"Murder in the name of honour": that was the headline under which the Jordan Times ran the first investigative report into honour killing in Jordan in the mid 1990s. Until then honour killing was a taboo subject rarely addressed by the media. But hte newspaper challenged the taboo and exposed the injustice to which women have been subjected.
The report provoked severe criticism from conservative forces in society. But the newspaper's extensive coverage of the subject triggered a campaign to fight the killings. The royal family threw its weight behind efforts to fight the practice. The religious establishment issued fatwas prohibiting the killing of women by male members of their families for allegedly violating the honour system. But a conservative parliament was not convinced. It aborted a government initiative to amend laws that were lenient to the perpetrators of these crimes.
Honour killing is the most brutal manifestation of discrimination against women in male-dominated Arab societies still influenced by anachronistic values. But it is not the only one. Conservatism, religious fundamentalism and pseudo-liberalism are cultural forces preventing women from realising their potential or condemning them to moral judgments that subject them to various levels of social persecution.
Despite the significant progress many Arab countries have made towards gender equality in education, employment and political rights, women are still the victims of a collective culture unwilling to recognise their full human and civil rights.
The rise of religious fundamentalism across the Arab world has substantially slowed the emancipation of women. Fundamentalists seek to imprison women within limited social and political roles and do not accept gender equality. In their view, women should play a limited role in public life. They see women as lesser humans incapable of occupying significant public positions. To them, women's most suitable place is at home, raising children and caring for their husbands.
Religious extremists have found natural allies in conservative populations. Tradition has placed endless constraints on women. It has given men the right to judge them morally and to control them through a distorted definition of honour. Education and career achievement provide no rescue for women from a collective culture under which men enjoy rights that can go to the extent of killing female relatives for "tarnishing" the family honour. Laws, like those in Jordan, do little to protect women as "honour killing" convictions carry a maximum sentence of two to three years imprisonment.
In the face of fundamentalists and conservatives, however, at least women know what they are up against and have been able to fight back. They have won major battles in the struggle for career advancement and political participation as political reforms and education have allowed them entry into previously exclusive male domains. In many Arab countries, women have assumed ministerial positions, joined parliament and filled leading positions in business and the professions.
But it is in dealing with pseudo-liberals that emancipated women face a dilemma. Claims to social liberalism in generally conservative societies are often false protestations. Women who live outside the lifestyle prescribed by tradition are good enough to be girl friends and hangout buddies, but not good enough to be partners or family. They are constantly judged according to a moral system that rejects social liberalism as dishonourable.
Even in open societies, traditional social values define the perception of women. There are numerous cases of women who have socially suffered for having associated with men with claims to a liberal identity but who ultimately judged them by the same distorted concept of honour. They have been socially persecuted not just by the conservatives, but also by pseudo-liberal men who, behind the masks of modernity and openness, hide a condescending view of women living outside traditional boundaries.
Political rights have been the criteria against which the emancipation of women in the Arab world is measured. Social and civil rights must carry the same weight. In many cases, governments have been allies for women in their pursuit of political rights, but they have done very little to liberate them from social oppression. Nor have governments moved to ensure the civil rights of women, who make up more than half of Arab societies. Legal discrimination still exists and education enforces negative stereotypes.
Social dictatorship has proven an insurmountable force in the Arab world. Women have been its worst victim. There is a clear need for a long-term process to end gender discrimination, beginning with reforming educational systems with a view to enforcing positive attitudes towards women and for giving priority to empowerment programmes.
Governments can argue that they cannot move too far ahead of societies in cultural issues. But they cannot justify failure to end legal discrimination. Legislative reform to discourage negative practices and improve the status of women need not wait. Civil laws deny women numerous rights, such as passing nationality to their children and, in some countries, even preventing them travelling without the consent of their husbands.
Governments might be helpless against a cultural system that "kills" women socially for leading non-traditional lifestyles. But they can certainly change laws that allow men to get a way with murder in the name of honour.
Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad in Jordan and a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs