The women of Dar Amneh

In Jordan, members of civil society have set up the first shelter for women who are under threat of death from their own families. For one year now, such women have been able to turn to Dar Amneh for help and support. A report by Claudia Mende

By Claudia Mende

Every time Raghda Al Azzeh's cell phone rings, she gets nervous. It might be a woman in urgent need of help. A woman requesting protection from family members who are trying to kill her.

But this time it's only a lawyer who wants to talk to her about a case. The holder of a PhD in social work, who is clad in a beige headscarf and black trouser suit, flops back down into her armchair in relief. Raghda Al Azzeh, in her mid-thirties and single, is the director of Dar Amneh, a women's shelter on the outskirts of Amman, the capital of Jordan. The Ministry of Social Affairs there opened the facility in July 2018, and the first women seeking protection arrived in September.

Dar Amneh is meant to send a clear message that the government is serious about fighting murders in the name of family honour. According to Human Rights Watch, ten to twenty women in Amman still suffer this fate each year despite all the efforts that have been made. Their own brothers or fathers kill them because they have "besmirched" the family's honour. Their alleged misdeeds aren't really crimes at all: they may have given birth to an illegitimate child, or be a victim of rape, or they may simply want to marry a man whom their parents reject. To this day, parts of this patriarchal society marked by Bedouin tribalism still see women as always bearing the blame. Even when they are in fact victims.

Effective information campaigns

Fortunately, information campaigns organised by women's rights activists and non-governmental organisations are slowly having an effect and the number of such crimes is declining. Society has begun to rethink things. More and more people are rejecting these acts of violence.

And now Dar Amneh is offering women protection. "Finally we can do more to help women," says social worker Al Azzeh. "Dar Amneh is for me a gift from heaven. It's like a dream that has finally come true."

Jordanian women in Dar Amneh (photo: Claudia Mende)
Schutz für Jordaniens Frauen: „Dar Amneh“ soll ein deutliches Signal sein, dass die Regierung es ernst meint mit dem Kampf gegen Morde im Namen der Familienehre. 31 Frauen im Alter von 19 bis 44 Jahren wurden dort bisher aufgenommen, 14 davon haben „Dar Amneh“ bereits wieder auf eigenen Wunsch verlassen. 17 Frauen leben zurzeit dort.

When the first woman arrived in September 2018, it was an emotional moment for Al Azzeh, and it still is today every time a new woman shows up on the doorstep, staring in wonder and instantly sensing that this is a good place. A total of 31 women between the ages of 19 and 44 have been admitted to date, 14 of whom have already left Dar Amneh again at their own request. There are currently 17 women living here.

"Honour killings" not tolerated

Dar is Arabic for "home" and Amneh means "safe". The house, financed by the American organisation USAID, is surrounded by a high fence and is guarded by plainclothes police – you can never be too sure. Three women share a room, and there is a common room with a kitchen as well as medical care and a play corner for children. As Raghda Al Azzeh makes her way through the house, a hairdresser is showing some women how to cut hair, using a model. The women's faces are narrow and haggard, their laughter sounds cautious. For their own protection, they don't talk to journalists.

We fought for Dar Amneh for ages, says Asma Khader of Sisterhood is Global (SIGI) in Amman. For years, non-governmental organisations in Jordan such as SIGI and the Mizan Law Group had been calling for better protection of women from family violence. For a long time, the Ministry had reservations about doing anything about the situation. The breakthrough then came under Social Minister Hala Latouf. In the meantime, she is no longer in office. But Dar Amneh is hopefully here to stay.

There have also been changes in the law in recent years. After long-running debates in parliament, delegates deleted paragraph 98 from the penal code in July 2017. The paragraph had provided for a mild sentence for men who murdered a female family member "out of anger at the victim's unlawful or dangerous conduct". For decades, the perpetrators had gotten away with scandalously mild sentences of less than two years' imprisonment. But no longer. The first harsh prison sentences of 15 and 20 years have already been handed down.

Changing cultural norms

At the end of 2016, the Iftaa Department, a state institution that evaluates moral questions from an Islamic perspective, issued a doctrine (fatwa) castigating murder on the grounds of family honour as a particularly "heinous crime". "Those who kill their own relatives because they want to restore their family's honour commit an act against Islam and must be held accountable for it," the scholars emphasised.

