'Honour killings' - mores soaked in women’s blood

The “nightmare” haunted 18-year-old Rasha, eventually turning into a reality that ended her life, shot with a Kalashnikov while social media users watched live. The murderer, who live-streamed his crime, claimed to be her brother and that he was “washing away his shame.” There had not been many news stories on the incident, as the main story was documented in a channel on the messaging app Telegram labeled “Jarabulus News the Nightmare”, which accused her of prostitution and incited her murder.

[‘Honour killings’ is set in inverted commas as the term is highly disputed] 

Protests in Palestine against ‘honour killings’ (AFP)

By Nour Dalati, Hala Ibrahim, Reham Assaad and Mohamed Homs

The “nightmare” channel is dedicated to publishing scandals as well as practices by the opposition forces in the city of Jarabulus, in the northern countryside of Aleppo. Under the pretext of exposing the violations of the opposition factions, the channel often circulates stories about sexual relations between faction members and women in the area.

Rasha Bseis was the first victim of what this channel circulates. However, other young women, whose names and photos were explicitly publicised on this channel, accusing them of “immoral behaviors”, may be future victims of a Syrian tradition that grants the family the right to a girl’s life if they suspect of moral deviation.

Rasha’s story, which started and ended in public social media pages and groups, stirred immense sympathy which prevailed over voices celebrating her murder. However, with judicial statistics indicating that these murders are still widespread in Syria, such incidents often remain concealed.

The issue with ‘honour killings” ‘was first uncovered in 2005, motivated by human rights organisations and women’s groups. It resulted in a legal and judicial response. In the aftermath, laws related to ‘honour killings’ were amended, and the documentation of victims of these crimes began.

However, by 2014, the efforts to monitor this phenomenon had stopped as Syrian society was divided across geographical areas of military control. This was also due to the demographic and ideological displacement that scattered Syrian communities across the most stable cities of the country or in IDP [internally displaced person] camps and countries of asylum.

Within the borders, various forms of ‘honour killings’

In July 2016, the pro-regime newspaper al-Watan quoted the Attorney General of Rif Dimashq, Maher al-Alabi, saying that ‘honour killings’ have significantly increased. The newspaper estimated that they have quadrupled — based on what it called “judicial sources”.

Al-Olabi accused opposition fighters of “inciting girls to rebel against their own families and inciting families to kill their girls,” which, according to him, led to an increase in this form of crime.

However, statistics collected by Syrian state institutions do not cover opposition-controlled areas. This therefore contradicts al-Olabi’s claims and limits the increase that he references to regime-controlled areas.

On the other hand, in some areas controlled by extremist Islamist factions, this issue has emerged from the framework of the family into the framework of the application of Sharia.

During its period of control in Syrian territories, ISIS published several videos depicting the punishment of women accused of adultery by “stoning to death”. Many of these incidents are still documented on YouTube, including some that were carried out in the Hama countryside in November 2014 and in the city of Mayadin in the Deir ez-Zor countryside on May 14, 2017.

Al-Nusra Front also carried out similar punishments, but its women victims were executed by gunfire. At the beginning of January 2015, a video was circulated on social media showing the execution of a woman in the city of Maarrat Misrin, in the Idlib countryside, on charges of committing “immoral acts”.

These punishments, often amounting to public execution, generated fear that contributed to reducing scandals that lead to ‘honour killings’, according to Col. Adeeb al-Shallaf, Head of the Aleppo Free Police.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, Al-Shallaf confirmed that he has not encountered ‘honour killings’ during his mandate as Head of Aleppo Free Police. He attributed this to people’s awareness that they are in a general state of danger. However, he did not rule out that such crimes did occur but were never publicised due to their private nature.

The director of the Women and Child Care Office in Jabal Zawiya, Fatima al-Hajji, shared a similar point of view. By virtue of her connections with many Syrian young women, she believes that ‘honour killings’ are not pervasive in opposition-controlled areas. She attributed this to the fact that parents have started taking more strict measures in regards to their daughters, forcing them to dress in a specific manner and restricting their freedom.

