Editor’s note: In July 2020, the brutal ‘honor’ killing of the Jordanian woman Ahlam (whose last name has not been publicly released) caused a public uproar. The shocking incident revived calls to stiffen punishments for this crime, which generally refers to the murder of a (usually female) family member due to relatives’ belief that she has brought shame or dishonor on the family. This article was originally published by POMED in Arabic. It has been updated to include more recently available data for 2020.
On the morning of Saturday, July 18, 2020, Jordanians awoke to news of a horrific murder. A man killed his daughter, Ahlam, by smashing her head with a concrete block in plain view on a public street, then sat beside her body, smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of tea. This news was reported by eyewitnesses and could be seen in video footage circulating on social media, in which viewers could hear Ahlam’s resounding screams. Witnesses also claimed that Ahlam’s brothers had prevented anyone from coming to her aid.
Ahlam was not the first, and will not be the last, victim of gender-based violence in Jordan. Women in our societies will continue to be second-class citizens as long as society is silent and in denial, family protection is overlooked, and there is no law deterring such crimes.
Data on ‘honor killing’ in Jordan are inconsistent and incomplete, as official statistics can be hard to find and many cases are not reported. Even the partial information available since the mid-1990s paints a very disturbing picture. Data from the Ministry of Social Development indicate that nine crimes of this kind were recorded in 1995 and six in 1998. By 2006 and 2007, according to Ministry data, the reported number of cases was 18 and 17 for each respective year. Other statistics suggest that 12 crimes in 2014 were committed under the pretext of honor and eight in 2016. By 2017, Human Rights Watch estimated that between 15 and 20 honor crimes occurred annually. The Jordanian Women’s Solidarity Institute recorded 21 family murders of women in 2019. 2020 ultimately saw a total of 17 honor killings.
And it is not only honor killings. A report from the Jordanian National Commission for Women revealed that the social services division of the Department of Family Protection handled 1,685 cases of domestic violence between March and May 2020, when a nationwide lockdown was in effect (932 of these cases involved an adult woman and 753 involved children). According to the director of the department, this was an increase of 33 percent over the same period in 2019. The Ministry of Social Development, meanwhile, reported providing shelter to 104 women and children who were victims of domestic violence during the pandemic lockdown. Although final 2020 statistics are not yet available, lockdowns, curfews, and deteriorating economic conditions appear to have driven the number of domestic violence cases upwards last year.
Ahlam’s case aroused the anger of the Jordanian street. It spurred dozens of activists and civil society organizations, particularly the Jordanian Women’s Solidarity Institute and the National Commission for Women, to launch a petition and a social media campaign and to organize successive sit-ins in front of Parliament to call for amendments to articles in the penal code concerning honor crimes. These articles are considered extremely weak and their framing makes it relatively easy for perpetrators to escape punishment. Activists want them to be abolished.
- Article 52 has been used by families posthumously to waive the victim’s right to life, making it so that a complaint cannot be filed on behalf of the victim, though some jurists argue that this article cannot be applied in the case of honor crimes.
- Article 98 permits reduced sentencing for perpetrators who commit a crime in a “fit of fury” that resulted from an “unlawful or dangerous act” by the victim. Citizens and civil society organizations argue that a “fit of fury” is no cause for a reduced sentence, especially in cases where female citizens are violated and their rights to physical integrity are undermined.
- Article 340, which has received the most attention in discussions of legal justification for honor crimes, stipulates that any man who attacks or kills his wife or any of his female relatives in the act of committing adultery or in “an unlawful bed” benefits from a reduced sentence. In 2001, a clause was added granting female attackers the same penalty reduction. Some who are calling for the abolition of this article argue that it violates Islamic law because it does not meet the burden of proof under Shari’a law. Many also say that the article diminishes the seriousness of a murder offense, as though it were easily justified by adultery or indiscretion. Activists also note that women rarely benefit from the second clause or any of the other “gender-neutral” articles.
There appears to be a general consensus among jurists—even those who support these articles—that honor killings are disgraceful, and there is a strong opposition to honor crimes more generally in Jordan. Yet at a time when civil society organizations were organizing vigils to demand that the articles be amended or abolished, offensive comments targeting women who attended the vigils spread rapidly. In reality, there is also a large segment of society that encourages men and grants them the right to commit such crimes against women because of a belief that the victim was at fault in the first place and is responsible for her own heinous death.
Demanding that these articles be abolished from the penal code and that an alternative law be drafted to deter honor crimes is important. But even policy change will be insufficient without more accurate and accessible honor crime statistics and an adequately informed society that is better prepared for change.
Hiba Balaha is a social and political researcher and consultant based in Amman. This article was translated from Arabic by POMED Program Director for Civil Society Partnerships Hanan Abdulhadi.
Photo Credit: UN Women on Flickr