The Father as Murderer

Time and again, young women in Islamic countries are the victims of so-called "honour killings". Now, an inter-denominational initiative in Beirut is attempting to prevent such murders. Christina Förch reports

Fida was 17 when she was murdered. The killer crept up on her and shot her as she slept. Her mother died with her, for she had tried to protect her daughter. The man who fired the shots was Fida's own father. His motive? He felt that she had sullied his family's honour.

The crime was committed last August in the Lebanese capital, Beirut. Fida's family had lived in Germany for many years. The children were well-integrated into German society, and even the mother spoke German.

Only the father lived in isolation there – he was unemployed, he had hardly learned the language, and he rejected the foreign social environment of Germany. Overcome by a feeling of humiliation, he felt he was losing control over his daughter. So he decided to bring the family back to Lebanon, under the pretext of taking a long-desired holiday in their home country.

Telltale diary

Fredericke Weltzien is Evangelical pastor to the German-speaking community in Beirut. She remembers Fida well: "One day, a girl turned up here in floods of tears. She was sure her father was going to kill her."

He had read Fida's diary, in which she had written about her relationship to her boyfriend in Germany. Now, to ensure her own safety, Fida wanted to return to Germany immediately – but as she was still a minor, this was not possible.

For two days, the pastor hid the girl amongst the Protestant community. When she left, Fida intended to seek refuge with an uncle she felt safe with.

Two months later, she was dead. "If the family had never gone to Germany and Fida had had a traditional upbringing, maybe she'd still be alive", says Fredericke Weltzien. But "honour killings" don't just take place amongst immigrant families in the West.

Christian-Islamic cooperation

Fida's grim fate prompted Weltzien to start an unusual initiative. She explains: "Some time later, I met a Shia Sheikh, who was also campaigning to oppose violence against women.

In a separate case, Sheikh Hassan Sharifi was able to intervene and persuade a Lebanese man not to beat his German wife. He did so by explaining that such behaviour conflicted with the teachings of Islam."

The female pastor and the Sheik joined forces and started looking for reinforcements. They were joined by a Maronite priest, by several women lawyers, and by various representatives of women's organisations.

At the end of February, this new forum held its first conference at the Goethe Institute in Beirut. Further events are planned. The idea is to increase public awareness of "honour killings", and to combat them on an inter-religious basis.

Violence against women – everywhere

Fredericke Weltzien emphasises the following point: "Violence against women is a problem common to all religious groupings, and it takes place in very country and in every social class. It's not just something that Arabs have to worry about, and it's certainly not a problem specific to Islam."

The people on the podium represented a number of different approaches. The Lebanese women's rights campaigner Danielle Howayek said that, in Lebanon, violence is still a private rather than a public phenomenon.

She called for more work to publicise the issue, and for a change to the Lebanese laws, which often protect the attacker. In addition, she demanded that the term "honour killing" be banished from the discussion – for honour and murder, she said, were wholly irreconcilable.

Islam requires that women be respected

Sheikh Sharifi is a member of the Supreme Islamic Council of the Shia. He complained that Islamic law was frequently misinterpreted, declaring: "Tradition is the problem, not religion." Islam, he said, did not permit violence against women; indeed, the Koran states specifically that women must be respected.

The Sheikh sees it as his main role to explain to the faithful the true meaning of the religious laws. This is certainly an important task for any religious leader in his or her community. But Sharifi has played an active part as a middleman and judge, in cases of acute crisis.

He states his position unequivocally: "Had I known about Fida, I would have made sure her father went to prison, and she would still be alive today". Sadly, however, it's still rare to hear such clear statements from an Islamic scholar and religious dignitary.

How many victims? Nobody knows

The Maronite Christian priest, Father Hadi Al'aya, took a decidedly Christian standpoint and appealed to people's consciences. Father Al'aya has established a counselling service in a Lebanese jail, where he is currently caring for 24 prisoners who have committed an "honour killing": fathers, older brothers and other relatives of the victims.

He provided statistics and background information on the social origins of the killers, on the weapons they used and their motives for the crime. In 2003, three such cases came up in court, but the number of killings that never come to light is likely to be very much higher. Most of these men came from poor backgrounds and had little education.

The first women's refuge in Beirut

The priest reported that Fida's father still believes he did the right thing. But he goes on to say that the man would prefer to be executed, "so that his conscience will cease to torment him", rather than face a long jail sentence.

Father Al ‘aya: "The offenders need a space where they can think about what they have done, and where they can show regret." For when no such space is available, many of these men go on to commit further crimes after they have been released from prison. In Father Al'aya's view, then, it's vitally important to work with the prisoners' consciences.

An inter-confessional initiative of this kind is an important step towards combating gender-specific violence. Indeed, for the practice of social work in a multi-religious land such as Lebanon, such cooperation is indispensable.

But even if priests, pastors and sheiks can help in individual cases, this won't be enough. There is hope, however: soon, the charity Caritas will begin building the first women's refuge in Beirut. It's another step in the right direction.

Christina Förch

© 2004

Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan