by Mandy Van Deven
- India -
Asma. Rukhsana. Zakia. Duaa. Fereshteh. Somayeh. Heshu. Samera. Amneh, Zahra. Semse.
As an investigative journalist, Rana Husseini had no intention of shifting careers to become a human rights activist until she was given an assignment in 1994 to cover the intentional death of Kifaya, a sixteen-year-old girl in Amman who had been poisoned by her older brother after being raped and forcibly married. The town’s ambivalent response to Kifaya’s murder shook Husseini to the core, and so with the backing of her editors at The Jordan Times, she began to investigate such deaths in order to expose the unconscionable crimes to what she believed was a willfully ignorant public. Ignoring threats of violence that followed each of her published stories, Rana Husseini became the voice of the dead.
Honor crimes take place all over the world—from St. Louis, Missouri to Uppsala, Sweden to Lahore, Pakistan—and the victims of this kind of state- and socially-sanctioned violence are often killed openly by their loved ones with little to no recourse. “They are part of a broader problem of states failing to uphold women's human rights,” remarks Yifat Susskind, the Policy and Communications Director of the international human rights organization MADRE. “One reason is simply gender discrimination and the fact that policymakers themselves condone the subordination of women.”
Advocating against honor killings presents a unique challenge to women’s rights activists. Officially recorded as acts of suicide, accidental deaths, or crimes of passion, precious little empirical evidence exists about them. Their widespread geographic occurrence also makes the scope of the problem difficult to quantify. Much of the available data is generated from news coverage like Husseini’s, which activists cherry pick for sensationalized stories in the hopes of generating worldwide outrage about the deaths. However, the lack of understanding about the causes and consequences of the killings has created an environment rife with misunderstanding.
Many speculate about a connection between honor crimes and Islam, but Nadya Khalife, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, says, “People in North America, Europe, and Australia don't understand that honor killings do not derive from Islam. They are part of local, customary laws that pre-date Islam in places that now happen to be majority-Muslim.”
The Western media’s preoccupation with the supposed role of Islam in honor killings has been a hindrance to the organizing and advocacy work that aims to stop these crimes. As an Arab Muslim, Husseini takes great pains to disabuse people of this notion, which she says is brought on by widespread Islamophobia in the West. “Many of the honor killings do take place in Muslim communities around the world, but common cultural reference points, rather than religion, is their root cause,” she explains. “The justification for so-called honor crimes cannot lie in Islam.”Ironically, the West is also blamed for these crimes by those who argue that the introduction of ‘immoral Western culture’ encourages women to act ‘immodestly’ in the first place. Adding further complication, some who oppose Husseini’s and her allies’ efforts accuse them of being a conduit for Western imperialism that aims to eradicate Muslim culture. Indeed, much of the work against honor crimes is funded and executed by Western organizations—some of which use their aid funding as a method of political bargaining—yet German human rights advocate Marlene Sachse argues, “Terre Des Femmes has often been called racist for showing the inequality of honor crimes, but you should never look away when dealing with human rights abuses.”
Husseini also gives this indictment little credence, “I tell people who accuse me of being an agent of imperialism that I do not need anyone from the West to tell me that killing a woman is wrong. I have my own free will, and I can think for myself and make my own decisions.”
Khalife, who was raised in Lebanon, says, “There is a tendency to blame everything on others because we don't want to critically look at ourselves and correct what is fundamentally wrong. In the meantime, women are killed while we debate whether murder is part of our culture or not.”
But beyond changing laws and creating harsher punishments, the deficit conditions in which people are living must be changed. When one’s ability to simply survive is reliant on the community’s perception of honor, the concepts of ‘choice’ and ‘victimhood’ become tricky. The murdered women are the obvious victims of honor crimes, but family and community members are victims as well. Husseini explains, “Many of the men are pressured to kill someone they love, care for, and usually do not want to kill, but their family and community pushes them to commit murder by telling them they, too, will be an outcast.” Kahlife adds, “Sometimes families put pressure on the youngest male to do the killing because he will receive a lighter punishment. The victims lose their lives, but the lives of the murders are also ruined.”
These women believe a shift in responsibility needs to take place away from the individual and onto the state. “It is necessary to create a better balance between the sexes with campaigns and projects that advocate for women’s rights instead of concentrating only on changing the law,” says Sachse. “I do not believe harsher punishments will decrease the number of honor killings.”
Susskind agrees, “Legal changes need to occur in conjunction with educational and cultural interventions to change attitudes. Otherwise you create a dynamic in which laws may be passed, but remain close to irrelevant because there is no political will in the judiciary or the society at large to enforce the law.”
Indeed, a large part of Husseini’s campaign—which has involved garnering the support of state officials, including Jordan's Queen Noor and Morocco's King Hassan, and working with agencies worldwide in an attempt to overturn laws that excuse the murder of women—has been rather unsuccessful. Yet her determination has not been deterred. Putting her own life in jeopardy as she continues to follow her passion for justice, Rana Husseini’s commitment to ending honor killings could not be more alive.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mandy Van Deven is a freelance writer and the founder of the Feminist Review blog. Focusing on gender, politics, and popular culture, her work has appeared in various online and print media, including AlterNet, Bitch, In These Times, and make/shift. Mandy worked for over ten years as a grassroots organizer in New York and Atlanta. She is an avid and enthusiastic world traveler who has collected friends in countries all over the globe. Mandy currently lives in Kolkata, India.