Al-Hajji added to Enab Baladi that parents have resorted to marrying off their underage daughters out of fear for them and to prevent the possibility of their deviance from the behavior dictated by religion and society.

However, these solutions are clearly inadequate, evidenced by Rasha who was married as a minor but was not spared her fate or the brutality at the hands of her brother.

Abroad, justifications for ‘honour killings’ remain unchanged

Bashar Bseis, Rasha’s brother and murderer who used social media as a stage for his crime, was not the first to do so. In March of 2019, a Syrian refugee in Germany named Abu Marwan streamed live through his personal account and admitted to the killing of his ex-wife in front of their children. The pretext, he claimed, was that she married a man of different faith and denied him custody of the children.

Abu Marwan called upon social media users to share the video on a large scale, so that his ex-wife would be “a lesson for every woman who deviates from the straight and narrow path”, as he put it.

This man’s presence in a country that does not recognise “crimes motivated by honour”, as they are called in the Syrian judicial system, led to his trial and sentencing to life imprisonment. The German judiciary considered that he had committed the crime under “religious motives”.

The case of Abu Marwan sheds light on the transmission of some Syrian social norms abroad, without considerations of the secular laws that gave Syrian women in Europe unprecedented freedoms and protection from male authority.

In Turkey however, where the religious beliefs of Syrians and the host society are very similar, crimes committed by Syrians under the pretext of honour proliferated despite the strict enforcement of laws.

The most recent such crime occurred in August, when Syrian Mohammed al-Abed murdered his wife after accusing her of cheating on him. The crime was committed in complicity with the wife’s brother, according to details published by the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet.

Although Turkish law penalizes such crimes with life imprisonment, ‘honour killings’ are on the rise in areas of Syria controlled by Turkish-backed forces, which include the case of Rasha in the city of Jarabulus.

Col. Adeeb al-Shallaf believes that the chaos in these areas and the large displacement towards them from other areas have contributed to the increase in this type of crime.

Syrian law grants “honourable motives” as a mitigating factor

The Syrian Penal Code, promulgated by Legislative Decree No. 148 of 1949, exempts the murderer from penalty if they are deemed to have committed the murder due to “honourable motives” and considers motive as an excuse. The Penal Code was first amended in 2009, rendering the maximum penalty for a perpetrator convicted of a crime under such motive to be two years imprisonment.

This persisted until the issuance of Decree No. 1 of 2011, which rescinds the text of Article 548 of the Syrian Penal Code stating that: “Shall benefit from exculpatory excuse anyone who catches his wife, one of his relatives, distant relatives, or a sister, in the act of adultery or vulgar sexual intercourse with another person, if he kills or harms both of them or kills or harms one of them unintentionally. The perpetrator of the murder or harm shall benefit from the mitigating excuse in case he catches his wife, one of his relatives, distant relatives, or sister in a suspicious situation with another person.”

As such, Article 548 was replaced by Article 15 of Decree No. 1 of 2011 which abolished the use of the exculpatory excuse of preserving the family’s honour. However, Article 15 omits the factor of suspicious circumstances that may grant the killer a mitigating excuse for his deed, which the previous law did. Hence, maintaining this particular clause could expose Syrian women to the risk of being murdered under the pretext of honour, which stands as a legal justification for the defendant in a homicide case. In such cases where the act of adultery cannot be proven, the defendant can resort to suspicion of sexually dishonourable demeanor as a mitigating factor.

According to the new article, “Anyone who catches his wife, kin or sister in the act of adultery or erroneous sexual conduct with another person, and ends up killing or injuring both of them or just one unintentionally, shall be imprisoned from five to seven years for committing manslaughter”.

Therefore, if the murderer proves that his wife or sister has committed adultery, and that he caught the victim in the act, he still benefits from a reduction in the sentence — namely, a minimum of five years and a maximum of seven years imprisonment, as determined by the court.

The honourable motive in Syrian law

Article 192 of the Syrian Penal Code mitigates the crimes committed in the name of honour in addition to providing lenient penalties for murders triggered by the honourable motive.

The Penal Code defines the “motive” as “the cause that drives the perpetrator to commit murder or any other extreme behavior against the victim”. However, it does not specify the nature of the honourable motive, leaving the task of determining its exact meaning to the judge’s discretion.

After several attempts to properly interpret the honourable motive, the Court of Cassation reached several definitions of the legal term, such as “an unbridled emotional impulse that drives the murderer to commit his crime under the influence of a sacred idea that is far from selfishness, hatred or revenge, notwithstanding a personal interest or a private whim or purpose”.

Moreover, in an effort to determine the implications of this problematic legal phrase, the Court of Cassation considered that the honourable motive is “an unbridled emotional impulse that causes the perpetrator to commit his crime under the influence of a sacred idea which he could not ignore, neglect or suppress, and which consists of preserving and protecting one’s honour. The honourable motive stands as a justification once the murder takes place due to committing an act that tarnishes the offender’s sense of honour regardless of the time of crime”, according to the second issue of the magazine Attorneys entitled “Interpretation of the Court of Cassation Decision No. 1157” and published on November 30, 1982.

According to Article 15, the presence of the surprise factor is necessary to grant the mitigating excuse for the murderer: “Anyone who catches his wife, kin or sister in the act of adultery (…)”. Yet, laxity in reacting to the incident or delaying the crime to the next day or later negates the element of surprise, which is the main trigger for the killer’s rage. Thus, in such cases the murderer becomes no longer eligible for benefiting from such legal excuse.

The Court of Cassation also affirmed that “the honourable motive should not be taken into consideration in case it is not directly related to the act of murder. Such discovery may occur by means of other strongly suggestive evidences that the corresponding motive did not exist in the time of the murder which might have happened for other reasons”. Accordingly, if a father kills his married daughter due to her misconduct before marriage, for instance, he would not be granted the honourable motive which serves in other homicide cases as a mitigating factor for sentencing, according to the 1979 issue of the magazine Attorneys.

The difference between the exculpatory excuse and the mitigating excuse in Syrian law – ‘honour killings’ in Islamic Sharia

Sharia rejects individual vendetta and urges that such cases must be referred to the competent judicial authorities to process the details of the crime in a fair trial based on legitimate evidence and reasoned arguments.

Syrian Islamic scholar, writer and former member of the People’s Council, Mohammad Habash, defines the term ‘honour killings’ as “a crime of retaliation against a woman or a man resulting from a suspicion of perpetrating sexually obscene conduct. Such terminology is objectionable and unacceptable, in either linguistic or Sharia terms”. Habash insisted that the use of the expression “honour killing” “was familiarised through media discourse rather than the words of Islamic scholars”.

In his study Honor Killings between Sharia and Law, Habash stated that Islam firmly prohibited adultery and considered it as an ethical and social crime, especially “when it includes marital infidelity. In this regard, the glorious Islamic Sharia preserves the stability of the Muslim family”.

He added that it is evident that, “Islamic law determines a punitive punishment against parties guilty of adultery if proven by strong evidence”. At the beginning, the Islamic penalty for adultery consisted of whipping adulterers, which was a common form of punishment among Muslims during that period. However, throughout the history of Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), the punishment for adultery has undergone many amendments to suit evolving lifestyles and different legislative norms in each country.

According to Habash, the punishment for adultery in Sharia is not a private matter that can be executed individually and at any given time. He clarified that this subject can only be addressed by legitimate authorities which have a duty to enforce the law. Thus, carrying out the punishment can only take place after a given nation chooses and approves to implement such a penalty through democratic institutions. Likewise, Hudud (punishments specified in the Quran and the Hadith) necessitates several necessary and accurate conditions in order to apply the Islamic sentence correctly.

Nevertheless, the Islamic scholar pointed out that these conditions are “extremely severe and rigorous” which makes them impossible to execute.

