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Jordan’s legal system is a fusion of Islamic and tribal laws, European codes, and to a lesser extent, international law, reflecting the country’s diverse historical influences.1 Although women are nominally granted equality under Jordan’s constitution, some laws directly violate this guarantee by denying women full legal competence. Multiple provisions in the penal, civil, and family law codes subject Jordanian women to an inferior standing before the law despite the existence of these constitutional guarantees. The existence of these discriminatory laws increases Jordanian women's risk for violence.

Women’s Status and Violence against Women

There are three basic sources of discrimination against women in Jordan: dependency and restrictions based in tradition and custom, conservative interpretations of Islamic law sanctioning women’s inferior standing before the law, and various provisions in the secular law reinforcing women’s low social status and inequality. Among traditional restrictions is the widespread requirement that a woman marry only with the approval of a male guardian.2 Due to custom, though no law requires it, the Civil Registry records only men as heads of household; even if a deceased man is survived by his wife, the registry considers his son the household’s new head.3

According to a leading Jordanian interpretation, Islamic law, shari’a, forbids an unrelated man and woman to be alone together in a closed room.4Shari’a also defines extra-marital sex or adultery (collectively known as zina) as a crime punishable by 100 “medium” lashes for unmarried women or men and stoning for married offenders.5 But, as many Jordanians pointed out to Human Rights Watch, the Qu’ran decries the beating of women by men, including wives by their husbands. The persistent myth in Jordan surrounding domestic violence in general, and “honor” killing in particular, however, is that if a woman is sexually tainted—even if her sexual activity or rape is only suspected or rumored—this humiliation extends to the family and is grounds for her relatives to kill her without violating the Islamic prohibition against taking a life.

In secular law, too, the low status of women is reflected and reinforced, with negative implications for a woman’s physical safety in the home and her ability to seek redress. For example, under the Personal Status Law, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man in court.6 A woman suspected of sexual indiscretion—but not a man—is subject to interrogation and examination regarding her chastity.A woman does not have secure custody of children born out of wedlock: these children are considered a product of a “crime” and are placed in government care until their lineage is established.7 A divorced woman loses custody of her legitimate children if she marries a man who is not related to the children.8 Men married to foreigners can pass on their Jordanian nationality to their children, while Jordanian women married to foreigners cannot.9 Many more such distinctions and inequalities exist. Even when the rights of women or the treatment due them are not explicitly differentiated, the law is often applied more harshly to them than to men when customary attitudes about female sexual conduct and family honor are at stake.

Women’s second-class status, in Jordan as in many other countries, puts them at risk for domestic violence.10 Studies by Jordanian sociologists and social-work professionals make clear that, contrary to myths still widely believed throughout the country, domestic violence cuts across socio-economic lines. Women in abusive relationships seek help from hotlines when available, and many would leave home if they could, but are frightened of reprisals and have no safe place to go.11

“Honor” killing is the most extreme form of domestic violence.12 Murder to “cleanse family honor” is a variant of crimes committed against women, with impunity, in many parts of the world.13 A family’s honor is seen as being dependent on the sexual conformity of its female family members. In part this means the virginity of its unmarried female members and the chastity of its married ones. In this case, it is the family as a whole, rather than an individual husband or partner, which perceives itself as injured. Often, the perpetrators and their supportive neighbors conflate the cleansing of family honor with a supposed duty under religious law.

In 2003, seventeen women were reportedly killed in Jordan in the name of “family honor.”14 As of March 4, 2004 four more women had already been murdered in Jordan by male family members. The fourth woman to die this year, a married mother of two, was shot to death by her older brother who thought she was having an affair.15 The third woman to die this year was seven-months pregnant. She was allegedly shot five times by her brother because of her “illegitimate pregnancy.”16

Violence against women, including “honor” crimes, is a matter of concern to the royal family of Jordan, which has suggested that raising the status of women is key to ending such violence as well as to economic development.17 The late King Hussein urged Jordanians at the opening of the 13th Parliament in 1998 to shun inhumane practices that deprive women of their basic human rights.18 King Abdullah II has not officially declared himself opposed to “honor” crimes or to the legal provisions that support them, but rather has instructed his government to “pursue [examine] laws that discriminate against women.”19 The king has also said when asked about “honor” crimes that “there needs to be more public awareness, more dialogue to reach to the grassroots, clarify the issue, and change mindsets and misconceptions regarding women while encouraging their full participation in public life as equal and valuable partners.”20 Female members of the royal family have been more outspoken on this issue.21 Despite these calls, progress in reforming discriminatory laws has been stalled.

