphemy-prisoners-list/