Hip-hop for change: No honor in honor crimes

Palestinian hip-hop group DAM team up with UN Women to create a video that they hope will change hearts and minds.

Dam Palestinian rap 370 (photo credit: Courtesy of UN Women and DAM)
Dam Palestinian rap 370
(photo credit: Courtesy of UN Women and DAM)
Palestinian musicians, local groups combating violence against women, and UN Women on Tuesday launched an unprecedented music video in Ramallah and in Haifa as part of a campaign to fight against the persistence of so-called “honor crimes.”
DAM, a popular Palestinian hip-hop group whose three members are originally from Lod, and Amal Murkus, an internationally renowned soloist who comes from Kfar Yasif in the Galilee, teamed up to create a riveting video that they hope will not just go viral, but will change hearts and minds.
The song, “If I could go back in time,” appears to be the first to take on the taboo of honor killings – a term that refers to the murder of a woman at the hands of a close family member, usually because she is suspected of infidelity, having pre-marital relations, or defying the family’s choice of marriage partner.
The video, which was produced with UN funding, is a state-of-the-art production with eye-catching effects and powerful lyrics about the life and death of one young woman. Unpredictably, the video starts with a beautiful woman at the end of her life – an image of her with a bullet in forehead which then moved out and backwards. The viewer watches the awful struggle with the brothers who had stuffed her into the trunk of their car and drove her to a remote place, the flashes back to an earlier scene, to the controversy at home, to an attempt to escape, and later, to her life as a child. The message isn’t just powerful but artful - a cross between a Quentin Tarantino film and a cutting-edge R&B video on MTV.
“The video is not based on a specific incident or crime, but meant to describe the phenomena. But it’s based on true stories that we’ve been hearing for years, some of them happening to people we know,” said Tamer Nafar, one of the three musicians for DAM, which stands for Da Arabians MCs. “From January to August, eleven women were killed in the West Bank alone. This is very dangerous. It means our society is deteriorating, and that it’s a society that allows people to kill each other," he said at the main launch event in Ramallah, attended by Bir Zeit University students.
The project, which got underway more then two years ago, brought the performers closer to the issue. As part of their involvement, they visited shelters housing women in danger of being murdered by family members.
The death that hit Turkus hardest was the story of a 26-year-old woman living in Kafr Yasif, Turkus’ hometown. The woman, Nisreen Musrati, was shot in the forehead one morning in March after she’d taken her young children to school. The woman had been trying to escape her family, who lived elsewhere in the country, for five years, Turkus says.
“She was extremely beautiful, and there were always a lot of young men following her around. She knew she was going to be killed one day,” Murkus said. “For me, the video is a very important step. I’m ashamed that we have this way of treatment towards women – a full half of society.” Murkus added that the phenomenon of honor killings was not limited to the Arab world, and is an outgrowth of general violence against women. “Even Israeli society there are a lot of incidents like this, and I think it comes as a result of exposure to violence overall. Just last week an Israeli policeman killed his wife,” she said, referring to a fatal October 29 shooting of a woman in Bat Yam.
Suhell Nafer – Tamer’s brother and the co-director of the video - noted that while many blame the political situation for the slow improvements in women’s rights, this in itself is not enough.
“Everyone wants to blame the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli occupation, the siege. It’s easy to drop the fault on other people,” he said. “But actually, I think it’s all our faults. When you say something is an honor killing, you’re at fault, too. We need to throw these two terms out of our vocabulary, and you just shouldn’t be allowed to say them in juxtaposition to one another.” He said that the group hoped to circulate the video on the internet and social networking sites, but also by trying to get it seen by young people in schools and universities. “It’s a good brainwash, is what I would call it.”
Crimes of honor, as they’ve generally become known, were once a subject no one talked about publicly. In the last 20 years, however, the issue has come under scrutiny by the media and NGOs, which have increased public awareness of the problem. In the late 1990s, Rana Husseini, a Jordanian journalist with The Jordan Times, began regularly reporting on the issue – tracking down every report of an unexplained death of a woman or a reported suicide – often learning that these were in fact honor killings. Her award-winning work brought international attention to the issue and put pressure on governments to crack down on the phenomena.
However, punishments for men who kill a female relative to defend his honor are still considered exceedingly light. In the West Bank, where Palestinian laws are based on the Jordanian system, and in Gaza, based on Egyptian law, few people are prosecuted for so-called honor crimes. When they are, the fact that honor was involved is treated by judges as a mitigating circumstance. The UN estimates that about 5,000 women and girls are murdered and abused each year by male relatives as punishment for a range of behaviors judged to have damaged the family reputation.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas agreed in 2010 to increase penalties, said Soraida Hussein of the Al Muntada Forum, which works to combat violence against women. But the changes have not been implemented because the Palestinian Legislative Council hasn’t been able to meet – in part due to the split between Fatah and Hamas - and won’t do so until the next Palestinian elections, whenever that may be.
“All of these political problems means women’s issues are being held up. But Abbas could make a presidential decree,” Hussein added, “and say that each life has equal weight, whether it’s a man or a woman’s. The law doesn’t change culture, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
Some of the images in the video are disturbing. And the lines of the song – “Without shame, her brother puts his gun is his pocket” – are purposefully raw and shocking.
“A huge part of our message is to be brave,” said Mahmoud Jreri, the third member of DAM, the hip-hop group. “The people who are killing their sisters won’t like it, because maybe they will see themselves in this video clip.”