The Lack of Reliable Statistics

Compiling reliable statistics on violence against women in Jordan generally is difficult, because of the “private,” protected nature of the abuse. As one Jordanian women’s group reported in 1999:

A serious constraint to documenting the nature and extent to which women are victims of violence is the absence of data and information on the size of the problem. This data gap is due to the sensitivity of the issue and under-reporting, linked to the fact that most of these cases fall under domestic violence.22

Jordan has one of the world’s lowest rates of female homicide. However, a 1998 United Nations study of official figures from the mid-1990s showed that, at that time, murder was the most frequent crime against women and that “honor” crimes (including murder, attempted murder, and “accidental murder”) accounted for the largest category – 55 percent – of all homicides of women.23 The study found that violence against women was not restricted to any one social class, and that women were generally reluctant to report violence especially if perpetrated by a member of the family, in part due to threats of reprisal, in part because “routine legal procedures…are felt to be embarrassing to women victims,” and in part due to women’s “belief in the futility of reporting to the police.”24

As serious as this problem appears from the official statistics used by the United Nations, the actual situation is more acute. Exact, reliable numbers are not available because—as the head of the nation’s Public Security Directorate, which oversees the police, acknowledged freely to Human Rights Watch—crimes against women are under-counted in official statistics.25 Undoubtedly there are more “honor” killings than the average of fifteen per year that the government has recorded since 1999.26 However, it is difficult to assess how many more, and therefore not possible to determine what proportion of all killings of women in Jordan are related to family “honor.”

The Ministry of Interior’s official statistics on murders and “honor” killings as recorded by its Criminal Information Department range from six “honor” killings (of a total 93 murders of men and women) in 1998, to thirteen (of a total of 84) in 2001, to fifteen (of a total 125) in 2002.27 The Jordan Times, the newspaper that has tracked “honor” crimes most assiduously, has consistently reported higher numbers than the government—for example, nineteen in 2001 and twenty-two in 2002. The difference is partially due to the newspaper including supposed accidents, suicides with suspicious features, and cases in which the perpetrators originally admit to “honor” killing but later change their stories at trial. Prosecutor General Sabr Yassin Rawashdeh, who reviews all murder trials for error prior to appeal, agrees that some “honor” killers camouflage their crimes as accidents or suicides. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, he added that police investigations into the killings may be too superficial to uncover the truth. The police sometimes investigate cases of theft more seriously than “honor” killings: “[The policeman] looks for security cases rather than social crimes.”28

But the magnitude of the problem is not expressed by murder statistics alone. Victims of “honor” crimes also include women—as many as forty at a given time and sometimes far more according to some sources—who are incarcerated for their own protection.29

The following examples illustrate how “honor” crimes permeate the society, potentially affecting all women—rural and poor, professionals, and the well-connected:

  • The current minister of state and the official spokesperson for the government, Asma Khader, knows an accomplished woman in her late twenties who held back from marrying despite many suitors. The woman once explained why she had remained single: an uncle had sexually abused her when she was eight-years-old and she therefore was not a virgin and could not marry without risking reprisals from her husband and family. It was suggested to her that she could have her hymen repaired, through a simple surgical procedure that is not quite legal but not uncommon. In the course of the pre-surgical examination, it was discovered that her hymen was intact. She was a “virgin,” so felt free (that is, safe) to marry, and in fact did so.30
  • The nation’s chief medical examiner, Mu’men S. Hadidi, a few days before an interview with Human Rights Watch, had received for autopsy the body of a young woman whose family he knew. The family, he was aware, had been pressing her to marry a man she did not want. When she ran away with her boyfriend, her relatives found and killed her.31

The coordinator of the government’s Family Protection Unit,32who is also a colonel in the police, told Human Rights Watch that he wanted to see changes and reforms for the benefit of his own daughters.33 Other officials, however, have tended to minimize the problem. The secretary-general of the Islamic Action Front party, Abdul Latif Arabiyat, a former speaker of the Parliament, said, “people kill women in the street every night in the United States more than in one year in Jordan.”34 General Tahseen H. Shurdom of the Public Security Directorate considered that “only” fifteen killings per year, in a country of five million, were “negligible in the context of a country of the size and complexity of Jordan.”35

The Jordan Times reported in December 2002 that an unnamed nineteen-year-old woman,after being held in prison for alleged immoral behavior, was bailed out on her uncle’s promise not to harm her. Her brother killed her as soon as she arrived home, and relatives were quoted as thanking God theywere “rid of her.”36Similarly, in August 2003, The Jordan Times reported the case of a sixteen-year-old girl from an Amman suburbwho, released from administrative detention on her father’s promise that she would not be harmed, was murdered by her brother just minutes after returning to the family’s house.37

