“We want to send a strong message to the people that killing women in the name of family honor will no longer be tolerated by our court,” said Judge Mohammad Tarawneh of the Court of Cassation following a landmark ruling on honor killings on March 21.  

© 2011 Human Rights Watch

The ruling doubled the sentences for two brothers who killed their sister with poison after she fell in love and fled her home--from 7.5 years’ imprisonment to 15 for one and from 10 years’ imprisonment to 20 for the other.  

The ruling followed a fatwa in December from the Iftaa department, which issues religious edicts, declaring for the first time that “honor” killings are contrary to Sharia law. The fatwa said that such killings are one of society’s most heinous crimes.

Every year, 15 to 20 women and girls in Jordan are burned, beaten, or stabbed to death by family members because they are seen as having transgressed social codes of “honor.” An increase in such killings in 2016 may have prompted the authorities to finally take action.

“Honor” killings have often been treated more leniently than other types of murders. Article 340 of the Penal Code allows a reduction in the penalty when a man kills or attacks his wife or any of his female relatives in the alleged act of committing adultery or in an “unlawful bed.” Many cases do not meet such criteria.

But, the penalty can still be reduced under article 98 of the penal code where the perpetrator commits the crime in a “state of great fury [or ‘fit of fury’] resulting from an unlawful and dangerous act on the part of the victim.” Under article 97, when a court applies the “fit of fury” defense for premeditated murder, the penalty can be as little as one year.

Courts also often reduce sentences because victims’ families request leniency. This is usually the case as members of the victim’s family are often complicit in “honor killings.” Under article 99, the killer’s sentence can be cut in half in these cases.

Judge Tarawneh told Jordan Times that the ruling “will set a precedent and will become the rule in line of which other verdicts in similar circumstances will be handled in the future.” However, while sentences of five years or more automatically go to a higher court for review, cases with sentences of less than five years will reach the higher court only if the prosecution files an appeal.

In a hugely important move for fighting impunity for “honor” killings, these loopholes may disappear if the Jordanian Parliament adopts proposed revisions to the Penal Code. On March 15, the cabinet adopted reforms  by the Royal Committee for Developing the Judiciary and Enhancing the Rule of Law to, among other actions, repeal article 340 of the Penal Code, and prohibit the “fit of fury” defense under article 98 in relation to crimes committed against females to preserve “honor.” Parliament should go further and prohibit reduced penalties in cases related to “honor” killings regardless of whether the victim’s family calls for leniency.

But penal code reforms are only one way to tackle gender-based violence. The authorities should also adopt a comprehensive national strategy to prevent such violence, protect those at risk, and prosecute anyone involved in “honor” violence. Jordanian authorities should work with activists, local women’s rights organizations, religious and community leaders, police officials, social workers, teachers, and health workers to protect potential victims, and to help combat discriminatory attitudes.

The authorities should set up a national system to track and report on how many of these murders are committed, as called for by the Sisterhood in Global Institute (SIGI) in Jordan. The data should include the cause, the relationship between the attacker and the victim, whether a complaint was filed, and the sentences handed down against the killer and any accomplices.

Jordanian authorities should protect -- not punish -- those at risk of “honor” violence. Currently, they place women and girls at risk of “honor” killings in protective custody, but this often means being locked up in prison. Local activists report that these women can end up spending years incarcerated without charge. And in some cases, family members pledge not to harm them, only to kill them afterward. In December, the Jordanian authorities announced that they would open a shelter to house victims at risk of “honor” violence, but have yet to do so.

Government, community, and religious leaders should also tackle the deep-rooted discrimination that reinforces the concept that female “moral” behavior is paramount for upholding the “honor” of their families and communities -- and the expectation of male family members to prevent and purge any transgressions of “honor” through violence.

It is possible to put an end to “honor” killings of women and girls. The Jordanian authorities should follow through on penal code reforms, provide victim-centered protection including shelter for those at risk, and combat harmful norms and gender discrimination that drive such violence through education and public-awareness. The lives of Jordanian women and girls are on the line.