Rights Groups' Qualified Backing for Honour Crimes Move

Decree removes protection for family murders but is not enough for some.

Rights Groups' Qualified Backing for Honour Crimes Move

Decree removes protection for family murders but is not enough for some.

Friday, 17 July, 2009
Civil rights groups have backed an amendment to the law on so-called honour crimes, but said the punishment for such murders of women by their male relatives was still not severe enough.

A new presidential decree earlier this month imposed a minimum sentence of two years in prison for men who kill their female relatives for engaging in extra-marital sex.

The law previously exempted honour crimes from prosecution because the man was “saving the family’s honour”.

The amendment abolished that legal justification for murder, said Amal Younes, a lawyer and a member of the Syrian Women’s Union, a leading non-governmental organisation for the defence of women rights.

The new legislation also abolishes “suspicion” as a justification for killing, she said.

The old law permitted murder even on just the suspicion that a woman related to the man by blood was tarnishing her family’s honour.

The notion of suspicion is very elastic and highly relative, Younes said. Some men mistrust their wife after a telephone conversation she may have or simply because she leaves the house, she said.

Many women’s rights activists have reservations about the change in the law, however.

It still fails to impose the fundamental principle that only the state and not individuals should have the right of punishment, said Bassam al-Qadi, who heads Syria’s Women‘s Observatory, a non-governmental watchdog.

“Do we live in the jungle where anybody who does not approve of someone else’s behaviour may decide to kill that person?” he said.

Many social groups in Syria condemn these types of crimes and say they go against women rights.

Nevertheless, honour crimes are relatively common in some conservative and rural areas where clan loyalty prevails.

Observers say that some families resort to these types of killing even when women get married legally if it is to men from other sects or without their knowledge.

The Women‘s Observatory estimates that about 200 such crimes are committed every year in Syria, though the interior ministry puts the figure much lower at 38 in 2007.

Women’s rights advocates have carried out a four-year public and media campaign for honour crimes to be treated like other murders.

Civil rights advocates say that discussing these murders has been taboo in the past but that today, thanks to their campaigns, media are more and more ready to shed light on specific cases of honour crimes and to denounce them.

In one recent case registered by the Women’s Observatory, Soad, a mother of two children who worked at a beauty parlour near Damascus, was shot dead by her brother after he suspected that she was working as a prostitute with the permission of her husband.

In another case Lubna, 17, living in the northern city of Homs, was killed by her family because she had fled to sleep at her sister’s home after her parents tried to marry her to a man against her will. Her family also suspected that she was not a virgin but the post mortem showed this was not the case.

In addition to the legal provision, civil rights groups say that awareness campaigns should be carried out to overcome male chauvinist attitudes that lead to such crimes.

“The national campaign to abolish honour crimes … is aimed at making people and officials aware of these crimes,” said Qadi. “If it weren’t for this campaign the issue would have been forgotten.”

In recent years, the campaign organised many public debates with clerics who oppose these crimes. It also gathered thousands of electronic signatures of support.

Observers said that although the Syrian authorities had responded positively to these campaigns, they did not follow all the recommendations of civil rights groups that emerged from a major conference at the end of last year.

Bassel Jubaili, an activist against honour crimes, pointed out that the new amendments did not touch upon another law which gives a judge the authority to reduce a sentence if he deems that the crime’s motives were “honest”.

Jubaili said that this law could still be used to protect perpetrators of honour crimes and insisted it should be abolished.

Civil rights advocates say they will continue the fight.

“The road is thorny,” said Younes, but she said the success in getting the law change would spur campaigners to continue the struggle.
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