A Viral Instagram Post Is Reigniting the Push To Reform ‘Honour Killing’ Laws

A 20-year-old Jordanian woman's 10-minute video about the abuse she says she suffered at the hands of her brothers has been watched more than three million times.
February 15, 2021, 2:55pm
A Viral Instagram Post Is Reigniting the Push To Reform ‘Honour Killing’ Laws
Photo: Instagram

A viral Instagram post by a 20-year-old woman has reignited the push to reform laws in Jordan around so-called honour killings.

“My name is Layan,” a young woman says straight into her phone, “and I am from Jordan. I hope the human rights organisations hear me tonight and help me reach safety.” Her voice wavers as she seems on the verge of tears.

Layan says that she endured sexual violence at the hands of her brothers, before escaping to Turkey in November of last year. According to the 10-minute video, which has now amassed over three million views, Layan is experiencing death threats after being accused of “dishonouring” her family.

The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 women and girls are murdered worldwide each year in the name of honour, though that number is likely higher. According to Human Rights Watch, 15 to 20 honour killings are carried out annually in Jordan, with many cases going unreported. And since Layan’s video went viral, many young Jordanians have taken to social media to loudly question how much longer this deadly practice will go on.

There is no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated all forms of gender-based violence throughout the world — a growing reality the UN has referred to as a “shadow pandemic.” Gender-based violence in Jordan has increased by 33 percent since lockdown, with at least 17 reported cases of domestic murders in 2020. 

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So-called honour crimes are predominantly committed by men who believe that a woman relative has done something to shame them. Many so-called honour crimes are a result of perceived sexual indecency on the part of the woman. Indecency can range from having an affair, spending time alone with a man who isn’t a relative or spouse, to simply posting on social media. Some men believe the only way to restore their so-called honour is by completely cleansing the shame from their family.

In May of last year, outrage was sparked across Jordan when a man stabbed his 14-year-old sister to death for starting a Facebook page, assuming she had lewd intent. In December, 19-year-old Aya — a university student in Amman – was beaten by her brother, handcuffed and locked in a bathroom, because he suspected she was in a relationship. On what grounds? Simply because she received a phone call from a male colleague at school. Aya remains in hospital today, after suffering severe internal bleeding and brain damage. The suspects in both cases are currently being detained by the police.

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Although most victims of so-called honour crimes are women under 25, there are exceptions. In July, the father of Ahlam – a woman in her late thirties – smashed his daughter’s skull with a brick, as she cried for her mother nearby to no avail. Shortly after killing his daughter, the father poured himself a cup of tea, lit a cigarette, and called the authorities. He was later tried and charged with murder. Ahlam’s screams were recorded on video and circulated widely on social media — creating an online movement titled “the screams of women” — along with calls for new protection laws for women and girls in Jordan against violence in the name of so-called honour. 

“What needs to be done is to change the laws when it comes to honour killings,” Manar Amro, a Jordanian women’s rights activist and youth educator, told VICE World News. "No awareness efforts will be capable of resolving this issue as long as what is happening on the ground is decided by the written laws of the country.” 

Since the 1980s, women’s rights lawyers in Jordan have fought to bring attention to the practice of killing women and girls to cleanse the family shame. In the 1990s, those who killed female relatives in the name of honour received a maximum prison sentence of one year. Today, the minimum sentence is seven years. In 2017, according to Human Rights Watch, “lawmakers amended article 98 [of the Jordanian penal code] to disallow mitigated sentences for those who commit crimes against women.” It continued: “The provision leaves a loophole, however, under article 340, allowing mitigated sentences for those who murder their spouses discovered committing adultery.” Put simply, while reduced penalties for those who commit crimes against women have been technically outlawed, if a man finds his wife in the act of adultery and kills her, he has an escape clause.

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A popular Instagram account Feminist Movement Jordan is fighting to address this lack of cultural culpability by providing an anonymous platform for women and girls to speak up about gender-based violence in Jordan, across the Middle East, and around the world. The activists behind the account propose specific amendments to the Jordanian Penal Code, including the abolishment of Articles 97, 98 and 99. Articles 97 and 98 allow the perpetrator to blame their actions (including murder) on being in a “state of great fury.” In doing so, their sentences can be reduced. Article 99 cuts the perpetrator's sentence in half if the victim’s family chooses not to pursue legal action. The activists also strongly suggest abolishing Article 340 of the penal code, which allows a reduced penalty if the culprit finds the victim in an “unlawful bed” — meaning, in the act of adultery. In 2017, the Jordanian Parliament sought to amend some laws, including Article 340, but evident cultural changes have been few.

“These reforms are important because [they] should act as a deterrent for men who should realise they won’t be able to get away with killing women and girls,” Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, told news agency the Media Line.

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"Any law that lessens and diminishes humanity is not a law, but rather a framework for crime,” say the founders of the Feminist Movement Jordan, who prefer to remain anonymous. “It is necessary to involve female lawmakers and women who work in the legal system in drafting and reconsidering these laws.” 

Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor published a report in September of 2020 titled “Women in Jordan: Continuing Violence and Absent Protection.” In the report, Euro-Med Monitor urges several courses of action, including calling on the “Jordanian Parliament to enact laws that ensure adequate protection for all women in a manner that guarantees respect for their safety and dignity”; media institutions to “implement special training programs aimed at educating society about violence against women”; and for women to have “greater opportunities to work to enable them to participate economically in the society, and to combat poverty, which is a major cause for the increase of violence against women.”

While the rates of honour killings in Jordan remain some of the highest in the world, violence in the name of honour is not exclusive to one country or region. This patriarchal practice is embedded in many cultures across the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and some Mediterranean nations. 

Two weeks ago, the body of 26-year-old Qamar was found buried in the desert of Saudi Arabia. Her brothers had killed her for starting a Snapchat account. Qamar’s sister, Manal, immediately took to social media about the death of her sister and was met with backlash from Saudi police, who insisted she quit posting about her sister’s murder as it was quickly gaining international attention. The hashtag “Save Manal, Sister of Qamar” went viral on Arabic social media, as many assumed that Manal’s life was now in danger.  

Many young people in Jordan and other countries are taking matters into their own hands and pushing boldly for cultural reform when it comes to injustice against women. In 2016, the Jordanian government issued a fatwa – a ruling based on Islamic law – saying violence in the name of so-called honour was not consistent with Sharia. The same year, the Jordanian government opened a new shelter for women whose lives were at risk, largely thanks to the activists who pushed for one. Before that, many women would be sent to prison for “protective custody” – just to be later bailed out by the same male relatives that would later kill them. 

“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 that will house a maximum of 50 women,” Mohammad Ensour, the director of the Human Rights and Family Affairs Department at the Ministry of Justice, told the Jordan Times.

While there has been significant juridical progress made in recent years addressing honour crimes in Jordan and elsewhere, heightened violence in recent months and weeks proves there is still a long way to go. 

UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador and Jordanian Princess Basma bint Talal recently joined the calls for change, posting on Facebook: “How many other women must die before adequate punitive steps are taken … There is no honour in honour killing and we can no longer look away.”