Brutal murder stirs Palestinian debate on women's rights

PA promises reforms to ensure greater equality between men and women after the "honor killing" of Aaya Barad'iyya by her uncle.

Muslims 311 (photo credit: Kevin R. Wexler/The Record/MCT)
Muslims 311
(photo credit: Kevin R. Wexler/The Record/MCT)
A slain Palestinian woman, murdered by her uncle and three other men for disgracing the family, has evoked widespread public debate on the age-old practice of honor killings.
Aaya Barad'iyya, 21, a student from the village of Surif near Hebron, was drowned in a well near her home in April 2010 by her male relative, who disapproved of a marriage proposal she had received. Her body was only discovered 11 days ago, more than a year after the murder.
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The Palestinian street responded quickly to the news. Women and social activists demonstrated in Hebron last Wednesday opposite the regional council building, demanding severe penalties for the killers and demanding the Palestinian Authority (PA) amend the Jordanian Penal Code of 1960. The Jordanian law, which is still in force in the West Bank, makes it easy for perpetrators of honor killings to escape jail time.
Protesters waived a large banner depicting Barad'iyya's picture next to that of Yasser Arafat. One sign read "we want to return to our morals, not to the murderers among us." Facebook pages demanding the death penalty for the woman’s killers have appeared on the Internet. One page with over 2,000 supporters, "Perplexed Young Women" demanded "to be liberated from the tyranny of society against women."
Arij Ghanem, an administrative coordinator at the Palestinian Working Woman Society for Development (PWWSD), a women's rights organization, said the brutality of Barad'iyya 's murder set it apart from similar cases.
"She was thrown into a well with a plastic bag over her head. She suffered a lot before she died," Ghanem told The Media Line.
Practiced widely in the Muslim world, honor killings usually entail the murder of a woman accused of illicit sexual relations by her male family members. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that as many as 5,000 women are killed annually in such circumstances.
PWWSD provides a "safe home" for women in danger of domestic violence, but it only found out that Barad'iyya went missing when her body was found last week, due to a government gag order and pressure from the victim's family, Ghanem said.
"At first no one investigated the case," she told The Media Line. "Women's lives have no value, especially in Palestinian society. How could we have only known about the disappearance a year after it happened?"
According to Palestinian women's organizations, approximately 20 women are killed each year in the Palestinian territories on grounds of "family honor."
The PA was quick in responding to the public outcry at the killing. During a live television program dedicated to the incident on Palestinian state television last Thursday, Tayyeb Abd Al-Rahim, an adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, phoned in to convey the president's commitment to changing the Palestinian penal code and enacting severe penalties against perpetrators of honor crimes.
Senior members of the PA, including Abbas' deputy Hussein Al-Araj visited the bereaved family on Saturday and offered the President's condolences. On Monday, Barad'iyya 's family met with Abbas himself in Bethlehem. According to the Palestinian daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah, the family thanked the president for considering their daughter a martyr, for covering the funeral costs and for giving the family a stipend.
But Ghanem of PWWSD said Abbas’ commitment to amend the law is still unproven and needs to be translated into swift action.
"We have so far seen no movement on the part of the PA," she said. "We were told that three articles will be changed, but we still do not know which articles in the law were amended and what the amendments include."
Mouna Al-Khalili, secretary-general of the General Union of Palestinian Women, an umbrella organization affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said Abbas is implementing a number of measures that ensure greater equality between men and women.
"Palestinian society is moving towards equality," Al-Khalili told The Media Line, adding that Abbas decided to cancel article 340 of the Palestinian penal code No. 16 which grants "mitigating circumstances" for the killing of women by male family members. Al-Khalili said the article gives men an excuse to kill female family members for various reasons, including inheritance disputes, with legal impunity.
"They usually serve prison terms of between two and six months and are released," she said.
Hassan Al-Awari, a legal adviser to Abbas, told Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily on Tuesday that the amendment came as a response to the increase in violence against women in Palestinian society. "Public opinion believed that the amended articles had encouraged murder under the pretext of protecting honor," he said.
A strong tone of self-criticism surrounded the public debate on Barad'iyya 's murder. In a column published Tuesday in the PA mouthpiece Al-Ayyam, Sama Aweidah was particularly ironic.
"Another victim of backwardness; another sacrifice made by the Palestinian people waiting to become an egalitarian society which respects basic human rights," she wrote. "We forget that before we can demand our rights from others, we must respect these rights amongst ourselves."