AMMAN, Jordan — For the first time after more than a decade of activism trying to stop so-called honor crimes, Rana Husseini says she doesn’t have a lot to complain about in Jordan.
In the past, most men served less than a year for killing a woman who had “dishonored” her family. Now, more than seven months after the government restructured the legal system to deal with honor crimes as normal criminal cases, Jordan has seen at least 10 cases result in prison sentences of seven to 15 years.
The question remains: are the days of convicted murderers receiving nominal three-month jail terms in Jordan over?
"Journalists used to come and interview me and I'd say we have to do this and we have to do that, but now I’m saying totally different things," said Husseini, author of “Murder in the Name of Honor” and a local journalist. "It’s something very good, and it’s about time."
The change is being heralded as a huge step forward for Jordan that could compel others in the region to take a tougher stance on honor crimes.
However, many activists say that while it’s a positive turn of events, Jordan has stopped short of putting these changes into law. Without rewriting the law books, some worry that a new group of judges or other changes could undo the progress.
"Something really needs to happen with the legal provisions that are discriminatory," said Nadya Khalife, women’s rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa at the Human Rights Watch office in Beirut. “Maybe there is some headway, but as long as the legal aspects
are not changed there’s no victory yet. All murders should be treated the same.”
In Lebanon, for example, honor crimes are a rare occurrence, but laws still exist that would allow perpetrators to face limited, if any, legal consequences for killing a woman in an honor crime. In Jordan, honor crimes remain a relatively limited occurrence, resulting in the death of about 20 people per year. Still, activists say that one is too many, especially if the murderer may be exempt from punishment.
After pressure from activist groups and even Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Queen Rania, in July the courts created a special judicial committee to handle honor crimes. It also began working with non-government organizations to educate legal officials about how to deal with the honor killings.
When these efforts began last summer, Husseini and many other activists doubted they would bring about much change. Since then, however, the court has yet to hand out one of the nominal prison sentences that used to be standard.
Still, in almost all honor crimes cases, families drop charges so the accused receive only half of the assigned prison sentence.
“Here in Jordan, as a whole society there are some serious changes within the whole community about [attitudes] related to women’s issues, even the judiciary system,” said Ihssan Barakat, a judge in the court of appeals and chairwoman for the Arab Women’s Legal Network. “They are accepting any new changes that give [women] better access to justice.”
She said that despite the recent changes in how honor crimes were handled in Jordan, there had been no official modifications to the legal system. However, she was doubtful the system would see any backsliding to previous sentencing practices.
Though the overall number of honor crimes has not dropped, Enaam Asha, a member of the board directors at the Sisterhood is Global Institute in Jordan, said that her organization had begun to see a slight cultural shift in how people handled incidents that could have previously resulted in honor crimes.
Now, when a young woman had relations with a man before marriage, rather than escalating to violence, Asha said some families were willing to resolve the situation through non-violent methods, such as marrying the couple. Additionally, she noted, the local media had begun reporting on honor crimes in such a way that was empathetic toward the victim. In the past, many news reports would condemn the murdered woman.
The longer prison sentences “reflect the change in the mentality of the judges in handling these kinds of cases and more importantly the change in the social perspective,” Asha said. “Maybe the number of honor crimes is not decreasing ... but through our daily interaction with people working on this issue, we were able to spot that there is a difference in how people handle such issues. People are becoming more understanding to such cases, both on the perpetrator’s part and the victim’s part, and also the society and the families around them.”
Husseini and other activists hope that as word of the new sentencing procedure spreads, more people will continue to seek other means for resolving these situations and the number of honor killings may begin to fall.
“Men should know, the ones wanting to kill their female relatives, if they do kill them, they will end up spending a long time in prison,” Husseini said.