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Syria and 'Honor Killings' By: H. Avraham
MEMRI | Wednesday, June 07, 2006


INTRODUCTION

The September 2005 murder of a young Druze woman, Huda Abu 'Asali, by members of her family because of her marriage to a man outside of her ethnic group, sparked a wave of outraged reaction throughout Syria against the phenomenon of "honor killings" of women by their male relatives. The independent Syrian website "Syrian Women" (www.nesasy.com ) launched a sweeping campaign, under the slogan "Stop the Murder of Women, Stop the 'Honor Crimes!'" [1] and posted numerous articles by Syrian Muslim and Christian clerics as well as by attorneys, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens. As part of the campaign, the site posted a petition calling for a stop to honor killings. To date, nearly 10,000 people have signed this petition, most of them from Syria.

The main goal of the campaign is the amendment of Articles 548, 239, 240, 241, and 242 of the Syrian penal code, which grant immunity or a significantly reduced sentence to a man who murders a female relative. [2]

A few months later the Syrian government press joined the campaign. The Syrian daily Teshreen published several harsh articles stating that honor killings were the product of "historical backwardness" and calling for changes in both the Syrian penal code and the school curricula. The Syrian government daily Al-Thawra published a special investigation of honor killings, which found that over 40 honor killings took place every year in Syria. The investigation also included comments by Syrian attorneys and clerics, who said that murder is forbidden by all religions and that the articles of the penal code permitting those guilty of murdering women to evade just punishment must be abolished.

The following is a review of the discussion of honor killings in the Syrian government and non-government media:

I. IN THE SYRIAN GOVERNMENT PRESS

Syrian Government Daily: "The Time has Come for Us to Rise Above This Historical Backwardness and This Ugly Cruelty"

Two articles published by the Syrian government daily Teshreen powerfully condemned honor killings. Both called for changing the articles of the Syrian penal code that permitted men who murder women to easily escape punishment.

In the first article, Dr. Samer Abd Al-Ghani Al-'Itri wrote: "How odd it is that [even] in our time, we find [people] who do not recognize a woman's right to study and to inherit - and if, for religious reasons, they believe [in her right to inherit], [in practice] they do not act in an egalitarian manner. What is both worst and the most amazing is a man who does not believe in [a woman's] right to practice medicine...

"It goes without saying that it is permitted to kill a woman merely because someone suspects her - on the pretext of 'defending the [family] honor.' How many instances of real injustice, painful violence, and frightening false accusations have been suffered by women who have been suspected by their fathers, brothers, and husbands... There have been horrifying incidents, that chill the body with the bloodshed, barbarism, and cruelty with which they bring us back to the Stone Age. What is truly saddening is that some of these abhorrent crimes were carried out on pretexts and because of [false] claims of honor - while [in reality] they stem from other reasons and motives... In the name of the oppressed [women], in the name of these innocent souls murdered over the generations because of fanaticism, backwardness, and ignorance, I call for and demand a reexamination of the huge [body of] judicial material that essentially gives the man a right to shed the blood of the woman on the pretext of eradicating shame or defending [family] honor.

"I think that the time has come for us to rise above this historical backwardness and this ugly cruelty. The time has come for us to rescue the woman from this Jahiliyya [the pre-Islamic period of ignorance] in which we have lived for some 2,000 years, and for us to rid ourselves of our condescension towards the woman, as if she were something inferior or despicable.

"It is very sad to observe the strange duality with which some of our own generation's intellectuals behave towards women. Some of us come from Oxford, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne - yet treat their wives, daughters, and sisters with ancient feudalism and repression... The revolution that we need is not only an economic or social revolution, but also one concerning our bodies and our souls...

"First, the individual must be liberated, and [only] then will the land be liberated, and [after that, as a result] everything [else] will be liberated automatically... When we manage to create an open, cultivated individual free of every kind of emotional ugliness, the way will be paved, and it will be easy to accomplish that comprehensive awakening for which we yearn...

