Family, honor, killing

Samar Hasson was murdered by her family for dating the wrong man. No one is surprised.

arab girl uf 88 (photo credit: )
arab girl uf 88
(photo credit: )
When news spread through the Druse section of Shfaram that Samar Hasson had been found hanging from a tree in a local olive grove, drivers on the streets began honking their horns. "Everybody was celebrating, it was beautiful," recalled a young man who works at the Hasson clan's auto parts shop in this hillside, Muslim-Christian-Druse town northeast of Haifa. "She caused her family a lot of problems," nodded a co-worker. Aside from the family members who buried her, no one knows where the body of the 23-year-old Druse woman lies. There was no funeral, no gravestone, no prayers, no mourning. "They took the body somewhere, dug a hole, threw it in, covered it up and that was that," said a knowledgeable local. "The family wants to be rid of any memory of her, like she never existed." Since Hasson's hanging was discovered on October 25, three men have been charged with the murder: Her father, Sa'id, and two of her uncles, Hani and Rafik (Hani has confessed and implicated the other two men, police say). Their motive, according to police and probably anyone you might talk to in this town of 35,000, was "family honor." "When it happened, nobody around here was surprised," said Faraj Kneifes, a Druse city councilman in Shfaram. A genial man of 50, he is also a member of the national Arab "sulha committee," a panel of respected elders who mediate between feuding Arab clans, or hamulas, in the hope of bringing about a reconciliation, or sulha. As his wife, Badia, served tea and cookies in the family's cushiony, plushly-draped, traditional sitting room, Kneifes stressed that he opposed the murder, noting that "honor killings" are also forbidden by Shari'a, or Islamic law. He allowed, however, that he could "understand" it. "We [Druse] are a very conservative society, and we are especially sensitive to the issue of family honor. We are much more strict about this than other Muslims - there's just no comparison. With us there is no compromise on this matter," he said. "I would have preferred that her father had dealt with this matter differently, not by murder. But this woman broke the laws of our community, she crossed dangerous red lines, and she had to know that she would be punished for it." The account given by police, Kneifes and other Shfaram residents is that Hasson, a single woman living with her family in the town's Druse neighborhood of El Ayin, began seeing a young man from the nearby Arab town of Tamra. He was a Muslim - but not Druse, which is an especially insular community that practices its own, semi-secret version of Islam, and which traditionally opposes marriages to non-Druse. Against her father's wishes, Hasson would go out with the man in his car at night. "In our community a single man and woman can meet and spend time together, but this is supposed to lead to marriage," Kneifes pointed out. During the months the couple was together, Hasson would stay away from home for many days and nights at a time. The assumption among locals was that the two were having sexual relations, which, by traditional Arab morals, made her a degraded woman who was degrading her entire hamula. "The Hassons are a very conservative, traditional, respectable family," said Kneifes, estimating their number at 600 to 700. On the main street of Shfaram's El Ayin neighborhood, a large produce market as well as the auto parts shop carry the Hasson name, and both are just up the street from the old stone house where Samar Hasson lived with her family. Kneifes said that while he himself did not speak to Hasson's father about Samar's behavior, other Druse sheikhs and community leaders did. They tried to impress on the father the urgent necessity that he bring his daughter in line, that he see to it that she stop going around with the Tamra man. The affair, Kneifes explained, "brought shame not only on her family, but on the entire Druse community." Nonetheless, Samar's forbidden relationship carried on. Everyone in Shfaram's Druse community knew about it. The men of the Hasson clan were "ashamed to be seen on the streets," said Kneifes. Now, however, in the aftermath of the murder, the Hasson men seem dramatically changed. "From the way they carry themselves, my impression is that [the murder] has been very good for their morale," he said. "The family has gotten its pride back." A veteran local taxi driver, a Christian, speculated that because honor killing is such a grave act, the Hasson family members presumably responsible for it would have first had to receive the "blessing" of leading Israeli Druse sheikhs. But Kneifes, whose late father, Salah, was one of the most revered Israeli Druse sheikhs of the past century, explained that in such a case as Samar Hasson's, Druse tradition would have left her family free to kill her on their own decision alone. "When family honor is at stake, no approval [for any kind of punishment] is necessary," he said. "And no one asks any questions afterward." YEAR AFTER year, an average of about 10 Israeli Arab women become victims of family honor killings, said Aida Toama-Sliman, head of Women Against Violence, a Haifa-based organization of Israeli Arab women. Of the roughly 1,000 Israeli Arab women who've passed through the organization's state-funded shelter for women fleeing violent homes, some 200 to 300 came there in danger of being murdered for "violating" their family's honor, said Sahar Daoud, director of the Galilee shelter, which has been operating since 1993. Four of the 10 women staying in the shelter are currently