He considered ‘honour killings’ an unacceptable act according to principles of Fiqh: “We choose to punish the offender by applying Qisas (the right of a victim’s nearest relative to take the life of the killer), with the possibility of easing the punishment and considering the mitigating excuse if the surprise element and the guilt of adultery are proven to have taken place during the time of murder. The complementarity between these factors would enable Islamic jurists to fulfill the purposes of Sharia, namely justice and fairness for all.

Habash also called for banning all forms of honourable vengeance, which he referred to as a clear violation of the provisions of Sharia and its objectives.

"The danger of pronouncing words such as “shame,” “scandal” and “honour” and associating them with crimes lies in the fact that the social structure and culture are reflected in its language. Therefore, the terminologies used to express an idea can affect its essence, and push one to address it in a different manner, as is the case with crimes committed in the name of “honour”"

Civic-artistic movements failed to support women victims of ‘honour killings’

A few years ago, the issue of ‘honour killings’ came into public discussion in Syria, and it resulted in the emergence of new legislation and a shift in judicial standards in their regard. Since then, victims of ‘honour killings’ among Syrian women and girls have been documented in official and unofficial statistics used by human rights activists to monitor the increase or decrease of the rates of such crimes.

At that time, the seemingly increasing pace of such crimes required greater openness to the problem as Syria ranked third among Arab countries in 2010 in terms of the number of ‘honour killings’, after Yemen and Palestine, according to statistics published by the Syrian newspaper al-Watan. During that year, 249 cases of honour-motivated homicide were committed in Syria.

Human rights activism

In 2005, the Syrian Women Observatory launched a campaign “to stop honour killings,” aiming to abolish Article 548 of the Syrian Penal Code and amend Article 192. Such legal amendments would ensure that perpetrators charged with ‘honour killings’ receive the same treatment as any other murderer without the possibility of taking advantage of the law.

Three years later, a national conference entitled The National Forum on Honor Killings was held, and was concluded by offering a set of recommendations aimed at combating ‘honour killings’ in Syria.

One of the women who participated in these campaigns at the time, human rights activist Rima Flihan, told Enab Baladi that the campaigns were carried out by activists and civil society organisations calling for the abolishment of the exculpatory excuse that justifies murder under the pretext of honour.

Flihan indicated that the pressure the campaigns exercised was focused on the legal system because the law is what facilitates and enables such crimes by allowing the perpetrator to benefit from reduced sentencing.

Following these efforts, Article 548 of the Syrian Penal Code was amended by Presidential Decree No. 37 of 2009, and the perpetrators of such crimes were then sentenced to up to two years imprisonment.

However, according to the Observatory and international human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch (HRW), these campaigns were not sufficient. HRW issued a report in July 2009 entitled No Exceptions for Honor Killings, which stated that the amendment represents a positive change to the law but still reduces the sentences of those who kill women.

Subsequently, Decree No. 1 of 2011 was issued in response to the pressure exerted by human rights campaigners, and as a result, the punishment for ‘honour killing’ perpetrators amounted to seven years as a maximum sentence.

This amendment contributed to a decline in crimes committed under the pretext of the defense of one’s honour and reputation.  Five years ago, the local newspaper al-Watan published legal statistics which indicated that the number of ‘honour killings’ has declined between 2012 and 2013 to about 47, describing these numbers as low.

The Syrian Women Observatory led the civil activism against the justification of murder under the pretext of defending honour. It also organised a series of lectures in a number of Syrian cities. However, this activity declined significantly during the Syrian revolution.

(Infographic by Enab Baladi)

Drama blows the whistle

Syrian television drama was liberated at the beginning of the last decade from several social and censorship constraints. It managed to break stereotypes and was able to reflect phenomena and issues that had previously not been brought to the fore.

Several television series addressed the issue of ‘honour killings’ in an attempt to advocate civil work that took the form of seminars, lectures and campaigns carried out by the Observatory.