"Here I find myself quoting the position of Muhammad Abduh: [3] 'The family is the primary unit, and there the woman plays a great role; she is [the one who takes care of and is responsible for] the family.' But how can the woman fill this role and bear this responsibility when she is persecuted, stripped of her humanity, drowning in ignorance, darkness, and superstition, and closed off from the world [?]...

"Madam, we confess [our sins] before you; we have been mistaken throughout history. We have destroyed your rosy dreams, and by so doing have destroyed our own dreams. We have stolen your life from you, and thus have stolen all of our lives; we have robbed you of your expectations, and have come to have no expectations; we have prevented you from [realizing] your wishes and have come to have no wishes [ourselves]; we have destroyed your mind, and lost our own. We confess to denying [you your rights]; we confess to our [dishonor], and to being opportunists... We are sorry for the long history during which you have been persecuted, for the great oppression against you, and for the boundless repression [to which you have been subjected]... because you... are the symbol of the liberation of thought and of emotion [in Syria].

"When we succeed in liberating you, we will have covered half of the path on the way to liberating our society from its complexes, its repression, and its long night..." [4]

Columnist in Syrian Government Daily: We Must Tackle the Root of the Problem - the School Curricula

In the second article from the government daily Teshreen, columnist Hassan M. Yousef called for amendment of the Syrian penal code to ensure that murderers would receive a just punishment. He also called for changes to the school curricula, which, according to him, are the root of the problem: "During [every one of the] last few months, some instances of so-called 'honor crimes' have occurred across Syria. [One was that of] a respectable woman who lawfully married the man she loved, but her relatives saw her marriage as a humiliation of their honor because she had not married within her ethnic group. A few years later, when [she] came to visit them under the assumption that they had forgiven her, they murdered her... [Another case was that of] a girl who did not respond to a boy's overtures. So he took her picture with a cell-phone, attached [the photo] of her head to [a photo of the body of] a naked woman, and presented the picture to her brother. The brother went home and murdered his sister, just like that!...

"Right after the crime caused by the forged cell-phone photo, I demanded... an amendment of Articles 548, 239, 240, 241, 242 of the Syrian penal code, [to ensure] that murderers of women would receive a just punishment, with no reduction or exemption. I again demand changing the law to put an end to the crimes perpetrated in the name of [family] honor! I also demand, even prior to that, that the problem of the school curricula be dealt with - because this type of crime begins [with inculcating these] perceptions [of honor]..." [5]

Syrian Government Paper Investigates: Syrian Law Lives at Peace With Murderers

An investigative report on honor killings by Al-Thawra found that the Syrian penal code permits men to easily get out of being punished for murdering women. The paper quoted jurists and Muslim and Christian clerics, and all, without exception, stated that the murder of women to defend family honor is a crime and is against all religions and all the rules of human morality. The following are excerpts from the investigation:

"The women in our society are subject to severe attacks by relatives and family members who spill their blood on the pretext of [defending family] honor and removing the shame. It seems that the broad meaning of this expression [i.e. 'defending family honor and removing shame'] has opened the door wide to [the phenomenon of] getting rid of women through abhorrent murder - for many reasons, such as inheritance, mixed marriage, and various excuses - in the guise of ostensible [family] honor.

"The law [lives at peace] with this crime, and [accepts] the criminal's extenuating circumstances, while ignoring the real reasons [behind the murder]. Thus, the law satisfies the will of society and of tradition, [both of which] support the crime and strengthen its hand, [and] break out in cries of joy over its victory [while] it removes the shame with blood, restoring [the family's] wounded honor..."

Syrian Attorney: The Syrian Legislator Embraces the Evil Urges of the Human Soul

The Al-Thawra investigative report quotes Syrian attorney Abdallah Ali, director of the Syrian website for law (http://www.alnazaha.net/main.htm ), saying: "There is no such thing as 'honor crimes' in the law. It is one of the terms that the accepted custom has imprinted [in people's minds]. This [term] refers to any crime that a person carries out in the name of the honor, or where honor is the motive [for committing a crime]."