Sophisticated police work and crime-solving expertise are rarely required to solve an “honor” crime. As a counselor at a women’s center told Human Rights Watch, “[The murder] is not an individual decision. It’s the decision of the whole family. [The killer] feels supported.”38 The killing is meant to be a public statement, and in many cases, perpetrators freely confess. They may even act within earshot of the police, as in a case reported to Human Rights Watch by the Jordanian Women’s Union (JWU), an independent grassroots organization: in December 2001, police in Amman found a thirty-six-year-old woman who had previously come to the JWU for help; the officers took her home, after her father’s promise not to harm her; he shot her while the police were still downstairs.39

Occasionally, an “honor” killer attempts to deny responsibility. Relatives may contrive to place the murder weapon in the hands of a minor, sometimes a child as young as eleven or twelve, who is not subject to criminal punishment.40 Jordan’s prosecutor general, Sabr Yassin Rawashdeh, described a 2003 case in which, after a girl’s murder, her fourteen-year-old younger brother “confessed.” The police and the court accepted the confession, though other evidence indicated that the victim’s elder brother had actually committed the murder. The child received the minimum sentence: rehabilitation in a juvenile facility for three-and-a-half years. “When I reviewed the case, I said he didn’t do it, but it could not be appealed; it was a question of fact, not law.”41

Or, as Rawashdeh explained, the killer may attempt to make the killing appear to be an accident or suicide. He recounted the 2003case of a girl from southern Jordan who had pre-marital sex, became pregnant, and with her lover’s help secretly had an abortion. At home afterward, she became ill, and her family took her to a doctor who, not knowing she was unmarried, told her family she had been pregnant. On the way home from the hospital, the family’s car—with only the daughter inside it—went over a cliff into a valley. Her relatives reported her death as an accident, and the police and courts believed them, but prosecutor Rawashdeh did not.42

Insufficient Responses to Threats made by Relatives

There is usually a period before the actual killing when the woman’s male relatives threaten her life verbally. Counselors at women’s hotlines, journalists, and women’s rights activists all speak of this circumstance as typical. Human Rights Watch interviewed four women in protective custody who had sought refuge after being threatened. According to Director General of Public Security Tahseen Shurdom, such threats are illegal and a male relative who utters such threats is subject to prosecution. “If the woman tells us [of the threats], we will do something,” he told Human Rights Watch.43 Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm any instance in which a male relative had been prosecuted or even detained for threatening to kill a woman in his household over family honor. Rather, women’s rights activists attest that police ask an angry family, at most, to promise not to harm the woman if she is left with them; as is evident from the cases summarized above, such promises may be worthless.

There is a certain sense of inevitability in the attitudes of some officials to the problem. For example, Judge Mohammed Al-Ghazoo told Human Rights Watch, “They [the police] cannot arrest a man because of his intentions.”44 However, it is not intentions that are at issue, but credible threats of physical injury, which is criminal conduct in any jurisdiction. The Director General of Public Security, when asked his opinion on the deterrent value of arresting a threatening male relative, said, “Even if he is imprisoned for threatening her, he will still do it [kill her] when he gets out.”45

There are no safe havens for women threatened by their relatives. Women’s groups do not have the resources to offer adequate refuge outside the home for the number of women who face domestic violence. The government, despite years of promises, has yet to create a shelter. In short, most women under threat from their relatives cannot escape danger. Those who are removed from the home for their own protection are placed in prison, and may remain there for punitively long periods. Human Rights Watch is aware of one women who has remained in prison for her own protection for ten years, and several whose detention has lasted five or six years.

1 Amira El-Azhary Sonbol, Women of Jordan: Islam, Labor, and the Law (New York: Syracuse University Press 2003), p. 38, 51.

2 Ibid., p. 19.

3 Reem M. Abuhassan, “Violence Against Women in Jordan,” private paper on file with Human Rights Watch. The author is program coordinator for the Family Empowerment Program of the government-endorsed National Council for Family Affairs. Her research is based on police and other data from the late 1990s.

4 Yusuf Qardawi, The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam, trans. Hammad, (American Trust Publications) p.150, quoted in Ghazi bin Muhammad, “The Tribes of Jordan,” a 1999 monograph provided by the Jordanian Embassy (copy on file at Human Rights Watch). The author is a member of the Jordanian royal family.