The series “Ahl al-Raya,” produced in 2008, addressed an old social phenomenon in Syrian society and the issue of the murder of a girl whose virtues had come into question. However, the series presented her story in a dramatic way. The girl was acquitted due to the lack of witnesses to the “forbidden” act she committed.

Prior to that series, “Siret el-Hob” was produced in 2007,. It depicts a realistic situation where the girl was killed by her family, but the perpetrator was not held accountable because the case relates to his ‘honour’.

Several other series and films addressed the same subject in order to shed light on the issue and raise society’s awareness about its gravity. However, the way they tackled the issue did not offer practical solutions or call for legal measures to curtail it.

These initiatives, either at the civil, artistic or even human rights levels, do not seem to have yielded tangible results, especially during the war and the crises it has caused at the psychological, social and economic levels.

Phrases that incite murder

Labels that describe the murder of a woman for breaking the family tradition or transgression of Sharia and the prevailing law greatly differ. However, they often justify the act of murder under the pretext of ‘honour’ and the provoking emotions that motivate the perpetrator.

The common denominator in Syrian society is the term “washing away the shame.” The term “’honour killing’ is more common among the class of intellectuals and opponents of this type of crime as well as in media discourse. Syrian law sought to restrict these labels even further and introduced a new concept which seemed worse than the previous ones, “crime with honourable motive”.

Limited calls to reverse the meaning of ‘honour’

The organisations involved in this issue did not ignore the disaster brought upon by these labels and phrases, since the motive of the crime may not always be “adultery” or relations that are forbidden by religion or law. These crimes may be committed within the context of legitimate marriage without the knowledge or consent of the parents or as a result of interfaith and inter-sectarian marriage. This is very common in Syrian society, where there are many religions, sects and ethnic communities.

There have been calls to combat the verbal contradiction of associating the term ‘honour’ with crime, considering that ‘honour’ is a noble attribute that should not be associated with the shameful act of murder, regardless of the motivations and causes. Moreover, a group of able-bodied males collaborating to snuff the life from a defenseless woman or girl does not correspond with the meaning of honour, but rather contradicts it entirely and is an affront to the notion itself.

These calls to shift the labels manifested broadly across Arab societies, but were completely absent in Syrian society. Within Syria, such calls were limited to imposing heavier sentences on the perpetrator and defending the weakest party in these crimes, while Syrian organisations, which were active in this field, have failed to confront the issue of labels that serve as partners in crime and factors of incitement.

Despite the weakness of the Syrian human rights response to the ‘honourification’ of these terms, the “Jarabulus News the Nightmare” incident served as a wake-up call for Syrians on social media. The controversy was stirred by one of the perpetrators, who used the term “wash away your shame” to incite the brother of the victim to kill her. A hashtag denouncing the crime and calling it a “dishonour killing” spread on social media, attached to the picture of the girl’s corpse in the same position as she was killed.

“Those who kill under the name of honour are frenzied beings lacking mental and human powers,” said Syrian writer and activist Rima Flihan when commenting on the incident. “The lenient law encourages crime, and so does society and its prevailing norms”, ​​she added.

The terminology used in dealing with these crimes is associated with social tradition, which limits the honour of the family to the woman’s body and behavior, she clarified. Flihan also noted that labels such as “honour” are complicit in these crimes, but are not their only motivating factors. There are other factors too, she added, including the legal and societal protection offered to the perpetrators.

“We, as activists in the field of women’s rights, have always expressed our rejection of the idea of ​​associating a crime with honour”, she insisted.

The danger of pronouncing words such as “shame,” “scandal” and “honour” and associating them with crimes lies in the fact that the social structure and culture are reflected in its language. Therefore, the terminologies used to express an idea can affect its essence, and push one to address it in a different manner, as is the case with crimes committed in the name of ‘honour’.

The article was originally published 28 October 2018 by Enab Baladi. Read the original here. 

Translated and edited by AlJumhuriya/Docstream

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

IMS’ media reader on gender and sexuality

Navigating a changing world: media’s gendered prism

IMS’ media reader on gender and sexuality