According to Ali, the term 'honor crimes'' is an oxymoron: While honor is acquired by adhering to supreme principles, crime means moral or legal inferiority. He writes: "What is regrettable is that the Syrian legislator has fallen [into the trap of this] contradiction, by embracing and legitimizing 'honor crimes' and ruling that the perpetrators of these crimes are not to be punished - as stated by Article 548 of the [Syrian] penal code... The reason [the man] is not punished is the humiliation that he feels in this situation... It would seem that the Syrian legislator... is adapting himself to the evil urges of the human soul, enabling them to burst forth. Indeed, the excuse of [the perpetrator's sense of] humiliation, on which [the Syrian legislator] relies in order to justify the man's exemption from punishment, can also serve for other criminals and other crimes...

"In brief, this article [of the penal code] must be eliminated... no matter what primitive considerations led the Syrian legislator to adopt it... We see that these considerations have not stood the test of reality..."

Director of Islamic ResearchCenter, Damascus: The Penal Code Ignores Shari'a, Which Forbids Murder

The Al-Thawra investigation also quotes Dr. Muhammad Habash, Syrian MP and director of the Islamic Research Center in Damascus, stating that honor crimes are forbidden by Islam and are counter to Shari'a; therefore, Article 548 of the Syrian penal code must be abolished: "Whoever carries out these crimes has no honor, sense, or religion... It was Islam that brought the sanctity of human blood [to the world]. It is clear that murder, of any kind, is a grave crime, among the gravest of crimes [in Islam]... The phenomenon of murdering [women] out of a motive of [family] honor is one of the manifestations of backwardness from which Arab society in general suffers..."

According to Habash, Article 548 of the Syrian penal code disregards shari'a and is lenient towards backwardness and distance from the religion. He emphasizes that he supports the complete abolition of this article of the penal code, and adds: "It is known that Islamic law has set a punishment for a man accusing [someone] of prostitution without evidence - and that punishment is 80 lashes. If such is the punishment for a man who speaks ill of a woman without cause, then what should be the punishment for a man who murders a woman without cause!"

Father Antoine Musilh: "How Can a Human Soul Be so Easily Murdered?"

In the investigation, the newspaper also included statements by Roman Catholic priest Antoine Musilh: "In all religions, murdering a human soul is forbidden, and is a great crime... There is no such thing as 'honor crime'... crime is crime... Article 548 of the penal code gives the criminal a reduced punishment. It is bad enough that if a family member is suspicious about the behavior of a young girl in the family, the law permits him to kill her and to enjoy a reduced punishment. [But] sometimes the murder is committed for material reasons, or because of inheritance [issues] or because [the girl] married against her family's wishes - and then the girl is killed [and the murderer] evades punishment when he attributes the crime to the [girl's] ostensibly shameful behavior...

"How can a human soul be so easily murdered, and a young girl's right to live so easily stripped from her? We are all against murder, and in general the Church does not permit murder - not in such instances, and not in other instances. For murder is a crime that has no connection to human and religious rules of behavior and morality." [6]

II. IN THE SYRIAN NON-GOVERNMENT MEDIA

In September 2005, the independent Syrian website "Syrian Women" (www.nesasy.com ), that focuses on issues of society in Syria, particularly on discrimination and violence against women and children, launched a campaign against honor killings. The site's director is Syrian publicist Bassam Al-Kadi, who is also a women's rights activist. As part of its campaign, the site posted the "National Document" petition calling to stop the murder of women, along with a series of articles by intellectuals, attorneys, clerics, and Syrian citizens criticizing honor killings and calling for amendment of the Syrian penal code so that the perpetrators would no longer be exempt from punishment or receive reduced punishments for such murders.

The Petition: Stop the Murder of Women... Stop the Honor Crimes!

