When Rana Husseini joined the staff of The Jordan Times as a young female reporter in 1993, ‘honour’ killings were a dirty secret. No-one spoke of the cruelty that surrounded such deaths. No one wrote about the Jordanian women whose lives were brutally and wantonly cut short. Newly assigned to the paper’s crime beat, Rana’s reporting was soon confronted by a society dominated by masculine principles. ‘An incident [in 1994] involving a 16-year-old girl shocked me the most. It was the beginning of my career when I covered the death of this girl at the hands of her 31-year-old brother. She had been raped by her other 21-year-old brother who had put sleeping pills in her tea before carrying out the rape and threatening to kill her if she told her family. But she became pregnant so she had to tell. Then he tried to kill her. She survived, but underwent an abortion. Later on, she was married off to a man 50 years older than her, but that only lasted six months. On the day he divorced her she was killed by her brother to cleanse the family name.’
‘When I went to talk to her uncles who plotted the murder, I asked them why they helped to kill her if she had been raped… why they punished her. And they said she seduced her brother to sleep with him. Then I asked them why she would want to do that when there were other men on the street. [In response] they began criticizing me for the way I was dressed [Husseini favours Western-style jeans and T-shirts over more traditional Arab women’s wear] and for studying in the US, and other things of this sort.’
‘Honour’ crimes claim at least 25 lives each year and amount to a third of all violent deaths in Jordan. It was only after The Jordan Times published the full details of the dead girl’s story that Rana realized the strength of opposition to the public disclosure of such crimes: ‘One of the criticisms I received was from an intellectual Jordanian woman who worked in a high position and had studied abroad. She called the newspaper and started screaming at my editor, saying that they should stop me from writing because I was tarnishing the image of Jordan.’
This made Rana furious and propelled her to find out the truth behind these killings. She turned her attention to the judicial system. ‘I discovered these killers were getting away with very lenient sentences. Then I also discovered that women who survived these attacks were being put in prison [at the women’s correctional facility in Amman] for their own protection. I was outraged.’
In the years that followed, Husseini took the lead on many public awareness campaigns to change people’s attitudes and to reform the law: work that earned her the Human Rights Watch Award in 2000. ‘As a result of several activities in 1999 and 2000 we received 15,000 signatures demanding the cancellation of laws that discriminate against women. So the Government introduced changes to Article 340 [of the Jordanian penal code]. But this law stipulates that a man benefits from a reduction in penalty if, after witnessing his wife in an adulterous affair, he kills one or both of them. It has only been used once. In fact since I began my career I have never seen a judge use it. It was Article 98 – which allows for a reduced sentence if a man kills in a fit of fury – that we wanted the Government to take action on. This is the Article that is used in all “honour” crime cases. Because of it, killers are still only getting sentences of between three months and two years.’
Although Article 98 remains on the statute books, the campaigns mounted by Rana and her colleagues boast other positive results. The Government’s introduction of the Family Protection Project in 2000 has increased public awareness about domestic violence and started the process of changing male attitudes towards women and children. Rana is now optimistic about seeing a significant decrease in ‘honour’ killings – which analysts say have their roots in local custom, not Islam – within the next 20 years.
‘It’s not like the old days. Many men now look for women [to marry] who work rather than women who are sitting at home. So things are changing. When it comes to “honour” crimes there is a lot more public awareness than there was 10 years ago. Of course in every society when you want to change something you’ll face resistance. Sometimes I get accused of being used by the West – of being a Western agent. But I’m sorry, I don’t need anyone in the West to tell me that killing a woman is wrong.’