A stain on their honor

As Palestinian women seek to gain greater economic and social independence, the territories have seen a surge in honor killings.

Women demonstrate against violence against women at the spot where Nancy Zaboun was murdered by her husband in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on July 31, 2012; the sign declares in Arabic, ‘Protecting women from violence is an official and social responsibility’ (photo credit: ISSAM RIMAWI / FLASH 90)
Women demonstrate against violence against women at the spot where Nancy Zaboun was murdered by her husband in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on July 31, 2012; the sign declares in Arabic, ‘Protecting women from violence is an official and social responsibility’
(photo credit: ISSAM RIMAWI / FLASH 90)
One late evening last September, following a quarrel over the phone, a man, who Thamar Zeidan had been seeing, crashed his car twice outside her home after driving frantically from the next town, while intoxicated, to go visit her.
The small, conservative, northern West Bank village of Deir al Ghusoun imploded with the scandalous gossip that the 33-year old divorced mother of two was having an affair with a man who allegedly frequently spent the night at her house.
Two days later, members of her immediate family, headed by an elder who serves as a Hamas member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, gathered and signed a proclamation condemning Zeidan’s “disgraceful and outrageous” acts that “violated God’s law, customs and moral code.” They also condemned her father, 60-year-old Munther, for failing to “keep his family in check.”
The notice, which formally disowned the family and absolved the signatories of all legal and tribal obligations towards its members, was pasted on the walls around the village and outside the mosque. It was signed by 51 individuals.
The following day Zeidan was strangled to death with a length of wire. Her father confessed to the act and “family honor” was restored.
“I don’t know what he was thinking,” Zeidan’s younger brother, Tamer, tells The Jerusalem Report from their red-roofed family home that is perched on the hill overlooking the village. “I know he was under a lot of pressure and couldn’t handle the street talk and the way our relatives ostracized him,” he adds solemnly.
The father is now behind bars awaiting trial.
The Hamas lawmaker involved in the proclamation, Abdel Rahman Zeidan, denied charges in the Palestinian media that the public denunciation had incited her murder and said that as an elder of the family, he was merely exercising his authority. “We, as members of the Zeidan family, met and discussed this issue, and we did in fact agree to publish a statement that absolves us from the father. The alternative would have been to banish him and his family from the West Bank,” he told the Ma’an news agency.
Observers noted that this was the first known incident in which family members signed such a public document that, in effect, called for a woman’s killing. They added, however, that crimes “to restore family honor” were almost always the result of direct or indirect societal pressure.
Despite signs of urbanization and modernization in Palestinian society, the West Bank is still largely traditional and patriarchal, with many areas still governed by an ancient tribal system. Steeped in a collective sense of identity, inappropriate behavior, especially perceived sexual indiscretion committed by women, brings shame to everyone in the immediate and extended family, and bloodshed is the only way to “wash away the shame.”
So-called honor crimes are common throughout the Middle East, though precise figures are often elusive. Palestinian rights and women’s groups strongly denounce the practice and say it has been on the rise. In 2013, 29 women were killed by male relatives in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – more than twice the number the year before. In 2011, five women were killed.
“This is scary, the numbers are scary,” Soraida Hussein, director of the Women’s Affairs Technical Committee said in a news conference in Ramallah.
“The killing of women is a clear indication of what’s happening inside our homes, in our society, and where our society is headed,” she said. “We have to open our doors and windows and we have to let the air in; we have to clean.”
Palestinian Authority Minister of Women’s Affairs Rabiha Diab contended that traditionalism and patriarchy run deep in the Palestinian territories, home to some 4.4 million residents. But laws that are too lax on killers, and a legal system that does not treat men and women equally, is also contributing to the rise in violence and impunity towards women, she noted to reporters in Ramallah. “We are together the outcome of our culture and traditions,” Diab declared. “But we need Palestinian laws that deter anyone who even thinks about committing violence against women.”
The Al Haq rights group says the Palestinian legal system is a flawed and antiquated jumble of laws inherited from successive colonial powers. Leniency towards honor killings dates back to the 1960 Jordanian penal code, parts of which are still in effect in the West Bank, which was under Jordanian rule until its occupation by Israel in 1967. Perpetrators could get as little as three months in prison.
In 2011, following a public outcry over the killing of Aya Baradiyah, a young woman from Hebron who was drowned in a well by her uncle, who disapproved of her suitor, PA President Mahmoud Abbas revoked a clause in the law that deemed the “restoration of a family’s honor” a mitigating circumstance.
“That amendment was purely cosmetic,” Al Haq attorney Tahseen Elayyan tells The Report. “It did not change anything; it only served to calm the public’s anger.”
The penal code, Elayyan says, still includes at least four laws listing circumstances that could be used to mitigate crimes against women. Men, he said, routinely exploited these provisions in the law in order to kill women over disputed inheritances, out of jealousy, for refusing an arranged marriage, to remarry, or to conceal rape and incest by claiming in court to have acted in the name of “family honor.” According to Elayyan, “the law unfortunately provides protection to people who commit crimes against women.”
In the village of Yatta, south of Hebron, last September, a week before Zeidan was killed, a 20-year-old mentally disabled woman who had been raped, was killed after she was found to be pregnant. Her killer is believed to be either her father or her mother.
