Opinion: Where's the honor in honor killings?

Help me out here. Why do some men think that murdering their sisters or daughters will preserve "family honor"? What's honorable about killing women because of rumors that they are romantically involved with a man from the wrong tribe, village or religion? Does the honor of a family depend only on the behavior of its young women? Why do we make allowances for the behavior of these cold-blooded killers? Where is our criminal justice system? And why are the police unable to protect abused and targeted women? Recently, the Israeli press has reported extensively on several horrifying cases in the Druse and Muslim communities, where young women were murdered because they were suspected of "destroying the family honor." Arab women's rights activists tell me that the meaning of "honor" has been expanded over the years to include virtually any behavior by women not approved by family members. These might include challenging male authority, demonstrating independence, and behaving "provocatively" (based on a subjective standard established by the men). My friend and colleague Aida Touma-Sliman, chairperson of Women Against Violence, reminds me that "As women have gained mobility and freedom in decision making, men have increasingly felt their authority being threatened and have thus increased their control over women's lives, punishing them for any behavior that might be comprehended as practicing or expressing women's sexuality." One would have thought that such a primitive approach would have disappeared by now. However, we are actually witnessing a rise in the number of "honor killings" - there were 15 in Israel in 2005. Arab women's organizations such as Women Against Violence and Al-Badeel, literally "alternative" (an Arab feminist movement in support of victims of sexual assaults) have been demanding that Arab political and religious leaders address what amounts to sanctioned murder. The response? A belated and weak recognition that such behavior is unacceptable. But this stance is tempered by expressions of understanding of the need to protect family honor - even if it means killing sisters and daughters. SHAMEFULLY, the Israeli criminal justice system has done little to actively prevent these murders. Police often claim they are unable to intervene because abused women do not file complaints. Prosecutors do not take enough such cases to court, and thus the number of "honor killings" continues to rise. Last year more women were killed than ever. In Ramle, three women were murdered in the past year. Aida Touma criticizes the inadequacy of the police response, arguing that women don't file complaints because they see law enforcement does nothing to protect them. SO WHAT can be done to protect Arab women from fathers and brothers who abuse or kill them? Two pragmatic approaches have been employed: Some women have been assisted in leaving the country to begin life anew abroad. Others have been placed in protective custody. For instance, an attractive, successful Arab businesswoman came to my office years ago with a harrowing story. She was divorced from her abusive Muslim husband and had established an independent life for herself and three children in a major Israeli city. Recently, she had sensed that she was being followed. Catching a glimpse of a male relative, she became certain that she was being stalked for dating a Jewish man. Panicked that she was in real danger, she asked my assistance in finding refuge in another country. We were able to work with a sympathetic ambassador from a Western nation who expedited her emigration. A local Jewish women's organization in that country helped her with housing, schools and job opportunities. I have no doubt we saved her from becoming another victim of "honor killing." The other solution, protective imprisonment, has been used in Jordan. Women under threat remain in prison as long as the threat exists. Many are imprisoned at age of 17 or 18 and might remain imprisoned 10 years later. Of course, while being "protected," these women are also prevented from marrying or studying. All the while, the male family members who present the threat remain free to live normal lives. THIS SITUATION reminds me of the story about when Golda Meir was premier and a serial rapist was targeting Tel Aviv women. Several cabinet members suggested there should be a curfew on women from being on the streets at night. Golda asked why the women's freedom should be curtailed. Since the rapist was a man, shouldn't the curfew be directed at them? If the Jordanian leadership is seriously interested in preventing "family honor" killings, shouldn't they be imprisoning the men who threaten the lives of their sisters and daughters? In the final analysis, women shouldn't have to leave their homes for abroad or go into protective custody. What is really needed is new thinking: * Israeli-Arab religious, political and academic leaders must address the issue. An unequivocal message needs to go forth that there are better ways of retaining traditions. Indeed, some "traditions" should be abandoned. * The Arab community must stop sheltering or showing understanding for the murderers and their helpers. If anything, those involved should be shunned. * Schools should educate children about human rights and the equality of women. (Why isn't the Education Ministry funding courses in the Arab schools?) * The number of social workers has been reduced, and the Social Affairs Ministry waits too long to intervene in cases where Arab women are at risk. This must change. * The police are not spreading their net widely enough. The one who perpetrates the murder is usually aided and abetted by other family members - brothers, cousins, uncles. All of those who participate in the planning and execution of the killing should be prosecuted. * Finally, judges should stop accepting plea-bargains that reduce murder sentences to manslaughter or lesser charges. There can be no room for tolerance - cultural or legal - when it comes to "honor killings." The writer, an attorney, is director of the International Jewish Women's Rights Project.