Revolt stirs over women who die of shame

In Jerusalem Patrick Cockburn and Stephanie Nolen meet families that put death before dishonour
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The Independent Online
"SHE WAS frightened and wanted to escape," Ali Musrati later told police about the night he gagged and murdered his 16-year-old sister Amal to cleanse the stain on his family's honour. He said: "She started flinging her arms about and tried to drag the rag out of her mouth, but she didn't succeed."

Ali and a second sister,Yasmin, of the Arab village of Ramle in Israel, had decided to kill Amal after she twice ran away from the family. When she returned home the second time they tied her up and left her in the middle of the road, where Ali ran her over with his car several times until she was dead. The use of the car was a clumsy attempt to pretend that Amal's death was an accident, but police rapidly decided that her death was an honour killing. Amal, suspected of having sex with a man after she ran away, was judged by her family to have so shamed them that their reputation could only be restored by her death.

Nobody knows how many Palestinian women in Israel and the occupied territories are murdered for violating community standards. Sometimes bodies are hidden or deaths are reported as suicide or accidents, but one estimate puts the number of murders or attempted murders at between 20 and 40 a year.

The offence is not always sexual. Last year, Ikhlas Kana'an, a 38-year- old woman who belonged to the Druze sect, returned after 10 years in the United States for a two-week stay in the village of Rameh in northern Galilee. In the US she had worked in a hospital and a school for disabled children, and wanted to set up an orphanage and an old age home near where her parents lived.

Ikhlas did not play the retiring role expected of Druze women. She had dyed her hair blonde, wore a mini-skirt and appeared on television to talk about the lack of social institutions in the Arab areas of Galilee. The television appearance may have been the final provocation to her relatives. A few hours later her 21-year-old brother Hussam, who like other Druze in Israel served in the army, shot her 20 times in the chest with his assault rifle.

Her family approved of what Hussam had done. Her father said her death was like the amputation of a finger and refused to accept condolences for her death. Druze elders refused to pray at her grave and she was buried hurriedly at four in the morning. A group was formed to help the murderer, using the slogan: "She deserved to die."

Many Palestinian women believe the tradition of killing women to protect family honour is as prevalent now as in the past centuries. Jamileh Abu Duhou, who has produced a survey of domestic violence in Palestinian society, says: "Honour killing is widespread and is accepted by all religious communities and all social classes." Appalled by Ikhlas Kana'an's murder, she and some friends tried to place an advertisement denouncing honour killing in al-Quds, the Palestinian daily, but it was rejected.

Nevertheless, there are signs of growing resistance to honour killing among Palestinian women. In Galilee, Aida Touma-Soliman has organised a coalition of women's organisations which demonstrates in villages where a murder has occurred. They publicise cases and the short sentences handed down by Israeli courts. A father who tried to kill his daughter by forcing her to drink mosquito poison and then stabbed her got just eight months in prison.

In Jerusalem, Manar Hasan started Al-Fanar, a Palestinian feminist organisation, in 1991. She rejected the belief that improving the status of Palestinian women should be postponed until after the national liberation of all Palestinians. Al-Fanar decided to protest against the murder of 19-year-old Ibtisam Habashi, burned to death in a car after her family found out she was seven months pregnant.

At first support was limited. Palestinian society is deeply conservative. The Israeli government has long supported traditional tribal and clan leaders in preference to more progressive ones. The head of one Palestinian women's organisation would not join the protest because of Ibtisam Habashi's actions. Manar Hasan asked her: "What actions?" She replied: "That she was a whore, of course."

But agitation has made it less likely that a woman will disappear with no effort by the authorities to trace her killers.

Aida Touma-Soliman says the danger of the concept of family honour is that it "is so elastic, anything can be put under it". Young women can be forbidden to leave their homes alone or to go to school.

Even when a man is primarily responsible for harming a family, the victim is always a woman. Last year Taghrit Abu Khdeir, walking with her three children outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, was allegedly stabbed to death by her brother Nabil. The reason, says her surviving sister, Abeer, was a mixture of passion and politics.

Her sister had married a man whom the rest of the family believed was a collaborator with the Israelis. He had passed on information as a result of which Nabil was jailed for three years and another brother for seven. The family told their daughter to leave her husband. She refused even though she said said she had known he was a collaborator. Instead of killing the husband, who was the man who sent him to jail, Nabil decided his family's shame could only be ended if he killed his own sister.

Abeer, who works with a human rights organisation, is ambivalent about what happened. She says: "I wouldn't kill her, but she didn't deserve to live." Nabil didn't "save" honour, she says. Yet, when pressed, she insists: "He's not a murderer."