5 Fadia Faqir, “Intrafamily Femicide in Defense of Honour: The Case of Jordan,” Third World Quarterly, vol.22, no.1, (2001), p.74.

6 Personal Status Law, article 132.

7 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Reem M. Abuhassan, child specialist, Amman, January 24, 2004.

8 Ibid.

9 Human Rights Watch interview with Minister of Justice Farisi Nabulsi, Amman, July 16, 2003. The minister of justice insisted to Human Rights Watch that this provision did not discriminate against women, but rather was a “demographic measure” to address the problem of the large Palestinian population. If this is the purpose of the law, the policy is discriminatory on the basis both of gender and of national origin.

10 See Taqrir Wadih al-Mar’a al-Urduniyya: al-Dhimughrafiyya, al-Musharaka al-Iqtisadiyya, al-Musharaka al-Siyasiyya, wa al-`Unf dhidh al-Mar’a [Status of Jordanian Women: Demography, Economic Participation, Political Participation and Violence against Women] prepared by UNIFEM in cooperation with the Department of Statistics and the Jordanian National Commission for Women. Chapter 4 on Violence against Women includes statistics on the prevalence of gender-based violence in Jordan based on studies carried out by the Family Protection Unit. The report was released on March 14, 2004.

11 See, for example, Reem M. Abuhassan, “Violence Against Women in Jordan,” private paper on file with Human Rights Watch. The author is program coordinator for the Family Empowerment Program of the government-endorsed National Council for Family Affairs. Her research is based on police and other data from the late 1990s.

12 The former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, examined “honor” crimes in 2002 in her report on Cultural Practices in the Family that are Violent towards Women. According to the Special Rapporteur, “By controlling women’s sexuality and reproduction, they become the custodians of cultural and ethnic purity...The woman’s body is considered to be the ‘repository of family honour.’ Alarmingly, the number of honour killings is on the rise as the perception of what constitutes honour and what damages it widens.” See “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, submitted in accordance with in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 2001/49,” (Fifty-eighth session), U.N Document E/CN.4/2002/83, January 31, 2002.

13 In the late 1990s, “honor” killings accounted for more than two-thirds of all homicides reported among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. In 1997, “roughly four hundred women were killed for honor in Yemen. In 1999, over a thousand Pakistani women were killed for this cause.” Iraq and Iran do not keep relevant statistics, though “honor” killings are thought to be frequent in those countries. See Matthew A.Goldstein, ”The Biological Roots of Heat of Passion Crimes and Honor Killings,” Politics and the Life Sciences, September 2002, available at (retrieved April 5, 2004)

14 Rana Husseini, “Brother Confesses to Shooting His Divorced Sister,” The Jordan Times, March 4, 2004.

15 “Jordanian charged with killing sister in “honor crime,” Agence France-Presse, March 19, 2004.

16 Ibid.

17 The UNDP Human Development Report 2000 noted “gender empowerment measure values are lowest in Egypt, Jordan and Niger.”See Francesca Ciriaci, “Jordan in lower half of UNDP's human development scale,” The Jordan Times, June 30 - July 1, 2000. In her keynote speech at the launch of the report, Queen Rania said, “While our progress in the fields of human development is reflected in the report, it does not exempt us from our responsibility to generate more effort in this regard, especially in areas relating to the rights of women and their roles in development.” Available at (retrieved March 17, 2004).

18 Rana Husseini, “New Penal Code to be Tougher on Crimes against Women, Children – Justice Minister,” The Jordan Times, February 18, 1998.

19 Stefanie Eileen Nanes, “Fighting Honor Crimes: Evidence of Civil Society in Jordan,” Middle East Journal, vol. 57, no.1 (Winter 2003), p. 4.

20 Interview with HM King Abdullah with Svenska Dagbladet Newspaper on October 6, 2003. Available at (retrieved April 5, 2004). The king’s younger brother, Prince Ali, and cousin, Prince Ghazi, led a demonstration calling for harsher punishment for "honor" killers and the repeal of article 340. See “Jordan: The Battle to Punish Honor Crimes Continues,” WIN News, Spring, 2000. Available at (retrieved April 5, 2004).

21 Queen Rania spoke out against “honor” killings on French television in November 1999, and the Jordanian National Commission for Women, headed by Princess Basma, was the first government-appointed body to recommend the cancellation of article 340 of the penal code.

22 Princess Basma Women's Resource Centre, “Jordanian Women Past & Present: October 1999, A Reference Booklet,” available online at (retrieved March 17, 2004).

