Honour and the law in Jordan

by Sophie Dowle | January 29, 2016


TW: Rape, honour killings

Honour pervades Jordanian social attitudes. So-called ‘honour killings’ are one of Jordan’s dark secrets. If you read a local newspaper, you will find, buried in the middle pages, small articles about a young girl killed by her family to protect their honour; you will also see reports on the sentencing of the murderers.

The sentence for murder in Jordan is death. However, if the representative of the victim, normally a family member, requests leniency, then the sentence is normally drastically reduced to a just couple of years. In the case of honour killings it is frequently requested, as the perpetrator is often part of the very same family.

Honour killings, Fadi Zaghmout tells me, are symptomatic of society’s fear of sexual relations outside marriage boundaries. He believes this fear has led to some drastic measures regulating the relations between men and women, and these measures in turn distort this relationship.

Fadi is a Jordanian novelist and activist. He’s young, passionate and full of hope for social change in his home country. In his book The Bride of Amman, which has recently been translated into English, we meet a range of characters: from Ali, who is navigating the complicated path of being gay in Jordan’s capital, to Rana, a Christian who falls for a Muslim. These are issues that are often swept under the carpet in the name of family honour, but the novel does not shy away from tackling topics that are not freely discussed in Jordanian society.

The concept of needing to preserve family honour is enshrined in Jordanian law. Article 308—an article that Fadi describes to me as “horrible” and evidence of “how deviant the patriarchal thinking is”—offers rapists escape from punishment through marrying their victims. While the survivor doesn’t have to accept the marriage, in a country where a third of teenagers think that honour killings are justified in some cases, marrying the rapist often feels like the only option.

This law is hugely controversial, and many have campaigned against it. High-profile opponents include Queen Rania and Princess Basma of Jordan, who have both spoken out regarding the issue and called for parliament to debate the law. But so far only small steps have been taken to reverse it.

However, the call for change is getting louder. Most recently, the Jordanian artist Rand Abdul Nour opened her first solo exhibition in Amman, Jordan’s capital. ‘Woman II: Adorned with Jasmine’ is a visual memory of the pain and voices of raped women. Rand is an ebullient young woman, but her frustration with Article 308 and attitudes to honour killings is clear. The paintings in the exhibition are a direct response to her anger at the slow progress in removing Article 308, which, she says, does not comply with Jordanian traditions and culture. Her paintings are bold and bright. At the centre of her works are heavily patterned fabrics, mainly used in wedding tents. These patterns camouflage the figures of women, implying loss of identity due to oppression and abuse. But she still tries to assert the woman’s presence; the fabric covering her is juxtaposed against the flatness of the rest of the painting. But the message goes deeper, and addresses the decision-makers directly. Rand explains, “Ironically, these tents are also parliament election-campaign tents, where the same parliament members who refuse to change this article get elected.”

It’s not just Rand and Fadi who are turning to art and literature to voice their exasperation. In 2010, the Jordanian author Ibrahim Nasrallah tackled the issue head-on in his novel The Balcony of Disgrace. In The Balcony of Disgrace, Nasrallah explores how the reputation and social behaviour of female family members is regarded as an integral part of a man’s social worth. Fadi echoes this when he tells me that in order to tackle the issues surrounding honour and crime: “We need to stop defining men’s gender identity with their capability of protecting the honour of the family … Men’s gender identity needs to be reshaped. That young teenager who is trying to assert his masculinity in a tough masculine environment at a tricky age by killing his sister to protect his proclaimed family honour is not a hero. He is a criminal, but also a victim as well of the values of the culture we have. We need to work on that level to change attitudes and save both of our young men and women.”

Despite slow progress, the ever-optimistic Fadi explains that it takes time to trigger a social and political movement. He assures me that this is slowly starting to show, and that literature can contribute to pushing for this change. “I believe that literature is a very important medium to challenge attitudes and shape culture at large.”

Rand, too, feels that art can help to challenge the social constructs and ideals that cause honour crimes. But she remains modest regarding how big an impact her art can have. “I do feel it is a bit naïve and maybe even pretentious to claim that my art can change the world, or even amend Article 308. However, art, as a medium of expression that offers different perspectives on matters, can evoke and provoke discussions and make viewers ask questions that challenge pre-set attitudes and beliefs and gear efforts towards change.” And change, she says, is necessary.


Image by Rand Abdul Nour