honor killing - Ma'an - June 12 2011
Ayah Barad’iyya. Unlike other cases involving murder of women, hers was not kept under wraps. Photo by Ma'an
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Palestinian woman in a building featuring a poster of Mahmoud Abbas. His initiative was welcomed widely. Photo by AP

On May 7, the remains of a woman's body were found in a well, three kilometers from the village of Surif, northwest of Hebron. A quick examination by Palestinian police found that the victim was Ayah Barad'iyya, a 21-year-old English major at Hebron University. Her parents had complained to the police about her disappearance 13 months earlier.

Unlike many other cases involving murder of women, this one was not kept under wraps. In fact, it sent out shock waves that were felt far beyond the narrow geographical confines of the community where the murdered woman and her family lived and far beyond the circle of women's advocacy groups.

Less that a week after the remains were discovered, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared his intention to revoke a clause in the 1960 Jordanian penal code - still in force in the West Bank (although in Jordan itself the law has already been changed ) - and to change a clause in the 1936 British Mandatory law that is still in force in the Gaza Strip. These two articles exempt from punishment - at least any serious punishment - anyone convicted of murdering a woman to preserve what is defined as "family honor."

Article 340 of the Jordanian penal code stipulates the following: "He who surprises his wife, or one of his [female] Mahrams [mother, daughters or sisters] committing adultery with somebody [in flagrante delicto], and kills, wounds, or injures one or both of them, shall be exempt from liability." The second part of the article says: "He who surprises his wife, or one of his female ascendants or descendants or sisters with another in an unlawful bed, and he kills or wounds or injures one or both of them, shall be liable to a lesser penalty." This is the article that Abbas ordered repealed.

Article 18 of the 1936 British Mandatory law stipulates that leniency can be shown toward the perpetrator of a crime if he is able to prove that it was done to prevent certain outcomes that might cause serious harm "to his honor or property or the life and honor of others" for which or for whom he is responsible. According to the article, leniency should be shown if the perpetrator is able to prove that he did not do anything beyond what was required when undertaking the crime and that the damage caused is proportionate to the damage prevented.

In this case, Abbas ordered the word "honor" erased from the list of mitigating circumstances. Both the repeal and the change will have to be ratified by the Palestinian Legislative Council when it resumes its sessions, whenever that may be.

Killing over inheritance

Women's advocacy groups have found that men exploit the "family honor" clause in order to murder women in their families over disagreements involving inheritance or the desire of a woman to marry someone of her own free choice, as well as to conceal acts of rape or incest.

The Israel Defense Forces, which in a series of military orders changed various articles in the Jordanian and Mandatory laws that were in force in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, left in place those laws that discriminate against women. With the establishment of the PA and the Legislative Council, women's advocacy groups have taken on a bigger role in promoting equality for women (along with participating in the campaign against the occupation ) and are now focusing on the sphere of legislation. The various bits of legislation that show leniency toward those who murder women for so-called "family honor" reasons have always been a prime target. Western governments and NGOs have provided significant backing in this campaign. In fact, some believe Western involvement could work as a boomerang, if it is perceived as foreign intervention in Palestinian affairs.

Abbas' declaration, covered widely in the media, was immediately welcomed by human rights organizations, including women's advocacy groups. But a review of the draft of the presidential decree indicates that judges in Palestinian courts, who showed leniency toward murderers - handing down sentences ranging from six months to three or four years in prison in such cases - did not necessarily rely on the two problematic clauses mentioned above, but rather, on other articles not even mentioned in the presidential decree.

Leading women's advocacy group - among them, the Women's Affairs Technical Committee, the Palestinian Working Woman Society for Development and the Women's Center for Legal Advice and Counseling - were among the first to direct attention to this shortcoming. They are now urging the powers that be to adopt completely new legislation drafted by a coalition of NGOs, along with human rights organizations and the Justice Ministry. This new legislation is a sharp departure from the outdated penal codes based on Ottoman law, which - as one of its backers put it - see the man as a supreme authority and the guardian of the woman.

Still, activists in these organizations do not play down the significance of Abbas' initiative, and if nothing else, hope that it helps put the issue of "family honor" murders on the public agenda, while strengthening the ranks of the opponents.

The presidential decree has still not been officially published and is therefore not yet in effect. But as far as most of the public is concerned, it is already a fact on the ground.

Television call-in

The initiative that Abbas took seems to indicate a change in the public attitude toward "family honor" murders. Less that a week after the discovery of the remains of Barad'iyya, a special live broadcast of the weekly television program "Ala Almaksuf" (Openly ) was held on state television. The broadcast was transmitted from the studio and included a panel discussion with participants from Ramallah and the village of the murdered woman. All the participants expressed shock at the murder. Those from the village were quick to note that she had never done anything wrong. For feminist activists, these remarks indicated that had her behavior not been impeccable, it would have been considered fine to murder her - proving, in their view, that there is still a long road ahead in changing social perceptions.

The program's viewers learned that the family had been ostracized over rumors that sprung up following the disappearance of their daughter. During the broadcast, some demanded the death penalty for the suspect in the murder - Barad'iyya's uncle (a demand that prompted the women's advocacy groups to declare that they oppose the death penalty as a matter of principle ).

During the broadcast, Abbas' secretary general, Tayib Abdul Rahim, called in. The president and his wife are watching the program, he notified the viewers, and they are shocked and want to extend their sympathies to the family. The president will ask his legal advisers to look into changing the relevant legislation, he added.

The fact that this weekly television program devoted itself entirely to this highly charged subject indicates that new winds are blowing in the Palestinian media. "Up until about three years ago," says a veteran feminist activist, "journalists came to us, the women's advocacy groups, in order to get information about cases of murdered women that we discovered and researched with great effort. The media outlets didn't publicize them on their own initiative and didn't investigate them. Today we learn about incidents of murder from the press and from police reports."

Still, information gathered by the police and transferred to the Ministry of Women's Affairs in the PA government is not made immediately available to anyone interested.

"Abbas' step is good, even smart," adds the activist. "He sensed the public atmosphere and sent someone to call in the middle of a live broadcast - in this way, also demonstrating that he lives among his people." During all the years of campaigning to change the penal code (and family laws ), she says, "we have been up against a front of conservatives, extremists and cowards." Before the bloody conflict between Hamas and Fatah, she notes, it was actually Hamas officials who were more receptive to the idea of changing in the law. One argument that persuaded them was that the law is based on tribal traditions rather than Shari'a, the Islamic religious law. Shari'a requires testimony by four eyewitnesses in order to prove adultery.

But the conflict and internal strife strengthened the extremists. The feminist activist says Abbas understood that the reconciliation between the warring Palestinian factions was a good time to change the law. "I have no doubt that our criticism and protests prepared the ground for Abbas' step," she says, "but compared to the effort, time, work and money that we've invested in the war against murdering women and against the lenient and discriminatory legislation, it's a small step. It's not what we expected. We worked for about seven years on a draft for a new penal code, which because of the internal Palestinian conflict could not be submitted to the approval of the Legislative Council, since all ordinary operations were paralyzed. Abbas could at least have declared that he supports the new draft bill."