There's a sewer outside Azza Suleiman's office, a hot ditch in which the filth of one of Cairo's worst slums has been reduced to a slowly moving swamp of black liquid. A blue mist of exhaust fumes and dust moves down alleyways thick with scarved women, men in white robes, coffee sellers, donkey carts and garbage boys, the five- and six-year-olds who come down from the Mokkatam hills to gather up Cairo's garbage every morning. Some of it feeds their goats and – yes – the pigs bred in the rotting suburbs. A veil of smog lies over this misery. But a veil of a different kind lies over Egypt, a covering which Azza Suleiman is determined to tear away.
Officially, Egypt has no "honour" killings. Young women may commit suicide, yes, but they are never murdered. This is the government line – and of course, it is a lie. The files in Azza Suleiman's Centre for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance office – and in those of other NGOs in Cairo – tell the truth. In May of 2007, a farmer in southern Egypt decapitated his daughter after discovering she had a boyfriend. In March of 2008, a man identified only as "Mursi" electrocuted and beat to death his 17-year-old daughter because she had received a phone call from her boyfriend. "Mursi", a farmer from Kafr el-Sheikh in the Nile Delta, admitted he "beat her with a large stick" before finishing her off with electric shocks; the murder was only discovered when the body turned up at the local hospital.
Azza Suleiman's work provides much bleaker material. Incest is a major problem which no one will discuss, she says. Recently, an Egyptian man admitted killing his daughter because she was pregnant. But he was the father of his daughter's unborn child. It was a case of incest. But he killed her to protect the family's "honour". Four other women have recently been murdered by their families because they were raped. The Christian Coptic community – perhaps 10 per cent of the Egyptian population – has closed itself off from any "honour" killing investigations even though Christian girls have been murdered because they wanted to marry Muslim men. "Christians cannot talk about this outside the church," Azza Suleiman complains. "We have tried to open up shelters, but the government will not allow it. They say: 'Please, no talk of incest.' And 'honour' crimes are often also related to inheritance."
In Egypt, according to Amal Abdelhadi of the New Woman Organisation, there are no figures for "honour" crimes or incest because such cases never reach the courts. "You can talk more easily about marital rape here," she says. "I have been in houses where whole families live in one room – grandparents, children, half the family sleeps under the bed at night and they hear everything. It's too close. It's too much. And all the young women in the family have to get married. So if one is thought to have behaved badly, then she can be killed – otherwise, none of the other girls will be able to marry. One 'honour' killing clears the way for them. This will go on as long as women are regarded as sexual objects rather than people with brains."
Egyptian judges are notorious for bending the law – or disregarding it entirely – when faced with family murders. "There was a man sentenced to six months – just six months – for killing his sister," Amal Abdelhadi says. "But the judge decided that since the man will have to live his whole life with the guilt of his killing his innocent sister, he should not go to prison!"
Travelling around the country in her black Nissan 4x4, Azza Suleiman has noticed that judges in upper Egypt – in the poorest and least educated parts of the country – tend to be more lenient than courts in Cairo and Alexandria. And senior Muslim clerics – most of them appalled at what they know is a hidden crisis in Egypt – find their condemnation of "honour" killing hobbled by their own sponsors. Mohamed Sayyid Tantawi, a powerful Islamic scholar who was Grand Mufti of Egypt and Imam of the Al-Azhar mosque and who died last March, confronted "honour" crimes with great courage.
"But we have a big problem here because the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and the Mufti, they are not respected any more," Ms Suleiman says. "They are not trusted. And the reason is that the people know they have been appointed by the Hosni Mubarak government, which is corrupt. Tantawi was an enlightened man. He spoke very well about these murders. But he and the mufti represent the system and the people hate the system, so there is no credibility in them. And so there is a new trend. People go to their local sheikhs and tribal leaders – and many of them believe that 'honour' killings are a tradition and are not wrong."
Then there are the Egyptian courts. "In Lebanon and Jordan, they have articles in law that specifically refer to 'honour' killings. But in Egypt, the judge believes he has a special authority and Article 17 of the law allows judges to use clemency if they wish to reduce sentences – from 25 years, for example, to six months. The religious and traditional background of the judges affects them. They can say that the victim 'acted against tradition'. The murderers – the father or the brother – can therefore be considered as someone who 'acted naturally'. This provides leniency for the perpetrators. Yet our statistics suggest that 79 per cent of the girls who have been victims of 'honour' crimes here were killed out of pure suspicion – because they came home late, or because neighbours said they had seen a girl laughing loudly in the street."
In Sohag and Assiut (in upper Egypt), Azza Suleiman and her colleagues met senior police officers. "But we found that in their books, they transfer 'honour' killings into suicides. They think that by doing this, they are helping the victim's family – even though the family was responsible for the murder. So in these cases, the police have become accomplices of the killers."
Ms Suleiman is no friend of the police. "Sometimes we have three or four cases of incest and we meet with the police. We get the police to talk to the man – sometimes a woman is raped by her brother-in-law. But if a woman runs away, the police often bring the woman back to her family rather than protect her. "When I studied law at Cairo University, I was arrested by the police because I was a friend of activists in the Nasserist network at the university. When I interviewed Islamist women who had been detained, I found they had been tortured. I said this in an interview on the BBC. So the police arrested me again. They said I was 'tarnishing the reputation of Egypt'. The police here are always angry – especially when they have to deal with people who understand the law."
According to Azza Suleiman, foreign NGOs are refused projects if they make politically unacceptable remarks. She says the police have interfered with her social projects, even those intended to improve relations between Christian and Muslim women. "The police rang me and said: 'We will teach you a lesson.' So I said in a newspaper interview: 'The police are like wild dogs.' That's when they stopped our projects. The police asked me to apologise, so I did. I said: "What I said was a mistake – dogs are much nicer than the police."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies