x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A question of honour

Rana Husseini had planned on a career in academia after completing her studies in the United States, but her desire to do something for the women of her own country has resulted in her leading the campaign against Jordan's secret shame.

Personal attacks on Husseini's western dress, even death threats, have only made her
Personal attacks on Husseini's western dress, even death threats, have only made her "more determined to carry on".

Rana Husseini had planned on a career in academia after completing her studies in the United States, but her desire to do something for the women of her own country has resulted in her leading the campaign against Jordan's secret shame. Alasdair Soussi reports. Rana Husseini has rarely shirked a challenge. She had planned an academic career but on graduating from Oklahoma City University in the early 1990s with both a bachelor's and master's degree, Husseini returned to her native Jordan with one aim: to fight discrimination against women. Nearly two decades later she is acknowledged as one of the Middle East's most influential human-rights campaigners, the woman who exposed Jordan's secret shame of so-called honour crimes.

"I wanted to go back to Jordan after my studies, and although I thought I might return to the US to do a PhD or something, I wanted to do something for women in my own country," she says. "There were a lot of things that needed to be done here? part of it was that I played a lot of sport and they used to discriminate against girls at school. I played for the women's national basketball team, too, and I was always frustrated that the men's teams had clothes and courts available to them but we always had to go begging to the federation. So since I've been young I've always been fighting against discrimination, though I never thought it would lead me to this."

By "this" she means "honour killings", a cruel and appalling practice that had nevertheless remained a national taboo subject, deemed too contentious for public discussion. At the time, some 25 murders were committed in the name of honour every year in Jordan, one of the highest per capita rates in the world. Husseini first became aware of the scale of what was going on when she was appointed crime reporter at The Jordan Times in 1993, a job that would not only change the direction of her own life (she never did that PhD), but that of her country's.

"An incident involving a 16-year-old girl shocked me the most," says Husseini, recalling her first encounter with an honour-killing case as a 26-year-old reporter in 1994. "It was the beginning of my career when I covered the death of this girl at the hands of her 31-year-old brother. She had been raped by her other 21-year-old brother, who had put sleeping pills in her tea before carrying out the rape and threatening to kill her if she told her family. But she became pregnant so she had to tell. Then he tried to kill her. She survived, but underwent an abortion. Later, she was married off to a man 50 years older than her, but that lasted only six months. On the day he divorced her she was killed by her brother to cleanse the family name."

She continues: "When I went to talk to her uncles who plotted the murder, I asked them why they helped to kill her if she had been raped? why they punished her. And they said she seduced her brother to sleep with him. Then I asked them why she would want to do that when there were other men on the street. In response they began criticising me for the way I was dressed [Husseini prefers western-style jeans and T-shirts to more more traditional Arab women's wear] and for studying in the US, and other things of this sort."

Sickened bythe callousness and brutality, Husseini began to take a special interest in honour crimes across Jordan. She exposed many such cases in the pages of The Jordan Times and also took the lead on public awareness campaigns to change people's attitudes and reform the law. "I discovered these killers were getting away with very lenient sentences," says Husseini. "Then I also discovered that women who survived these attacks were being put in prison at the women's correctional facility in Amman for their own protection. I was outraged."

So began a lengthy campaign for justice. Husseini has now written about her work of the past 15 years in a book, Murder In The Name Of Honour. Part autobiography, part exposé, it has a directness and edge that you would expect from a seasoned investigative reporter. It was, says Husseini, a natural progression. "I have tried to document what I have experienced in my career and document some of the cases that I went through. At the same time I felt that there weren't that many books written about this issue, so I thought it was very important to raise awareness for those who still don't know very much about honour crimes, to highlight the efforts in other countries, such as Pakistan and Turkey, as well as my own country Jordan, and to use it as an empowering tool for women."

But, it was Jordan that was foremost in her thoughts when she began to write the book five years ago and, naturally, provided the platform on which to construct its narrative. "There a good part of the book about Jordan, and Jordan deserves to be recognised because it's one of the leading countries in the world which has addressed this issue openly. There have been a lot of efforts exerted in Jordan and for history's sake this had to be documented."

Through Husseini's documenting of honour crimes and public awareness campaigns in 1999 and 2000, the taboo began to be talked about. Petitions demanding the cancellation of laws that discriminate against women received 15,000 signatures, and soon the Jordanian penal pode was under the spotlight. "Article 340 (of the Jordanian Penal Code), which stipulates that a man benefits from a reduction in penalty if, after witnessing his wife in an adulterous affair, he kills one or both of them, was amended, but it was Article 98 - which allows for a reduced sentence if a man kills in a fit of fury - that we wanted the Government to take action on," Husseini explains. "This is the Article that is used in all honour crime cases. Because of it, killers are still only getting sentences of between three months and two years."

Although Article 98 remains on the statute books (as does Article 340, whose 2001 amendment, which gave partity to women, was swiftly rejected by the new parliament in 2003, and remains so) the campaigns mounted by Husseini and her colleagues have produced positive results. The Government's introduction of the Family Protection Project in 2000 increased public awareness about domestic violence and started the process of changing male attitudes towards women and children. And, while the actual law changes remain few and far between, attitudes within the legal establishment itself have shifted.

"You see the change in attitude in Jordan regarding honour crimes reflected in the actions of criminal prosecutors, the people that handle these crimes and the judges. Now, some of the verdicts are issuing tougher sentences - not every case, but at least now there are a number of cases in which the sentences are higher. I think the public in Jordan have become more aware of this issue and the voices rejecting these crimes and calling for better laws are more now than ones that are calling for the laws to remain as is and for women to be killed."

The change in attitude has, in the words of Jordan's Queen Noor, "almost single-handedly" been brought to bear by Husseini herself. But her fight has not been without risk. Husseini's fight for justice has led to personal attacks and threats. After The Jordan Times published the full details of her first honour killing case, Husseini realised the strength of opposition to the public disclosure of such crimes, which, say analysts, have their roots in local custom, not Islam.

"One of the criticisms I received was from an intellectual Jordanian woman who worked in a high position and had studied abroad. She called the newspaper and started screaming at my editor, saying that they should stop me from writing because I was tarnishing the image of Jordan." Others were more threatening. "I'm going to clean my hunting rifle; it's the season for hunting coloured birds," read one letter.

But, as Husseini remarks in her book: "Oddly enough, far from deterring me, threats like these made me all the more determined to carry on. I had found my life's mission." The number of honour crimes committed throughout the world is virtually impossible to measure. The United Nations Population Fund has estimated that there are some 5,000 a year, though the figure is thought to be much higher. Brazil, Ecuador, Italy, Sweden, and Britain have all reported murders of women in the name of "honour". Now recognised as a leading authority on the subject, Husseini juggles her job as a journalist at The Jordan Times with regular lecture tours abroad. She holds a special regard for Sweden, which, she believes, led the way in raising awareness that this is not just a "third world" problem.

"I've been around the world exchanging experiences? but Sweden was one of the pioneering countries in addressing this issue and pushing Europe to adopt tougher measures and introducing new laws against people who kill in the name of honour," says Husseini. But gradually, especially in the Arab world, she has noticed a change in attitude towards honour killings. "Now, I go to lectures and it's very rare that you see a man raise his hand and say, 'I'm going to kill my sister,' which used to happen. In the past I found hostility, but now people are urging me to report on these crimes. Two years ago, I had my first public lecture in Jordan and it was an open audience - usually I get invited to a club, school or university and I know my audience. But this time it was an open lecture where 300 people showed up and after my talk, two young men stood up and asked me how I could help them change their own attitudes towards honour crimes. This was an important and interesting indicator for me."

At 42 years old, Husseini has more than earned her success. With a whole host of awards to show for her endeavours, it has turned her into something of an Arab celebrity. Yet, as she points out, it was the furthest thing from her mind when she began her fight. "Becoming well-known never, never occurred me and I never planned it. It was winning the Reebok Human Rights Award [in 1998] that was the turning point in my life. Until then, I just saw myself as reporting and documenting cases of these women because no one was writing about them and I wanted to be their voices. And then when I won this award I realised that I was doing something related to human rights and it became a responsibility. And, then I began to win award after award and I knew I was on the right track, and so I devoted my time, my career to talking about this issue?but the Reebok award really introduced me to the world of human rights."

Husseini has never been one to sit on the sidelines. Her early life - most notably her six years at Oklahoma City University - was a shape of things to come, even if she did raise many an eyebrow amongst her fellow Arab students on campus. "I worked two jobs in the US - as a waitress and as a security guard at my dorm - and my Arab friends thought it was strange and asked me why I was doing this as a woman, but I didn't listen to them. My father became sick after I left for university and he struggled a lot for us, so I felt it was time for me to take over and support myself through my studies. Plus, I knew that it would be good for my character."

She also credits Oklahoma, where she began her journalistic career writing for the university newspaper, with giving her an education in which "the teachers encouraged us to do research, to read, to be innovative". With an opportunity to indulge her passion for sports, and to work and study at the same time, Husseini was given the chance to "focus on the good things in life", of which a formal education was just one aspect. It has, in her own words, "reflected on my personality" and made her the woman she is today.

Husseini's success, much of which she puts down to the unstinting support from her family, is not something she takes for granted"People would say I'm a real modest person, and I've never felt arrogant about anything. I try not to turn down any invitation to speak regardless of where it is, and the only time I would is if it clashed with another invitation?I feel happy if I receive an award, of course, but I feel it is not just an acknowledgement for me, but for the cause, which is very important."

The actress, writer and political acti vist, Jane Fonda, wrote the foreword to Murder In The Name Of Honour, and with the book now out in the US and the UK, and due for publication in Arabic in October this year, Husseini looks back at her last 15 years with pride, but, as she explains, her work is far from over. "The most satisfying thing for me is that I know I have saved someone's life. Be it with my work, articles, lecturing, and I know that I can save more lives now the book is out. I think this is something that many people would dream of, and for me, this is the most satisfying thing?but I will never stop until the killing stops."

Murder in the Name of Honour: The True Story of One Woman's Heroic Fight Against an Unbelievable Crime (Oneworld Publications) by Rana Husseini, 12.99