Jordanian Journalist Lifts Veil On Honor Killings

According to the United Nations, five thousand women a year are victims of so-called "honor killings." These women are murdered, often by family members, for perceived cultural offenses, like getting pregnant out of wedlock. Jordanian journalist Rana Husseini has spent more than a decade investigating honor killings in her home country. She talks about her new book Murder In the Name of Honor .

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now to a very different story. In late October, police arrested a man living in a Phoenix suburb. His crime: allegedly murdering his 20-year-old daughter. Faleh Hassan Almaleki, originally from Iraq, was charged with running his daughter over with his jeep. Prosecutors claim the murder was a so-called honor killing, that Almaleki killed his daughter because he believed she had disgraced their family by living with her boyfriend out of wedlock and becoming too Westernized.

Well, this kind of crime sounds like something out of a book about things that happened long ago and far away. According to the United Nations, some 5,000 women around the world are victims of honor killings ever year, and that estimate is probably low. How do we know this? In part, because of Rana Husseini. She is a Jordanian journalist who writes about honor killings. She was one of the first to highlight the issue in her home country. And now she has written a book titled �Murder In The Name Of Honor.� And she joins us now from New York City. Welcome to the program. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. RANA HUSSEINI (Author, �Murder In The Name Of Honor�): Thank you very much for hosting me.

MARTIN: Now, Rana, the title of your book comes from the headline on the very first story you wrote about the first honor killing you covered, which was back in 1994. How did you get on to that story to begin with?

Ms. HUSSEINI: Well, it was all by coincident. I saw a small item in the Arabic press about a man killing his sister, and something told me I have to go and investigate it. And when I went there I discovered a horrific crime of a 16-year-old schoolgirl who was murdered by her family and her only mistake was being raped by one of her brothers.

MARTIN: Now, then you went and actually interviewed the family. And when you asked the family why did they kill her instead of the brother who raped her, what did they say?

Ms. HUSSEINI: Basically, they blamed her for the rape, and they said she seduced her brother to sleep with her.

MARTIN: Do you believe that?

Ms. HUSSEINI: Of course I don't. And I told them, you know, why didn't you discipline, you know, the boy? And, you know, and then they started asking me, why am I here, why do I care, why am I dressed like that? And then I decided to leave and report the story for the Jordan Times.

MARTIN: This was not an easy thing not just to report, but when they printed the story - well, why don't you just tell it. What was the reaction when they printed the story?

Ms. HUSSEINI: Of course, when I reported the story for the Jordan Times, an intellectual woman called the newspaper the following day, basically screaming and yelling at my editors that they should stop me from reporting these crimes because this is not us, our society.

So I even became more enraged that the call came from a woman, and I wanted to show her and show everyone else that, no, this is our society, and we have problems, and we have to deal with it.

MARTIN: Now, would you tell me the story of Yasmin(ph)? Because you had the occasion to interview her killer a number of times over the years, and I want to hear a little bit more about that. First of all, why was Yasmin killed?

Ms. HUSSEINI: Well, Yasmin was raped by one of her in-laws, and she lost her virginity. And of course, when she was raped, she hand herself into police for protection, but she was handed over again to her family, and her brother killed her. He basically felt that losing her virginity was a big shame. So he had to do it, according to him.

MARTIN: But then he did pay a price for killing her. Tell me about that, too.

Ms. HUSSEINI: True, he did get away with a very lenient sentence. He managed to convince the court that he killed his sister to cleanse the family's honor and rescue the reputation of his family. And, of course, the bad thing is, first of all, he feels bad about it. The second thing is, everybody who encouraged him to commit the crime turned their backs. And he said that no woman wants to marry him and none of the relatives actually wants to give him their daughters because they fear that he might kill them.

MARTIN: Even though some of these same relatives encouraged him to do it.

Ms. HUSSEINI: True. It's like - it's a hypocritic(ph) situation, but you know, this is to show you that people, you know, they act out of ignorance.

MARTIN: What do you make of this? I know you write in the book that Jordanian society blames women for everything: for being raped, for being harassed on the streets, for philandering husbands, for husbands who divorce them, for bearing a child of the wrong gender. The list is endless. But, as you also point out, you know, there are a lot of very educated people in Jordan, and it's - this is not an isolated country per se. Many people from Jordan travel very freely around the world. I mean, why do you think this attitude persists? Does nobody think it's ridiculous to blame a woman for being raped?