in danger: "Fathia" (not her real name), who was slashed nearly to death by her knife-wielding brother because she planned to divorce her estranged husband and remarry; "Iman," a divorced woman accused by her drug addict ex-husband of sleeping around and taking drugs, and whose brothers have threatened to mutilate her; a married woman who gave birth to a child after being raped by a relative, and whose brothers threaten to shoot her; and a single woman who was "date-raped," leading her parents and siblings to beat her even worse than usual. Because of the threat to these women, neither their identities, the precise details of their experiences, nor the location of the shelter, which is unknown to their families, can be disclosed. Fathia and Iman agreed to be interviewed at the shelter for this article; the two women who were raped did not. "When I woke up in the hospital I told the nurses I'd dreamt that my brother had attacked me with a knife, and they told me it wasn't a dream," said Fathia. Her scars show how real it was. "I want to live like a human being, not like an animal, which is how I've always been treated," said Iman. She was beaten as a child by her alcoholic father as well as by her mother and older brother, then by her first husband and later by her second one. ON A BRIGHT, windy Friday afternoon up in Shfaram, exactly one month after Hasson was found dead, about 50 women and a half-dozen men ringed the traffic circle in the center of town, next to City Hall. A couple of women wore the white head coverings and long skirts of devout Muslims, but the others were dressed in slacks or jeans. They were Muslims, Christians, Druse and a few Jews showing solidarity. "Murder of women is a disgrace... Your silence is not the answer," they chanted to passing drivers, many of whom slowed down to take the brochures being handed out. Shfaram Mayor Ursan Yassin drove past the protest in his jeep and ignored calls that he join them. Two Shfaram city councilmen, however, were there. "I came to identify with these women. This is a very bad, very dangerous phenomenon," said independent Councilman Ziad Hadj. Asked why he thought honor killings went on among Arabs in Israel - not to mention in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and other traditional Middle Eastern societies - Hadj replied, "We still haven't freed ourselves from the old mentality." Badia Kneifes was also in the crowd. Defending her husband against a local newspaper story that reported him as having justified Hasson's murder, she insisted, "His words were taken out of context. He said that this sort of thing has happened in the Druse community, but that he's against it. He goes all around the country trying to prevent violence. He's a very liberal-minded man, and my presence here proves it." An Arab TV crew was there, and so was at least one Israeli Arab newspaper reporter. The left-wing Hadash was the only political party represented. A teacher in the crowd said the Hadash-affiliated newspaper Al-Ittihad devotes a lot of space to the issue of honor killings, while the Islamic Movement imposes a virtual blackout on the subject. Toama-Sliman, who organized the demonstration and is herself a prominent Hadash member, said that since Israeli Arab women activists began speaking out publicly against honor killings in the early 1990s, Israeli Arab leaders have gradually become compelled to at least pay lip service to the issue. "Before the 1990s the leadership could allow itself to legitimize these kinds of crimes, but today it's understood that excuses are no longer acceptable," she said. "Condemning honor killings has now become politically correct." tanding back on the sidewalk, a group of men watched the demonstration wordlessly, appearing unsympathetic. Assured of anonymity, they said that while they were completely opposed to honor killings, they felt the protesters were going too far in the other direction. "We're not the Americans, we're not the French. We still hold onto our old mentality. I'm against beating women, but there have to be limits," said one of them. "Women can't be allowed to do whatever they want. They have to obey their husband. I don't believe in killing or violence, but if your wife betrays you, are you supposed to just do nothing? Every time you raise your hand to them they call the police," said another man. He spent two years in prison "for smacking his wife," according to one of his friends, who asked rhetorically, "Is that fair?" Like Faraj Kneifes, these bystanders all came out against honor killings and aggravated violence against women. But once that was out of the way, what they wanted to get across was how hard it is for Arab men when there's a wayward Arab woman in the family. They might have added that mere rumors of waywardness can be enough to get an Arab woman killed in the wrong hamula. And none of them offered a word of sympathy for Samar Hasson. "An Eastern man, an Arab man, is more sensitive about his self-respect than a Western man. A Western man acts from the head, an Eastern man acts from the heart, and some take the law into their own hands, even though this is wrong," said Kneifes. "Family honor," he continued, "this is close to God. For a man to raise a daughter and then murder her - he must have a very strong motivation. It's not something anyone does lightly. He must feel, from his point of view, that he is justified. And while I don't agree with him, I can understand him." THE THRESHOLD for "capital" violations of family honor varies with the family. The worst offense and the classic motivation for honor killing is a woman's act, or rumored act, of adultery. But Israeli Arab women