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In 2003, a man fatally stabbed his daughter twenty-five times because she refused to tell him where she had been following a three-week absence. In 2002, a man killed his sister after seeing her “talking to a strange man during a wedding party.” In 2001, a man killed his sister “after seeing a man leave her house.” In none of these cases, nor dozens more such “honor” killings in Jordan in recent years, did the perpetrators serve more than six months in prison. Unfortunately, neither the violent killings nor the weak response to these crimes are exceptional.

In Jordan today, as in many other countries in the Mediterranean and Muslim worlds, “honor” killings of girls and women by their male relatives remain among the most prevalent physical threats to women. It is the most extreme form of domestic violence, a crime based in male privilege and prerogative and women’s subordinate social status. Although the absolute number of murders is not high (though the numbers are very likely underreported), the effects are felt throughout society. “Honor” killings are the most tragic consequence and graphic illustration of deeply embedded, society-wide gender discrimination.

In Jordan, a woman’s life is at risk if she engages in “immoral or shameful” acts, such as talking with a man not her husband or a blood relative (even in a public place), or refusing to tell a close male relative where she has been and with whom, or marrying someone of whom her family does not approve: in short for doing or being imputed to have done anything that, in traditional terms, is perceived to bring sexual dishonor on herself and therefore on her family. Male relatives may beat, shoot, stab, or otherwise physically harm an accused woman, with the approval of both her family members and large sections of the general population. Police rarely investigate “honor” killings, seldom take any initiative to deter these crimes, and typically treat the killers as vindicated men. The police also routinely force threatened women to undergo painful and humiliating virginity examinations at the request of their families in order to determine whether their hymens are intact.

Many women who are threatened by family members end up imprisoned for their own safety. The perverse reality is that while many perpetrators of “honor” crimes walk free, many would-be victims end up incarcerated. Human Rights Watch spoke to women who had spent as many as ten years in prison; some were planning to remain in prison until the family members who threatened them died or left the country.

There is no law in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan granting a man the right to kill a female relative whom he believes has dishonored the family. However, “honor” killings in Jordan rarely carry a sentence of more than one year of imprisonment. Under article 98 of the penal code, this can be reduced to six months if the victim’s family waives charges against the perpetrator. Indeed, it is common for killers, having freely admitted their crime and served six or more months awaiting trial, to leave the courtroom as free men immediately after being found guilty. While there is some evidence of greater sensitivity in recent years, the courts still routinely accept a killer’s excuse that he acted out of “fury” and diminished capacity—even when the murder occurs weeks after the alleged offensive act—and are willing to consider the slightest gestures of female autonomy as provocations tainting family honor.

Jordanian women’s rights activists have tried to reform laws that protect family members who commit “honor” killings. However, the lower house of Parliament has blocked these efforts, along with other legislative proposals that would begin to equalize women’s status under Jordanian law. At the same time, Jordan’s obligations under international human rights law require that women be treated equally under the law and that women’s physical integrity be protected.

Human Rights Watch visited Jordan in July 2003 and interviewed women under threat of death from their relatives—all were incarcerated in Amman’s Jweideh Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre, the only refuge available to them—as well as government officials, human rights activists, police officers, judges, and Islamist political figures. We found that although elements of the Jordanian government and the royal family have supported reform, “honor” crimes in Jordan remain unresolved and require urgent action. Already as of March 2004, four women have reportedly been killed in Jordan for reasons of family “honor.”

This report first describes the social context in which “honor” crimes take place, including the second-class status accorded to girls and women in law and custom, systematic underreporting of domestic violence, the lack of shelters or other places of refuge for women who have been threatened, and the deference often accorded men who admit to killing their female relatives. The report then presents four case studies of women under threat from male family members, demonstrating the destructive, paralyzing effect of Jordan’s continued weak responses to “honor” crimes on women’s lives. After a close look at relevant legal provisions, the report concludes with detailed recommendations.

Accountability for perpetrators and protection for women and girls under threat should be immediate priorities for Jordanian officials. Genuine accountability requires that the Jordanian government amend or repeal provisions of the criminal law that have allowed “honor” killers to avoid serious punishment and actively combat continuing discrimination in the prevention, investigation, and prosecution of “honor” crimes and attacks. Those who commit, endorse, or tolerate “honor” crimes and other violence against women or girls should be appropriately penalized by the country’s judicial authorities. Victims of “honor” crimes and those who are at risk of such violence and their dependent children should be provided with adequate shelter. These women should not be forced into “protective custody” and should be explicitly permitted to reside in shelters established for victims of domestic violence. Because much of the discrimination that underlies “honor” killings and the weak government response is deeply engrained within society, an effective response will also include targeted training of police and judges and aggressive public information campaigns.

index  |  next>>April 2004