Ms. HUSSEINI: Yes, of course, people find this ridiculous, but you have to know that women - it's not only in Jordan. Everywhere in the world, women are blamed, even here in this part of the world. If a woman is raped, they immediately question: what time was she there, what kind of clothes she was wearing, was she drunk, and so forth.

MARTIN: Well, except that I have to say that that may be true, but the law no longer tolerates that here. The law specifically does not permit that.

Ms. HUSSEINI: True. Even in Jordan, there is heavy punishments for rape. If it's proven in court that the woman is raped, the rapist could get a very high sentence, depending on her age and so forth, and if she's married or not married.

So it's not something that I would say that is particular to Jordan or the U.S. or anywhere. I think violence against women is an international phenomenon. I think blaming women for things is also international. It's not just for Jordan. I think, like, even if you have an accident here, and it's a woman and a man, you would - people would still say, oh, it's probably her fault, the woman does not know how to drive. And we all know that women are much better driver than men and they're more careful. So it's not something that, you know, you can give to one country or one specific society.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin, and I'm speaking with Jordanian journalist Rana Husseini. We're talking about her new book, "Murder in the Name of Honor." She documents the phenomenon of honor killings around the world.

You know what I was curious about is that until you started reporting on this, did you know about it?

Ms. HUSSEINI: Not really, to be honest. I was - there's a surrounding and the neighborhood and the family I grew up with, I was never exposed to such a crime. Maybe it was in the back of my mind but it was really shocking to me when I went and covered that story in specific.

MARTIN: And I'm just wondering, why is that? On the one hand, it takes place so openly. As you pointed out, many of the killings you wrote about happened in the middle of the day, you know, all the neighbors all heard it. When you went to ask, where does this person live, where does that person live, everybody could tell you. I mean, you talked about saying, well, can you tell me - I heard that such a thing happened here, can you tell me where? And everybody would say, oh, yeah, right over here.

So on the one hand, there was no attempt to hide it. One the other hand, there is this attempt not to talk about it, and I'm curious why you think that is.

Ms. HUSSEINI: Because, you know, usually families kill when the word of mouth travels quickly, mostly in poor accounted areas. So the families think that by killing they have ended the problem or solved the problem.

So they want to tell everyone that we killed our daughter here, we cleansed our family's honor, and that's it. So everybody's going to talk about it, and they think that it's the end. And then, of course, the family does not want to talk about it anymore because they killed to stop people from talking and from people discussing this, the moralities and the conduct and behavior of their daughter.

MARTIN: The other thing that I learned from your book, which I thought was interesting, is that continually, when you confront people who have committed honor killings or people who have encouraged them to be done, they'll admit that this is not Islamic, that this is against Islamic law, but they'll do it anyway.

Ms. HUSSEINI: Yeah, well, actually, I've reported cases of Christian women who were killed in Jordan, and there are cases of women being killed from all faiths all over the world, and Christian women being killed in other countries.

In Italy, there are two men who killed their sisters in Sicily for becoming pregnant out of wedlock and so forth. In Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sikh, Hindu, and other faiths. So it has nothing to do with Islam. And in Iraq, there was a (unintelligible) woman who was stoned to death.

Basically, none of the religions really applaud these murders or encourage people to commit these crimes. But these are all, in my opinion, wrongful traditions and (unintelligible) beliefs, you know, and I think the fact, the fear factor plays a major role in why people decide to take the lives of their female relatives.

MARTIN: Would anything stop this? Would anything change this?

Ms. HUSSEINI: Unfortunately, this is something that does not end overnight. You have to work on it constantly, and that's why I say the issue of violence against women needs to be constantly addressed. Things have changed in Jordan, by the way. Now, everybody's involved, the royal family, the government, the civil society, women's movement. So it's really - it's no longer, like, this taboo issue.

I was invited to lecture two years ago in Jordan. It was a public lecture. I did not really know who my audience were. People came from all walks of life, and at the end, we had a very important discussion, and I had two men who stood up, young men who said, you know, they knew that killing their sister was wrong and asked me to help them. What can they do to avoid it if they are put in this situation?

MARTIN: How has working on this issue changed your life?

Ms. HUSSEINI: It's changed my life a lot because, as you know, I've been doing it for 16 years and it's like, you sort of feel that life is too short. You have to enjoy every moment you can because, you know, things - there are a lot of bad and evil things around us.

Rana Husseini is the author of "Murder in the Name of Honor." We were able to catch up with her in New York City, where she is traveling. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. HUSSEINI: Thank you very much.

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