have been murdered by family members for much less. Women Against Violence studied the court files of 25 honor killings that resulted in trials in recent years, and found that while adultery or rumors of adultery led to the killings of 14 of the victims, two were murdered by family members for "staying out late and smoking." Two others were killed because of their "dress code and living behavior." One was killed for "leaving the house frequently." The rest of these murder victims supposedly damaged their family's honor by divorcing a husband, complaining to the police of being beaten, refusing to have sex in a forced marriage, or marrying out of their religion. The women's organization also found that of the 33 family members convicted in these murders, 13 were brothers of the victims, five were fathers, three were husbands and two were sons. The remaining killers were their victims' uncles, cousins, a father-in-law and a nephew, as well as two sisters and a mother. In line with Kneifes's view that the Druse are far more exacting about family honor than other Arab communities, it may be that there is a disproportionately high number of such murders in Druse families. Toama-Sliman, who wrote a chapter on honor killings among Israeli Arabs for a recently-published book entitled Honor, examined the phenomenon across various societies, offering no opinion on how, or if, the problem differs between Israeli Arab religious groups. But of the four high-profile cases she mentioned in her chapter (which included the statistics cited above), three of them were murders in Druse families. One of these was the 1995 killing of Ibtihaj Hasson (whose relation, if any, to Samar Hasson could not be determined) in Daliat al-Carmel, a Galilee Druse village popular with tourists. This incident marked the first time the Israeli Arab media turned a spotlight full-force on an honor killing, Toama-Sliman wrote, as "the media reported the people of the village gathered around the body, clapping and cheering for the murderer." At the Israeli Arab women's shelter, nearly all the temporary residents are mainstream Muslim. Christians turn up "very, very rarely," said director Daoud, and Druse not much more frequently than that. "There are more than a few honor killings among the Druse, but they are very conservative, they place such a stigma on family scandals, so Druse women won't attempt drastic changes, they won't try to escape from their homes. Instead they'll try to solve the problem within the community," she explained. The shelter, one of two in the country for Israeli Arab women, the other having opened a couple of years ago, is in a large, plain-looking house in a residential neighborhood. Several of the women stay there with their small children; inside is a playroom with Winnie the Pooh and Disney characters painted on the walls, and a table with children's sculptures set out to dry. In one of the common rooms hangs a pair of framed embroideries, one that shows a mother embracing her daughter, and another that reads, "God Bless Our Home." Most of the women who come here, said Daoud, are in their late-20s and 30s, poor and with no more than minimal schooling. They originate from rural villages and cities equally. Many were in marriages forced on them by their parents, or in Arab badal marriages - a kind of secondary, package-deal pairing in which siblings of the bride and groom also marry, then often find themselves in a bitter, untenable situation at home if the "primary" couple divorces. Some of the women are the second or third wives of polygamous husbands, notably Beduin. Frequently the residents are married to men beset with mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism and/or unemployment. "Many of the women here grew up in a home where their father often beat their mother," added Daoud. "IMAN" CAME into the common room wearing makeup and lots of jewelry. Visibly tense, showing no emotion, she smiled with embarrassment when describing the more difficult details of her ordeal. Speaking little Hebrew, she answered in Arabic and a social worker translated. She said the first of her two marriages ended when she fled from her violent husband, who maintains custody of their son in an Arab country. Of her second husband, she said, "He was a drug addict and he wanted me to take drugs and sleep with his friends, which I refused. I asked for a divorce and gave up all my rights under Shari'a to a settlement, left all my belongings there, and went back to my family's house in the middle of the night. "At first I was afraid to tell my parents why I left, but then I did. They didn't believe me," said Iman. "They asked my husband about it, and he made up the story that I had been taking drugs and sleeping with his friends." Her parents believed their son-in-law. "They were ashamed that I'd left my husband, and they didn't want anybody to find out, so they locked me in the house for three months. My brothers warned that if I did anything to disgrace the family, they'd throw acid in my face," she said. One day Iman had to go to the hospital to get treatment for a chronic illness. "I told the social workers at the hospital what was going on," she said, "and that's how I came to the shelter." This happened a few months ago. Iman's hope when she leaves the shelter is to move to a new environment, find a job and start life over again. On average, women stay at the shelter for eight months. Afterward, about two out of three return home to their husbands or parents, having reconciled, at least temporarily - after a long mediation by Daoud, reasonable relatives, community leaders, social workers and police. "Sometimes the woman has to