23 Nasser, Belbeisi and Atiyat, UNIFEM/WHO, “Violence Against Women in Jordan: Demographic Characteristics of Victims and Perpetrators,” December 1998, p. 18. The study broke down types and proportions of violence nationwide and analyzed three years, 1995-97.

24 Ibid. p. 14.

25 Human Rights Watch interview with Tahseen H. Shurdom, director general, Public Security, Amman, July 16, 2003.

26 Human Rights Watch was told that seventeen women were killed in 1999, thirteen in 2000; thirteen in 2001, and fifteen in 2002. Human Rights Watch interview with Fadel Al-Humoud, coordinator, Family Protection Unit, Directorate of Public Security, Amman, July 14, 2003; see also Report of Criminal Information Department (in Arabic) on file with Human Rights Watch.

27 Human Rights Watch interview with Colonel Fadel Al-Humoud, coordinator, Family Protection Unit, Directorate of Public Security, Amman, July 14, 2003.

28 Human Rights Watch interview with Sabr Yassin Rawashdeh, prosecutor general, Amman, July 15, 2003. Journalist Lima Nabeel told Human Rights Watch of a death recorded as a suicide which she believed was likely a murder. The deceased’s sister said her father and brother had poisoned the deceased but the police refused to reopen the investigation. Human Rights Watch interview with Lima Nabeel, journalist, Amman, July 13, 2003.

29 Rana Husseini, “Crimes of Honor,” Al-Raida, vol. 17, no. 89 (Spring 2000), p. 21. These women are held in "protective custody" in the Jweideh Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre in Amman, the only female prison in the country. Although they are housed in a separate section of the prison, these women take their meals and participate in vocational training with the other prison inmates.

30 Human Rights Watch interview with Asma Khader, attorney and human rights activist, Amman, July 11, 2003. In October 2003, Asma Khader became minister of state and government spokesperson.

31 Human Rights Watch interview with Mu’men S. Hadidi, chief medical examiner, Amman, July 15, 2003. For further information on the ways in which virginity exams violate women’s’ human rights, see Human Rights Watch, A Matter of Power: State Control of Women's Virginity in Turkey (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1994).

32 The mandate of the Family Protection Unit is the protection of women and children from domestic violence. Unfortunately, this unit does not deal with “honor” crimes.

33 Human Rights Watch interview with Colonel Fadel Al-Humoud, coordinator, Family Protection Unit, Directorate of Public Security, Amman, July 14, 2003.

34 Human Rights Watch interview with Abdul Latif Arabiyat, secretary-general, Islamic Action Front party, Amman, July 13, 2003.

35 Human Rights Watch interview with General Tahseen H. Shurdom, director general, Public Security Directorate, Amman, July 16, 2003.

36 “In Jordan: Two men arrested in ‘honor’ killings” Al-Bawaba, December 19, 2002. Available at (retrieved April 5, 2004).

37 The article noted that, according to the autopsy, her hymen was intact. Rana Husseini, “Brother kills sister in 7th honour crime of the year,” The Jordan Times, August 7, 2003.

38 Human Rights Watch interview with Inam Asha, counselor, Effat Al-Hindi Center for Counseling and Legal Services, Amman, July 12, 2003.

39 The father was jailed for one month. Human Rights Watch interview with Nadia Shamroukh, vice president, Jordanian Women’s Union, Amman, July 13, 2003.

40 Human Rights Watch interview with Rana Husseini, journalist, Amman, July 12, 2003.

41 Human Rights Watch interview with Sabr Yassin Rawashdeh, prosecutor general, Amman, July 15, 2003.

42 The forensic doctor who conducted the autopsy noted that the dead woman had had a recent early birth or abortion. When he learned there was no husband, he concluded it had been an abortion. The abortion doctor was located, prosecuted, and convicted for the illegal procedure. The police never pursued the logic, however, which was clear to the general prosecutor that if she had had an abortion, the woman had probably been murdered by her family.

43 Human Rights Watch interview with General Tahseen H. Shurdom, director general, Public Security Directorate, Amman, July 16, 2003.

44 Human Rights Watch interview with Judge Mohammed al-Ghazoo, Amman, July 16, 2003.

45 Human Rights Watch interview with General Tahseen H. Shurdom, director general, Public Security Directorate, Amman, July 16, 2003. Human Rights Watch suggested to him that arresting and detaining such a man might change the culture of impunity that exists in Jordan. His response was, “[Jordan] is freer than all of its neighbors,” and “We have big responsibilities. We can’t look at just fifteen crimes.”

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