When women’s sexuality becomes a social and political issue

Palestine Monitor
21 May 2009
The family constitutes the fundamental building-block of Palestinian society. Family status is largely dependent upon its honor. Much of the “honor” is determined by the respectability of the women in the family. “Honor killings” can be defined as the execution of a female family member for perceived misuse of her sexuality, is a thorny social, juridicial and political issue.

The family constitutes the fundamental building-block of Palestinian society. Family status is largely dependent upon its honor. Much of the “honor” is determined by the respectability of the women in the family. “Honor killings” can be defined as the execution of a female family member for perceived misuse of her sexuality, is a thorny social, juridicial and political issue.

On Monday, May 18th, the Palestinian police arrested a 24 years old who killed his aunt whose body was found in Ramallah six days ago. The police said that the suspect confessed and said that he killed her for reasons related to “family honor”.

Even if a growing number of Palestinians find “honor killings” unacceptable, the practice continues and no official statistics are available yet on this topic. T.Issa, a lawyer working for International Solidarity Initiative, refuses to use the term “honor killings” that he believes is not an appropriate term to describe this old phenomenon that can be better described by the term “traditional killings”.

Honor killings emerged in the pre-Islamic era and can be described as an anthropologic phenomena which is originated in a patriarchal and patrilineal society, where women of each tribe were considered as a “man’s factory”. The clan only ruled on their society based on their reproductive power. The “honor code” prevents women from having sexual freedom or the right to express their sexuality the way they want.

The main reasons for these killings are most commonly the sexual relations outside of marriage, or for young women not yet married. But the refusal for an arranged marriage or divorce without family consensus can also be reasons for a family death sentence. These crimes are supported not only by the man of the clan but also from the women.

In western minds these crimes are commonly identified as remnants of Islamic culture, but these crimes in Palestine are not exclusively in the Muslim population. In the smaller Christian community, for example, the intention of Christian women to marry a non-Christian can be punished with death.

However, even economic reasons can be the cause of a sister-killing if at the death of the family chief the members of the clan do not want to divide the inheritance with another clan (that is one of the main reasons for marriage inside of the same family).

Strictly following Shari`a (*), the necessary conditions to inflict this punishment are very difficult; but not even Shari`a is ruling on the “honor killings”. A few weeks ago, 15 years old was killed in Gaza by her brother because he suspected her to be pregnant. The autopsy revealed, instead, a severe stomach problem.

In Bethlehem, 17 years old disappeared for 4 days from her house and when she came back home her father butchered her. However, the autopsy revealed she was still virgin. Nobody knows what really happened to her in those 4 days, it is possible that the girl could have been arrested at a cheek point or detained for some other reason.

In most cases all happened inside the domestic walls: there are cases of brothers raping sisters then killing them once they become pregnant, with the family agreement. Those males that took part in the “shameful act” are never punished despite Islamic Law stating he should be.

The lawyer of International Solidarity Initiative knows many of those stories and the number is supposed to be even larger, but most of them because of many factors.

First of all, the family clan is very powerful in Palestine and they protect the murderer. Most of the killings are simply registered as suicide, or even as a natural death with partnership of the family doctor. During the trial none of the murders or others members of the family clan seemed to regret their actions.

But even when it’s clearly a murder case, the police are not interested enough and do not always have the power for doing something about it. From this point of view, the Occupation seems to play an important role in the issue.

Because of the unbelievable jeopardization of security in the West Bank between Israeli and Palestinian forces, the Palestinian police have no freedom of movement between cities or within the same city. It is common for people who committed a crime in area H1 of Hebron that is under the Palestinian Authority, to escape to H2 area which is under Israeli control.

The Israeli police is neither interested nor responsible for crimes committed in Palestinian areas, but the Palestinian Police is not allowed to enter or arrest a criminal in Palestinian areas under control of the occupying power.

If murder took place in Ramallah, but the body was found in Bethlehem, the Palestinian police must wait for Israeli Army permission to go from one place to another, and the permission is not assured all the time. The same process takes place in Court if it needs a transfer of suspect from once city to another.

Obviously, during this “waltz” of responsibility and competences, murderers and their partners have all the time to escape or to change the story….

According to T.Issa, the Israeli Army is not interested in obstructing the clans to improve the legal process in the Occupied Territories. Panic is a better ground from which to take advantages, and chaos may be politically convenient. For all these reasons the Palestinian police try to simply avoid investigations.

Once those obstacles have been removed, there is still the problem of the Judicial System. The Legislation in use comes from Jordanian Law from the 1930s. In case of “honor killing”, the punishment is a jail sentence from 3 months to 30 months. The punishment is lower than a simple murder thanks to the “Law of Excuse” (approved during the British mandate in the 1930s). According to this law, having seen married- women with a man outside of her family members is considered an excuse for murder and the punishment will be only 3 months. If the murder is committed under the impetus of anger, it is not even necessary to prove that the anger was “well-founded”.

If the entire legal, security and environmental system is not helping women in legitimizing the empowerment and the exclusive ownership of their sexuality, the actual situation is not even close to justly protecting women’s life.

The political system seems to be far from having any problem with the issue of “honor killings”. Sometimes, the same PNA is not connected enough with Palestinian society to understand the urgency of this problem. Nary has a politician said a word in defense for all the young women that have been sentenced of death by brothers, fathers or uncles.

Legally, the only hope for these women is the new generation of female judges, who, in a few years will be allowed to be part of the High Court of Appeal or the High Judicial Council where those crimes are judged. However, the main problem is that a change inside society itself is needed; the roots of the problem can be found in the relationships between family members and the role of the female members inside their families and society as a whole.

(*) A relationship outside of the wedlock maybe punished with 100 lashes if the woman is single or death by stoning if married, but in both cases there must be 4 witnesses willing to testify that the sexual act took place.

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