In its petition, "Syrian Women" called to stop honor killings, to abolish the articles of the penal code that exempt such murderers from just punishment, and to impose harsher penalties for them. So far, nearly 10,000 signatures have been collected, mostly from Syria. The following are excerpts from the document:

"It may be that Huda Abu 'Asali was fated to be the torch leading the call that came too late. But she is not the only one whose throat the knife of backwardness has slit, and whose heart the bullet from [the gun of] manliness has pierced... There are [many] besides her, who are wrapped in silence - the silence of the people and of those responsible!! And the victim is always the same: the woman!...

"Always, in different ways and on various pretexts, Article 548 and Articles 239-242 of the [Syrian] penal code manage to extricate the murderer from the natural punishment [he deserves] after [only] a few months, that rarely exceed the number of fingers on one hand!...

"The time has come for us to say 'no' to the murder of women in our country! 'No' to the mitigation of punishment for the murderer, whatever his reasons!... Let us say 'No' to Articles 548, 239, 240, 241, and 242 of the Syrian penal code! 'No' to the exoneration of the criminal murderers! 'Yes' to just punishment, with no mitigation or exemption! Life is a right sanctified by every religion and by divine and earthly precepts, and also by all human rights charters and all laws..." [7]

He Who Remains Silent at the Murder of Women is Worse Than the Murderer Himself!

An article titled "Are You a Murderer?!" posted on the website "Syrian Women" harshly criticizes those who remain silent in the face of the increasing honor killings: "These are the women who are being murdered! Women threatened by the knife of masculinity! Women killed by the bullets of the hell of hatred and backwardness! Women set afire by the fuel of stupid madness! Women who are being murdered here and there in every district of this 'safe' country because they dare to be 'human beings!' Because they dare to sense their existence! Because they dare to open their eyes!

"The murderer is indeed a criminal!... But is he the only murderer?! Not at all. Too many criminals are hiding behind this 'brave' [murderer]! Many criminals, too cowardly to lift their heads and say: Here we are! Criminals unworthy of even a glance of compassion... it is they who encourage and incite to this murder [i.e. honor killings]! It is they who welcome this deed, in every possible way! And it is they who remain silent in light of this deed, no matter what their justification!

"Are you among them?! Do you understand those who secretly say that this murder is forbidden and criminal, and then justify their silence and the fact that they are not raising their voices [by saying that] 'society's conditions must be respected?!'

"If you are indeed such a one, then [I say,] without begging your pardon, that you are another murderer! A murderer worse than the one who kills with his own hands! Perhaps [the murderer who kills with his own hands] will yet feel the sorrow of a brother who murders his sister, or of a father who murders his daughter, and then will regret it and change! But you, with your silence, engender murderers, at any given moment! With the blessing that you give [to murder,] you bring murderers into the world at any given moment!

"In terms of crime: If he is a murderer, then you are a blood-letter! Take a good look at yourself in the mirror: What do you see?! A man who is proud of his humanity and cries 'No!' to the murder of women in our country? Or a murderer lurking behind [the slogan of] the 'need to obey society' and other such drivel?!" [8]

Honor Killings Reflect Blind Obedience to Tradition and Traditional Leaders, With No Connection to Religion, Moral Values, and Human Values

Dr. Finita Al-Sheikh wrote critically of Arab society's encouragement to murder women: "We are all murderers when we accept such a murder, for whatever reason. If truth be told, many [factors] in our society encourage such crimes... Moral guidelines are like a beautiful plant - in order to grow, they need care, supervision, constant work, and a family in which love, consensus, and mutual respect prevail...

"The laws that discriminate between men and women - by giving the man freedom but setting conditions that oppress and humiliate the woman - shame the woman. But more than that, they shame the man. They also contribute greatly to keeping the man in our society incapable of thought and lacking in personality - which makes it easy for him to descend to the depths of his bestiality, and to act barbarously without understanding the abhorrence of the crime he commits.

