Even Rumors Can Be Fatal

In September 2005, the Druze woman Huda Abu Asly was murdered by her brother, sparking the first public debate on honor killings in Syria. Ingmar Kreisl reports

Women in the Syrian capital Damascus (photo: AP)
According to official Syrian news reports, more than 100 honor killings were committed from 2000 to 2003

​​The Druze woman Huda Abu Asly was killed in September 2005 because her family members refused to accept the fact that she had married a non-Druze – a severe offence within the Druze religious community. On the pretext that her family wanted to come to a reconciliation with her, she was lured to Swueida, southeast of Damascus, where she was killed by her brother.

Every year other young women in Syria suffer the same fate, dying at the hands of their fathers or brothers because they have supposedly besmirched the family honor – which can be restored only by the woman's death.

And the perpetrators can act without fearing harsh punishment. Syrian law provides for significant mitigation of punishment for crimes motivated by issues of honor. Article 548 of the Syrian penal code grants significant mitigation of punishment if the perpetrator cites honor as a motive.

Da'ad Mousa, a Syrian lawyer and woman's rights activist, speaks of 100 honor killings in the period from 2000 to 2003, while cautioning that these are only the officially registered cases. According to a report by the Reuters news agency, 200 to 300 honor killings are committed in Syria each year, most in rural areas.

Since the perpetrators are always family members, the group of people who could potentially report the murder is restricted. Presumably, many honor killings never come to public attention.

Broad public support for campaign

Often it does not even matter whether the accusations against the woman are in line with the facts. A suspicion or even rumors within the family and among the neighbors is enough to make a supposedly immoral woman a liability for the rest of the family.

Yet the murder of the young Druze woman provoked a public outcry. In reaction to Huda's murder, the Syrian website "Syrian Women" launched an ambitious campaign against honor killings to make the broader public aware of the problem.

The project "Syrian Women" defines itself as an independent Internet platform that addresses social problems in Syria. It drew up a petition called "Stop the Murder of Women, Stop the 'Honor Crimes'", demanding the condemnation of honor killings.

At the same time, it posted numerous articles by lawyers, religious leaders and even members of parliament condemning honor killings.

The appeal was supported by many websites focusing on human and women's rights and was distributed throughout the Internet.

Six months after the launch of the initiative against honor killings, the Syrian government press joined the Nesasy.com campaign, reporting on honor killings for the first time.

All religions forbid honor killings

The Syrian daily Al-Thawra, which is close to the government, published a detailed study on honor killings in which many Syrian religious leaders, lawyers emphasized that all religions forbid honor killings.

In the meantime the campaign has received significant support across religious lines. Leaders from all the religious communities, including Druzes, have condemned Huda's murder.

Ayman Schufi, a Druze religious leader from Swueida, emphasizes that murder is forbidden in the Druze religion, even when it is committed from motives of honor.

In a statement published on Nesssy.com the Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmed Hassun, wrote that honor killings are a serious crime which the law must treat like any murder. He also demanded the abolition of paragraph 548, which often offers mitigated punishments for honor killings.

Dr. Muhammad Habbash, a member of the Syrian parliament and director of the Islamic Research Center in Damascus, similarly argues that honor killings are forbidden in Islam and are not in line with the Sharia.

Opposition from the conservative establishment

But despite broad support throughout society, there is also opposition to the initiative, mainly from conservative religious circles.

The Sunni religious leader Muhammad Said Al-Bouty, one of the country's most influential scholars, accused Nesasy.com and other women's rights movements of "undermining national unity". In an article published on his website he accused the women's rights organizations of supporting a "Zionist-American plan to destroy Syria".

Al-Bouty is not the only religious dignitary to criticize the women's rights organizations. On the website "Women under Islamic Law", Nada Al-Alie, a women's rights activist from Damascus, reported that imams called her an atheist in their Friday sermons, branding her as a traitor who violated religious rules.

Honor killings are becoming a public issue

For all the efforts that have been made so far, the situation has not changed. The campaign has not yet managed to abolish Article 548 of the Syrian penal code. There are plans to establish women's shelters in which women can seek refuge from domestic violence. However, though supported by the government, these plans are still in the preliminary stages.

Basam al-Qadi, who runs the "Syrian Women" homepage, explains that the most important aim of the campaign was to demonstrate the diversity of voices condemning honor killings.

The campaign has definitely achieved this goal, but it has a long road ahead to abolish Article 548 once and for all.

Ingmar Kreisl

© Qantara 2006

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole


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