agree to change her behavior, too," Daoud noted. About one out of three women leaving the shelter try to cut ties with their families, take their children if they have any, and make a fresh start in a new city or village. But despite the large government rent subsidies and welfare stipends available to them, the odds against a poor, uneducated Israeli Arab woman making a decent life on her own are very steep. So these women often end up returning home, or wishing to return but being rejected by their families. Two women who came through the Galilee shelter were later murdered, but apparently neither was the victim of an honor killing, said Daoud. One had been in a child custody dispute and her murderer was never found, while the other was killed by her mentally ill husband. Coming into the common room in a sweat suit, "Samira" offered a sharp contrast to Iman, not only in appearance but in demeanor. Speaking broken Hebrew in a plaintive voice, she wept on and off. She seemed terribly submissive. Samira said she hadn't wanted to marry the man her father had picked out for her. "But I did what my father told me; I was afraid to look in his face, he always hit me," she said. After several years of marriage and childbirth, her husband, who was also violent, threw her out of the house, and she went to live in a small room with two of her children. They led impoverished lives on welfare. "I don't have any education or skills to get a job, and I was afraid the family would kill me if I got a job cleaning," she said. Many Arab families consider it dishonorable for a woman to work as a cleaner. As her children grew, Samira said, they also began taking out their dissatisfactions by beating her. Then one day at a government office, she met a man of means who seemingly fell for her on the spot. He quickly paid off all her debts. "I didn't know such a person existed in the world," she said, and after a few months he asked to marry her and she readily agreed. She planned first to get a formal divorce from her estranged husband, but her daughter found a letter from the man she was seeing and "went crazy," Samira recalled. "She began hitting me all over, scratching my face, pulling my hair. She said, 'You're not divorced from my father and you're going to marry another man?'" Samira ran out of the house and went to stay with a neighbor. But when she went outside a few nights later, one of her brothers was waiting for her in his car. "I tried to run but he caught me. I remember I was on the ground and he was holding a long knife," she said, and the next thing she remembers is waking up in the hospital. That was nearly two years ago. Since then her fiance has stood by her, she said, and they plan to marry when she leaves the shelter, which is supposed to be soon. "He said he'll take me to have operations on my skin," she said, rolling up her sweatshirt and pants to reveal the gashes that run down her arm, leg, back and stomach. Her future prospects leave her alternating between hope and fear. One day her brother, who was convicted of trying to kill her, will be released from prison. Her other brothers are also "hotheads." While she misses her children, who sob apologetically to her now over the phone, she wonders if they are sincere. "When we get married we're going to go live far away from my family, and I won't tell them where I am," Samira said. "But I'm so scared they'll find us anyway, and kill us both." ELSEWHERE IN the Galilee, on the main street of Shfaram's El Ayin neighborhood, the sky had just gotten dark. A wary clerk in the Hasson produce market said the owners of the family business weren't in, and that she wasn't a member of the family. At the Hasson auto parts shop, the two young employees sitting out front said the same thing. But when asked where Samar Hasson's family lived, one of them pointed to a white truck parked a block down the hill. "Right next to it is their house. Ask for Abu Tanike - that's what they call the grandfather, Salman Hasson. And don't tell anyone I sent you," he said. The house, made of stone bricks, had a few lights shining. On the concrete front porch, an elderly woman in a long black robe was bent over, sweeping with a hand broom. As we approached, she asked us something in Arabic and we replied, "Abu Tanike," and she went inside. Soon a short, trim, erect older man - he could have been in his 60s or in his 80s - emerged from a hallway into the living room and walked toward the open front door. He had a bald, pink skull and a thick white moustache of the kind worn by religious Druse men. He looked like he'd been sleeping. Tightening the drawstring on his traditional, billowing black pants, he came out onto the porch. Two men who'd been talking on the street were now standing alongside us. One told us Abu Tanike didn't speak Hebrew; but he would translate. We told Abu Tanike we were journalists doing a story on the death of his granddaughter, and asked if he would tell us what happened. Hearing this in translation, Abu Tanike turned to us and said a few Arabic words in a quiet, even tone. "He has nothing to say," said the translator. The old man turned and went back inside. His granddaughter Samar had lived here. Two of his sons are going to be tried for hanging her to regain the family's "honor." And by the code of this society, they'd succeeded. The Hassons were standing tall again. The elder of the hamula walked slowly and drowsily back through his living room and disappeared in the hallway. The stone house made a dimly-lit tableau in the dark. A broom being swept over concrete was the only sound - and it seemed to serve the silence, to accentuate it, to make its presence greater.