"There is a great problem with the cries of joy and with the cries that encourage the man to do this abhorrent deed, and present him as a hero defending family honor and society - knowing that he is nothing short of a criminal... There is [another] great problem with our insistence on continuing to drown [in this state] of ignorance and unconsciousness. [There is still another] great problem with this blind obedience to customs and traditions that have no connection to religion, moral values, and human [values] - [obedience that stems from our unwillingness] to awaken and see that the blood spilled [on the altar of] this 'honor' is spilled in vain, and that it can never wash away our weakness, our impotence, and our backward thinking." [9]

A Call for a "Social Death Penalty" for Honor Crimes

In her article posted on the website "Syrian Women," Nilza Khouri called on the enlightened members of Arab society to work to make others understand that murdering women for family honor must be absolutely rejected: "The silence in light of the 'honor crime' is a conspiracy, a crime, blind hatred, hidden stupidity, and perverted honor. Letting women be the victims of honor, in its pagan, empty, and lame sense... is something that we must put behind us!...

"All enlightened people must, together, [awaken] the sector that is ready to accept enlightenment. The time has come [for the enlightened] to make this sector understand that there must be a social death penalty, and a punishment of shunning and banning, for 'honor crimes!'... and that this abandonment of soul and this bloodshed must, more than anything else, be removed from the considerations of a society on its path towards awakening!" [10]

Educational Campaigns to Make People Realize that Murder is Not a Solution

In an article on "Syrian Women," 'Asem Jamoul called to organize educational campaigns to raise awareness of the problem of honor killings, and to help people understand that murdering women does not solve anything: "In all honesty, we must say that the Arab woman bears part of the responsibility - she always waits for someone to demand her rights for her, forgetting that rights are to be taken, not given…

"The solution lies in organizing large, intensive, and frequent educational campaigns; the government should also be involved [in organizing them], and all possible media institutions should cooperate. The aim is to arouse awareness among the people, and to teach them and cause them to arrive at the realization that murder does not solve the problem, but only complicates it... These campaigns must be organized, and garner much interest by those concerned. Also, a proper budget must be allocated for them..." [11]

*H. Avraham is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[1] "Syrian Women" (www.nesasy.com ) is an independent Syrian website dealing with social issues, particularly issues concerning discrimination against women and violence against women and children in Syria. Also participating in the site's campaign are other websites and organizations that work for society, human rights, women's rights, children's rights, and the like, from both inside and outside Syria. These include the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Syria, the National Organization for the Advancement of the Role of Women, the Democratic Youth Organization in Syria and the independent-leftist website Al-Hiwar Al-Mutamaddin (http://www.rezgar.com/debat/nr.asp ). Other participants in the campaign include Syrian newspapers and periodicals, such as the youth paper Shabablek and Al-Nour, the organ of the Syrian Communist Party.

[2] Article 548.1 of the Syrian Penal Code states that anyone who surprises his spouse, his sister or any other relative committing adultery or illegitimate sexual acts with another person, and unintentionally kills or wounds one or both of them, benefits from exemption from penalty. Article 548.2 states that the perpetrator of homicide or injury shall benefit from a reduction in penalty if he surprises his spouse, his sister, or some other family member in a compromising situation with another. (Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/press/2001/04/syriam-0405.htm ) Articles 239-242 state that there will be no punishment for the crime except in instances set out in law.

[3] Muhammad 'Abduh (1849-1905) was an Egyptian reformist jurist and religious scholar and one of the founding fathers of the Salafi movement.

[4] Teshreen (Syria), April 2, 2006.

[5] Teshreen (Syria), March 30, 2006.

[6] Al-Thawra (Syria), March 29, 2006.

[7] http://www.nesasy.com/honorcrimes/honorcrimes.html.

[8] http://www.nesasy.com/honorcrimes/artical/honorcrimes-000.html, September 2005.

[9] http://www.nesasy.com/honorcrimes/artical/honorcrimes-artical%20(162).html, October 18, 2005.

[10] http://www.nesasy.com/honorcrimes/artical/honorcrimes-artical%20(210).html, March 11, 2006.

[11] http://www.nesasy.com/honorcrimes/artical/honorcrimes-artical%20(197).html, December 1, 2005.

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