Sarah, a 23-year-old university graduate from Aswan, recalls the day she heard that her cousin had been killed. "I was at university here in Cairo when my mother called me last summer." It was months later, but Sarah had rarely spoken about it and tears welled up even as she tried to gather her thoughts and recollections.
"My mom told me that my cousin, who I had grown up with and had played with all the time, had been killed," she continues. But how and under what circumstances her mother wouldn't say. It took Sarah a few days, but it gradually became apparent that her cousin was the victim of a kind of homicide so shameful that it goes unsaid in families and unreported to the police.
Sarah's cousin had been the victim of a so-called honor killing, the murder of a woman by a male relative on the grounds that she has defiled the family's reputation by an illicit sexual relationship. Sarah finally pieced together the story: Her cousin's brother had stabbed his sister. Sarah's mother couldn't bring herself to tell her daughter and half a year later Sarah herself struggled to tell a journalist.
"It was clear what happened because a few months earlier my cousin had gotten involved with a Muslim guy in the city, and her family didn't like that. There were rumors and all that. I didn't think much of it because our family is educated and well-off, but then when I heard the news, it became clear," Sarah recalls.
Indeed, while honor killings are associated with Muslims and often-but incorrectly-regarded as an Islamic practice, Sarah's family is Christian. But the story she told The Media Line at a Cairo flat is one that is becoming more and more common in Egypt's rural areas. Honor killings affect all women, she says.
Sarah agreed to tell the story of her cousin after two women were killed in villages near Egypt's second city of Alexandria in late February.
The first, a 24-year-old, was stabbed to death by her brother in the family home in Ameriya village after he heard rumors about her behavior, according to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Badeel. The victim's mother witnessed the killing, but the police were called in only after the body was taken a hospital, which reported the murder to the authorities.
The victim's mother finally broke down under questioning and admitted her son was the killer. The son was captured and confessed to the killing, justifying it on his sister's "bad morals."
In the same village last September, a family was arrested after reportedly killing a 20-year-old woman over an alleged affair.
The second woman, 22, was found dead on the Marsa Matrouh coastal road near Borg al-Arab, with a noose around her neck, fully dressed and bleeding. Identifying the body and asking the family for information, the woman's uncle admitted to police that her brother, an unemployed laborer, killed his married younger sister after accusing her of fleeing with a stranger.
Many honor killings never reach the public eye. "We are a closed society and we don't like to talk about these things, but if we do not, then it will continue, just like what happened to the two girls in Alexandria," Sarah says. She refuses to return home out of fear. "I will not go back to my family. It's very scary for young women in this country because even rumors can get us killed."
Across the Middle East and North Africa, honor killings are seemingly on the rise. In Upper Egypt, where Sarah's cousin was murdered, local rights groups have pointed to a number of cases where women have been violently beaten as a result of "going outside the norm" of the family.
While Jordan is most notorious for its honor crimes against women, Egypt's most recent cases have shown that these crimes are not only a Jordanian issue.
Egyptian-American activist Salma Ibrahim says she is always "fearful of how honor plays out" in the region. "The way women are treated is awful sometimes. The idea that because the woman ran away with the man she loved causes her to be killed, when she is pregnant, is disgusting," she says.
The Jordanian government, for its part, has called on judges to deal with alleged "honor crimes" in the same manner as they do for normal murders. However, with a predominantly Bedouin Parliament, this is proving difficult. "The majority of people I have talked to really want to see an end to this phenomena in Jordan," says Rana Husseini, a journalist and author of a book on honor killings.
In the West Bank, the slaying of a Palestinian woman last year by her uncle and three other men for disgracing the family evoked widespread public debate on the age-old practice of honor killings. Aaya Barad'iyya, 21, a student from the village of Surif near Hebron, was drowned in a well near her home in April 2010, but her body was only discovered more than a year after the murder.
These days, the Palestinian Women's Movement is hoping a long-waited reconciliation deal between the Hamas and Fatah movements will pave the way for a legitimate parliament to approve legislation abolishing the legal clauses that make it easier for those committing honor killings from facing justice.
An average of 12 women are killed annually in the Palestinian Territories on honor grounds, estimates Rawdah Baseer, an activist of the Palestinian Feminist Movement.
In the U.S., conservative Christian leaders have argued that honor killings are "part of Islamic teaching," as one preacher in Florida said recently. However, Husseini says that across the region this sentiment couldn't be as far from reality. Honor killings have nothing to do with religion.
"This is not specific to Jordan or to one religion. It happens all over the world and has nothing to do with Arab culture," she says, noting that some of the victims in Jordan have been Christian.
Egypt's parliament has been urged to establish harsher penalties for honor crimes, but lawmakers have been reluctant to do so, saying that if they did so it would lead to an increase in promiscuity. Light sentences are often given to male relatives who murder their female relatives, with judges frequently viewing the case with leniency.
Between the year 2002 and 2003, The Association of Legal Aid for Women, (CWELA) began compiling and analyzing press coverage of 20 daily newspapers and weekly magazines dealing with domestic violence in Egypt.
CEWLA's report also showed that the perpetrators of violence were males in three quarters of the cases. Just over half were the husbands of the victims, followed by the fathers and brothers (10 percent each). Mothers were responsible for 4 percent of the deaths while sons, more distant relatives and step parents accounted for the rest.
More than 80 percent of all the attacks staged in the name of family honor were murder or attempted murder. Battering accounted for 18 percent, with kidnapping, burning property, forcing women to sign checks and become guarantors of men and accusations of insanity rounds out that modus operandi.
The report indicated that causes of violence were pure honor crimes (42 percent), but often women were subject to violence for doing nothing more than leaving the house without their husbands' approval or asking for a divorce.
"Why do we talk so much about the honor of women in today's Egypt," asks Sarah. "But we continue to turn away when our girls are murdered?"
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