Rana Husseini

Journalist, feminist, and human rights defender, Rana Husseini broke the silence and exposed the shame of Jordan when she unveiled the common but unspoken crime of honor killings there. Honor killings happen when a woman is raped or is said to have participated in illicit sexual activity. Across the globe, women who are beaten, brutalized, and raped can expect police, prosecutors, and judges to humiliate victims, fail to investigate cases, and dismiss charges. Imagine what it means in Jordan, where women who are raped are considered to have compromised their families’ honor. Fathers, brothers, and sons see it as their duty to avenge the offense, not by pursuing the perpetrators but by murdering the victims; their own daughters, sisters, or mothers. Honor killings accounted for one-third of the murders of women in Jordan in 1999. Husseini wrote a series of reports on the killings and launched a campaign to stop them. As a result, she has been threatened and accused of being anti-Islam, antifamily, and anti-Jordan. Yet, Queen Noor took up the cause, and later, the newly ascended King Abdullah cited the need for protection of women in his opening address to parliament. The conspiracy of silence has been forever broken thanks to this young journalist who risks her life in the firm faith that exposing the truth about honor killings and other forms of violence against women is the first step to stopping them. Husseini has earned eight international awards for reporting on these crimes including: the 1995 MEDNEWS prize award for best article “Murder in the name of honour,” the Human Right’s Watch Award in 2000 for being part of the National Jordanian Committee to Eliminate so-called Crimes of Honour, the Ida B. Wells award in 2003 for Bravery in Journalism, Marie Claire Magazine Top Ten Woman of the World Award for bringing attention to honor crimes against women in Jordan in 2004 and Al Hussein Decoration for Distinguished Contribution, Second Order, bestowed by His Majesty King Abdullah II for activism in the human rights field and defending women causes in Jordan in 2007. In 2009, she published a book, Murder in the Name of Honor.

Husseini has been actively involved with Speak Truth to Power, participating in the opening of a photo exhibit in Milan in 2006; she was a participant in the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights’ gala in New York City.

I never imagined that I would work on women’s issues when, in September 1993, I was assigned as the crime reporter at The Jordon Times. In the beginning I wrote about thefts, accidents, fires—all minor cases. Then, after about four or five months on the job, I started coming across crimes of honor. One story really shocked me and compelled me to get more involved.

In the name of honor, a sixteen-year-old girl was killed by her family because she was raped by her brother. He assaulted her several times and then threatened to kill her if she told anyone. When she discovered that she was pregnant she had to tell her family. After the family arranged an abortion, they married her off to a man fifty years her senior. When he divorced her six months later, her family murdered her.

An honor killing occurs when a male relative decides to take the life of a female relative because, in his opinion, she has dishonored her family’s reputation by engaging in an “immoral” act. An immoral act could be that she was simply seen with a strange man or that she slept with a man. In many cases, women are killed just because of rumors or unfounded suspicions.

When I went to investigate the crime I met with her two uncles. At first when I questioned them about the murder they got defensive and asked, “Who told you that?” I said it was in the newspaper. They started telling me that she was “not a good girl.” So I asked, “Why was it her fault that she has been raped? Why didn’t the family punish her brother?” And they both looked at each other and one uncle said to the other, “What do you think? Do you think we killed the wrong person?” The other replied, “No, no. Don’t worry. She seduced her brother.” I asked them why, with millions of men in the street, would she choose to seduce her own brother? They only repeated that she had tarnished the family image by committing an impure act. Then they started asking me questions: “Why was I dressed like this? Why wasn’t I married? Why had I studied in the United States?” They inferred that I, too, was not a good girl.

From then on I went on covering stories about women who were killed in an unjust, inhuman way. Most of them did not commit any immoral, much less illegal, act, and even if they did, they still did not deserve to die. But I want to emphasize two things. One is that all women are not threatened in this way in my country. Any woman who speaks to any man will not be killed. These crimes are isolated and limited, although they do cross class and education boundaries. The other thing is a lot of people assume incorrectly that these crimes are mandated by Islam, but they are not. Islam is very strict about killing, and in the rare instances where killing is counseled, it is when adultery is committed within a married couple. In these cases, there must be four eyewitnesses and the punishment must be carried out by the community, not by the family members involved.

Honor killings are part of a culture, not a religion, and occur in Arab communities in the United States and many countries. One-third of the reported homicides in Jordan are honor killings. The killers are treated with leniency, and families assign the task of honor killing to a minor, because under Jordanian juvenile law, minors who commit crimes are sentenced to a juvenile center where they can learn a profession and continue their education, and then, at eighteen, be released without a criminal record. The average term served for an honor killing is only seven and a half months.

The reason for these killings is that many families tie their reputation to the women. If she does something wrong, the only way to rectify the family’s honor is to have a wife, daughter, sister killed. Blood cleanses honor. The killers say, “Yes, she’s my sister and I love her, but it is a duty.”

I undertook this issue not just because I am a woman, but because most people fight for human rights in general—political agendas, prison conditions, children’s rights—but nobody is taking up this issue. And isn’t it important to guarantee the right of a woman simply to live before fighting for any other laws?

Related to this is the practice of protective custody. If a woman becomes pregnant out of wedlock, she will turn herself in to the police, and they’ll put her in prison to “protect her life.” Anywhere else in the world you would put the person who is threatening someone’s life in prison, but in my country and elsewhere in the Arab world, it is the opposite. The victim goes to jail. Most of these women are held there indefinitely. They are not charged, and they cannot make bail. If the family bails them out, it is to kill them. So these women remain, wasting their lives in prison.

Since I started reporting on the honor killings, things have started to change for the better. When King Hussein opened the Thirteenth Parliament, he mentioned women and their rights—the first time a ruler had emphasized women and children. And now King Hassan is following in his father’s footsteps, with a new constitution where he put in two new sections, one on women. And he asked the prime minister to amend all the laws that discriminate against women. What was not included was a solution; we could begin with a shelter for women. Instead of putting women who seek haven from their families in prison, the government could have programs to rehabilitate them.

Of course this kind of human rights work has its critics. People have accused me of encouraging adultery and premarital sex. Once I had this man threatening that if I didn’t stop writing, he would “visit me” at the newspaper. What upsets me the most is that people want to stay away from the subject by using these excuses. One woman said, “So what if twenty-five women are killed every year; look at how many illegitimate children are born every year?” So sad. People try to divert the main issue by accusing the victim and portraying evil women as the main cause of why adultery takes place. Women are always blamed in my country, and elsewhere in the world. Everywhere in the world, they are blamed. We are talking here about human lives that are being wasted.

It is important to realize that people who commit the killings are also victims. Their families put all the burden and pressure on their back. If you don’t kill, you are responsible for the family’s dishonor. If you do kill, you will be a hero and everyone will be proud of you.

While I was studying in the United States, I felt that there were good people who were trying to work for other people who were in need of help. I came to believe that if you want to do something or change something, you could do it. But in Jordan many people are passive. They don’t care. Many believe that whatever they do will not affect anything in society. But I am convinced this is wrong. Because we can’t say, “Okay, I won’t do this because nothing will change.” If you adopt this attitude, then it’s true: nothing will ever change. I hope the day will come when I will no longer need to report on these crimes. This will happen when Jordan modernizes, not only materially, but in its awareness of human rights for women. And I am sure that day will come; and it may be closer than we think.