In 2012, 28-year-old Nancy Zaboun’s husband slit her throat in broad daylight in the bustling Old City market of the West Bank city of Bethlehem as she left the courthouse following a divorce hearing. The incident provoked widespread outrage and women took to the streets in Bethlehem and Ramallah in protest, demanding a stiff punishment for her killer.
It soon emerged that Zaboun, a mother of three children, had been trying for years to divorce her abusive husband, a policeman. She had been hospitalized with injuries on several occasions. But she was caught up in the lengthy court procedures imposed on women who file for divorce. Under Palestinian law, in order for a woman to obtain a divorce, she must get her husband’s approval, or prove that he has mistreated her through tangible evidence or witnesses – a process that often takes months, even years.
In reaction, religious authorities announced reforms to the divorce laws meant to facilitate the divorce process for women, without the need to provide evidence. But Palestinian lawyers say the laws governing divorce and custody rights remain slanted in favor of men, who have the privilege of obtaining a divorce without even going to court.
Palestinian officials say the passing of stricter laws or making any drastic changes to the penal code is currently frozen by the absence of a Palestinian parliament, which has not met since 2007 – when the West Bank and Gaza Strip were politically severed from each other after Islamist Hamas took over Gaza in an armed coup. The recent amendments to the law do not apply in Gaza.
The PA, which exercises self-rule over limited parts of the West Bank, also says it struggles to persuade people to trust the police and go through the court system, because many areas, especially rural ones, are still largely governed by an archaic tribal system.
The tribal system of crime and punishment, which dates back centuries, has remained the mainstay of social order in much of the West Bank, resolving everything from car accidents to custody battles and murders. Pundits say the system is effective in its own way, in providing swift justice by requiring perpetrators and victims to agree to a settlement, and has tremendous authority to compel guilty parties to pay monetary compensation. But the system is entirely male-run. Women cannot attend these meetings, let alone speak.
“The entire system is established on the concept of ‘manhood,’ where male elders of the family make all the decisions,” head of the Development Studies Department at Al Quds University Fadwa al Labadi, tells The Report. “Women are completely excluded from that system, even when it comes to issues that directly involve them.”
Under the tribal system, she says, women have no chance of securing their basic rights, let alone becoming equal partners in the system itself. “We in the women’s movement demand that this system be eradicated completely,” she declares.
Al Labadi adds that people only turn to the official justice system as a “plan B,” when the tribal proceedings do not go in their favor. Spreading awareness for the issue, she adds, is imperative. In December, a group of 22 rights organizations launched a 16-day campaign entitled, “Yes to my right to live; yes to Palestinian laws that deter crimes.”
In 2012, in the village of Samoa, near Hebron, Randa Maharik, who suffered from epilepsy, was forced into marriage at age 28 to a man who was in his 80s, who was already married and had children and grandchildren. Her husband, a Bedouin man from the Negev Desert in Israel, began beating her after she refused to get involved in a dispute with his extended family. He threw her out of his house and she returned to her parents’ home.
Maharik’s divorce lawyer and friend, Salwa Banoura, said that before she was married and after she came home, she was made to live in a garage, a storage room with no windows. And her family called her “crazy” because of her medical condition. “She looked neglected, and misery was evident on her face,” Banoura tells The Report. “She looked so much older than her age.”
Banoura explained that soon after Maharik’s return home, her father started demanding that she give him her dowry, 300 grams of gold, which she had kept hidden at a neighbor’s house. Her father and brother would routinely go into her room, go through her belongings and beat her. But she refused to give it to them.
One day in July 2012, she reported the abuse to the Palestinian police, which held both her father and brother for four days before releasing them on bail. Two days later, Maharik died of seven broken ribs. Her brother was charged with the killing.
According to a 2013 report on violence against women, published by the Palestinian Miftah organization, 54.8 percent of married women have suffered from some form of domestic violence, with 23.5 percent saying they suffered from physical abuse from their husbands. But only 0.8 percent of women ever reported the abuse to the police.
Sixteen Arab women were killed by male relatives in Israel in 2010, but numbers have gradually declined since. Women’s groups credit the improvement to their launching of aggressive awareness campaigns, and demands that police do more to prevent crimes against women.
Many activists believe the rise in honor killings and violence against women in the Palestinian territories reflects the rise in social and economic problems. The West Bank and Gaza Strip suffer from an average unemployment rate of 27 percent, and a 17 percent poverty rate, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
Though the city of Ramallah boasts the first elected female governor in the West Bank, and in 2012, the city of Bethlehem elected its first female mayor, Vera Baboun, women make up only 17.4 percent of the workforce. And though over 50 percent of Palestinian university students are now female, nearly half the women with higher education degrees remain unemployed.
Some researchers argue that the rise in honor killings is a reflection of a shift and an inevitable struggle. As Palestinian women seek to gain greater economic and social independence in a male-dominated culture, their male family members are trying to maintain or regain their authority through oppression and violence.
In Deir el Ghusoun, Zeidan’s sister-inlaw, 21-year-old Alhan, says Thamar was a headstrong woman who loved life. “She used to love going out, she loved living, buying clothes, makeup and getting her hair done,” Alhan tells The Report.
But she felt that she had “missed out” on life. She got married at age 15, and had to move back in with her parents after she got divorced and lost custody of her children. She was in love with the man she was seeing, Alhan says, and wanted to marry him and start a new life. But her family was adamantly opposed to it, saying they did not approve of his drinking and the fact that he had an ex-wife and children in another country.
“Everything that happened to Thamar was wrong, from the beginning till the end,” Alhan said.