It's Still All Right to Kill Your Wife and Sister in Jordan

By Camille Standen


The Amman citadel in Jordan. Photo via

In Jordan, getting away with murder is easy, as long as the victim is your wife, sister, or daughter.

Honor killings of women in the Arab nation number from 15 to 20 a year and, unlike straight-up murder, are punishable by much less severe means. Killing in the name of "honor" seems a kind of paradoxical concept—murdering someone to make all your problems and family shame disappear seems pretty much the opposite of honorable—but there's no sign of that paradox stunting the problem.

Jordan is a historically patriarchal country and, with that, is geared toward men benefitting from the justice system. And when you know you're going to get away with the crime—even, apparently, if the crime is murdering your sister because they embarrassed you—there are sadly people out there who are going to give it a shot.

Last Saturday, an unnamed female was found dead near Amman, Jordan's capital, with her throat slit, her belly slashed open, and her four-month-old fetus removed. From an international perspective, news reports were scarce and shed little or no light on why this took place. Sawsan Zaidah, an Amman-based journalist, media analyst, and feminist explained to me that the fact the crime hadn't been reported as an honor killing was a "slight improvement, but not a fundamental one." Which may seem counterintuitive to traditional justice seeking, but when crimes have been reported as honor related in the past, "at the judicial level, it gives the murderer an excuse and a lighter punishment. Also, if it's labeled an honor crime, people are more likely to sympathize with the murderer."


Sawsan Zaidah.

In Islamic law, the word of two women is equal to that of one man, which isn't a great start. And when a woman is murdered for adultery, refusing to enter an arranged marriage, spending time with a male who isn't her husband, becoming pregnant out of wedlock, or being engaged to someone her family doesn't approve of, Articles 98 (for more lenient sentences) and 99 (sentences being reduced when the victim's family excuses it) of the Jordanian penal code are there to lighten the sentence and, in some cases, completely drop all charges.

Eva Abu Halaweh of the Mizan Law Group for Human Rights told me that Jordan's judges, who—conveniently—are mostly male, often use Articles 98 and 99 to excuse men but never to excuse women, even though both laws are applicable to both sexes.

The existence of Article 308, often referred to as the "rape law," would quickly stupefy anyone who's not into subjecting rape victims to years of further torture (a.k.a. hopefully most of the modern world). The article denounces a victim of rape to a life wedded to her rapist, who, in turn, receives no charges for his crime. Although sounding sickeningly archaic, the use of it in April of 2012 might act as an example of how ingrained Jordan's patriarchal and tribal roots still are.

With these laws in place, it's hard to say how many of these honor killings actually come down to honor, and how many are purposefully portrayed as honor crimes to capitalize on the comparatively lax sentences. Zaidah explained: "Police and media reports only portray the murderer's point of view in an honor killing, which makes the public sympathize. But there are many—including the justice minister, who I interviewed—who believe that sometimes the murderer is lying." 


Image via

Jordan has just one women's shelter, Zaidah told me, that's "run by the Jordanian Women's Union. But a lot of women don't even know about the shelter, and there's not a lot of room there, meaning a large amount of women are put in jail for their own protection." It goes without saying that imprisoning a human so they don't get assaulted or murdered is far from ideal, and, unsurprisingly, "even though these women are desperate, they don't want to be in jail, but they don't have a choice as to when they're released."       

According to Halaweh, there are around 50 women in jail at any one time for this reason—that number on top of the 30 or so women who approach her organization each week to seek safety from physical threats or fair legal advice in the face of an upcoming divorce.

Halaweh described a case that she began working on a week ago: "A woman was at home when her brother broke in because he very upset about her divorce. He threatened to beat her, and she called us. I called the police, who went to her house. Her ex-husband and brother were taken to the station for a short while, but they weren't detained and won't face any charges. We're now looking for an apartment for her that her family won't be able to track down."

While they were helpful in initially responding in this case, "policemen are a part of the problem," said Zaidah. "What's being leaked from their investigations shows how biased they are. We can't completely expose that they're biased, but we can link their behavior to other cases. For example, we used to have a problem when a woman would go to the police station to file a complaint against her husband or father and the police would say, 'How are you doing this? You can't complain about your father,' and they'd make her feel bad about it, as if she was doing something wrong even though it was her being beaten."


Eva Abu Halaweh (back left) at the International Women of Courage Awards in 2011. Image via

A study published in a Jordanian paper earlier this month claimed that "70 percent of women accept that a husband can beat his wife when she makes a mistake." And, according to Sharia law, men are allowed to beat women. But, Zaidah told me, the problem with the survey was that it was framed within the context of Islam, allowing little room for discussion. "At ground level, women do not accept being beaten," she told me. "Islam creates this confusion, and it's much more complicated than the survey suggests." According to Zaideh, these kinds of surveys are published almost every year, enforcing societal expectations for women to be subservient and accept the fact they're going to have the shit beaten out of them for very minor issues.

So, with all of this weight thrown behind an apparent religion-backed pro-women-beating campaign, you'd have thought that honor killing might stem from the same kind of realm, but it's not explicitly a product of Islam. "It takes place in cities like Madaba and Karak with Christian communities," Halaweh explained. "It could date back to old tribal and patriarchal traditions, or it could stem from different religious interpretations. There are also some who believe it depends on the economic backgrounds of people committing such crimes because it's mainly going on among poor families—unemployed murderers who maybe want to show that they exist in society."

It's a seemingly bizarre way to prove your existence, but it's one that's become engrained in Jordanian culture. It might still be years before Jordan's women see any change, Zaidah told me. Things might be improving a little in terms of honor crimes, but then women will be discriminated against in other ways. If they fix this problem, there's inevitably going to be damage in other areas."

Follow Camille on Twitter: @CamStanden

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