States Fuel ‘honour killings’

January 31, 2008

By Abderrahim El Ouali

CASABLANCA, Jan 31 (IPS) - State-directed violence, the refusal to give up the death penalty and the holding of public executions are some of the principal factors that are supporting the continuing resort to the age-old practice of 'honour killings', murder to cleanse a family name of shame.

"The culture of violence in settling international and nation problems is fuelling these crimes," Bassam al-Kadi, supervisor of the Syrian Women's Observatory, SWO, a non-governmental organisation campaigning against 'honour killings' throughout the Middle East, told IPS.

"The active use of the death penalty against criminals and its retention on the statute books serve to confirm in the minds of some that they may also use this ultimate sanction to rescue a family's honour. Public executions, in particular, give an almost official stamp of approval to such acts of violence."

In December 2007, most of the Arab and Muslim world opposed the U.N. General Assembly's call for a moratorium on executions and the eventual worldwide abolition of the death penalty. The moratorium resolution still passed by 104 votes to 54. There were 29 abstentions.

Public executions before crowds of invited onlookers are still being carried out in at least two of the most orthodox Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Saudi Arabia often carries out its beheadings in public with swordsmen wielding their weapons.

In Iran, where most of the executions are by hanging, public executions have been frequent. In the most recent of these some days ago, two alleged serial killers and rapists were hanged from cranes before crowds gathered in the central Iran city of Arak. State television broadcast pictures of the event.

On Jan. 30, Iran issued a decree that all public executions must in future be approved by the head of its judiciary. It also banned any future publishing of pictures of state-ordered killings. These have so far numbered 28 this year.

This directive is likely to reduce the number of public executions in the country.

But a similar judicial order in 2002 imposing a moratorium on public stoning has not been fully observed. Ja'far Kiani was stoned to death for adultery in the Qazvin province in July 2007, according to Amnesty International.

Amnesty recently demanded an end to this "grotesque and horrific" form of punishment. It also called for an end to the death sentence "for consensual sexual acts."

'Honour killings' are also often carried out for supposed violation of moral codes, particularly for allegations of adultery, according to many human rights campaigners.

Women are mostly the victims. Refusal to submit to arranged marriages and meeting men disapproved of by families are also reasons.

No one knows just how many 'honour killings' are committed every year.

"There are no correct statistics," Diana Nammi, founder of the London-based International Campaign Against Honour Killings, told IPS.

"They are mainly taking place in rural areas where there are no birth and death certificates. But I can assure you there are at least 5,000 every year, even more than 10,000. They are not just happening in one nation, but in more than 54 countries."

The Campaign Against Honour Killings, launched in 2003, hosts a website updated daily with reports from around the world. It operates a hotline for women who feel under threat.

"Pakistan has the highest number of 'dishonour killings' -- the term I use for calling them what they really are. Yearly there are believed to be between 800 and 1,000," Ellen Sheeley, a U.S. marketing consultant who began researching the subject in Jordan in 2003, told IPS.

In Jordan, where the penal code provides for an average six months sentence for 'honour killings', there were estimated to be some 24 a year, according to the group Amman Net, quoting official sources.

"There are some 40 'honour killings' every year in Syria," said Kadi. His organisation also maintains a website and in 2007 some 10,000 people, mostly in Syria, signed an online petition condemning them.

Following the breakdown of law and order with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there have been reports of a growing number of 'honour killings' in the country. Many of these have been recorded in the northern region of Kurdistan and in Basra in the south.

"In the Kurdish communities in Iran and especially Iraq it has become something like an epidemic," Nammi, of Kurdish origin who has lived in both countries before moving to London a decade ago, told IPS.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and the Arab world, often linked to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, is frequently blamed for some of the recent 'honour killings', according to reports.

"Islam is being misinterpreted to justify 'honour killings', Kadi agreed, expressing a view he had before the Iraq invasion.

"A large number of Islamic scholars definitely do teach a culture of violence that would justify these crimes. They are being followed religiously as if they were speaking the divine word."

He added: "They have even been attacking us for campaigning against 'honour killings'. They have accused us of being government mercenaries."

Sheeley, in her sampling of views across Jordan in 2003, found that 20 percent of all of those questioned agreed that Islam required family honour to be "cleansed" for promiscuous sexual behaviour.

"This finding points to the need for mosque and parental education to correct this lethal misunderstanding of the faith," she said. The actual source of 'honour killings' was believed to be "in misinterpretations of pre-Islamic Arab tribal codes," she added.

Sheeley hoped that legal reforms in the region could help to change attitudes and practices. In particular, Jordan could set an example to all other countries where 'honour killings' take place, by abolishing the articles of its legal code offering leniency to the perpetrators.

"Progress and success in Jordan could serve as an inspiration and model for other countries where these crimes are committed," she said. Some 89 percent of Jordanians she questioned supported a stiffening of penalties for the killers.

"In countries where the state and the laws discriminate against sends a powerful message to all social institutions and to both genders," she added.

Kadi agreed that campaigners should direct their efforts to bring about equality for all before the law. "All laws that discriminate against women should be abolished. But the Syrian government is actually an opponent of this change in our country," he said.

"I am cautiously optimistic that change will come -- but deeply concerned about how many people will have to die before this happens," said Sheeley.

"This problem is solvable. It can be successfully addressed." (END/2008)

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