But cultural norms are not so easy to change. For the women of Dar Amneh, the debates in society are happening somewhere far away. They are just happy to be safe and to find some tranquillity. "The first thing I do is inform them about their rights," says social worker Al Azzeh, describing her procedure. "I tell them they can come and go as they please and no one will try to keep them at Dar Amneh against their will." She informs the women, who often come from humble backgrounds, about what the facility can offer them. They can learn how to use a computer and how to repair smartphones, for example. Those who are more traditionally inclined can learn how to sew or cut hair.

But only when they're ready. Because many women first need some time to gather their strength. It is already hard enough to come to terms with the fact that their own family members, their fathers or brothers, are out to take their lives. In a society where family means everything, it is extraordinarily difficult for them to suddenly be completely on their own. Some women are plagued by guilt because they have internalised the idea that they have behaved improperly. They may then descend into depression and slump in front of the television for weeks on end. Raghda Al Azzeh and her team try to find a solution for everyone.

"After a few days, we do our first case review," explains Al Azzeh. Together with a lawyer, a psychologist, and representatives from non-governmental organisations and the Family Protection Unit (a special police unit for combatting domestic violence), they consult on what is best for the woman in question. Every case is different, says the social worker. And each woman's fate demands her full commitment. She feels that helping these women is her lifelong mission. She is there for them day and night, only going home on the weekends. For her, the women's autonomy is the main thing. "These are grown women who can make their own decisions about their lives. We encourage them to do so."

But this goal often comes up against the notions of a traditional society in which greater value is attached to the family than to individual self-fulfilment. This is why Al Azzeh must also try to reconcile these families. In fact, that is part of her official mandate.

She therefore speaks with clan leaders and meets with family members. She talks to fathers and husbands and tries to convince them that their wife or daughter has done nothing wrong. That she only wanted to marry the man she loved, for example. Or that it's not her fault if someone raped her. Al Azzeh tries to make something clear to these families that should go without saying: Thou shalt not kill.

Between family and autonomy

Trying to reconcile a family is a delicate undertaking. How can they still live together after a death threat? Al Azzeh realises that there are limitations to this endeavour and that if something goes wrong she may be held responsible. She pauses for a moment. "Yes, that scares even me sometimes," she says thoughtfully. She admits to occasionally feeling torn trying to balance the demands of society with the well-being of the individual.

The non-governmental organisations involved in Dar Amneh, including SIGI and the Mizan Law Group, likewise have a strong commitment to trying to reconcile these families. Sometimes they go further than the woman herself would wish. The women's rights activist and journalist Rana Husseini therefore takes a critical view of these efforts. She contends that the organisations are only trying to fend off the accusation that they are breaking up families. This is a standard charge against women's rights activists in Jordan. The danger, however, is that a woman might return to a situation where she will once again be at risk.

Time can heal wounds

Raghda Al Azzeh knows just how much is at stake here. She has seen it all: tearful reconciliations, stubborn refusals, insights that come too late. In some cases she does succeed in convincing families that it is absurd to hold women responsible for a family's honour. These conversations take a great deal of patience on her part, and even more sensitivity.

Sometimes, time does heal the wounds, though. Once she spoke at great length with a father who had threatened his daughter, saying "I'll kill you! You have brought shame upon us." "The man was elderly and then became seriously ill. He wanted to be reconciled with his daughter before he died." This woman then actually returned to her family.

In other cases this is simply impossible. The women must then prepare themselves for a life on their own. And that is never easy. Women are permitted to live alone in Amman today, or together with other women. In the countryside, however, this would render a young woman dead for society; it is easier for older women to live alone, as long as they don't mind all the gossip. But there is another reason why it is such a challenge for women here to make their own lives. "They have been used to their families making all the important decisions for them. Many of them don't even know what they want from life. We help them to find out."

Sometimes Al Azzeh despairs at the enormity of the task. Then she quietly shuts the door to her office and takes a much-needed break. But she is nonetheless convinced that Jordanian society is changing. The idea of the "the family's honour being besmirched" will one day be overcome, says women's rights activist Asma Khader. As an example, she cites the work of the police's Family Protection Unit (FPU).

When the FPU took up its work in 1979, people were outraged. Many said that it posed a threat to family unity. Today, by contrast, many families are advising others to seek help there in problem cases. "People's attitudes are changing, but it takes time."

Claudia Mende

© 2019

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor