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WomanOf the Month 02-10: Rana Husseini

In May 1993 16-year old Kifaya of Jordon was raped by her older brother and became pregnant. To cover up the scandal her family forced her to abort the baby and marry a man 34 years older than she was. When Kifaya divorced the man six miserable months later, her family opted for a more permanent solution to the situation. They killed her.

This is the story that opens Rana Husseini’s book, Murder In the Name of Honor: The True Story of One Woman’s Heroic Fight Against an Unbelievable Crime. The book is Rana’s effort to shed light on the secretive and despicable world of honor killings that seems like a vestige of the Dark Ages, but which remains a gruesome and growing problem around the world. "Honor" killings are murders perpetrated on women by their fathers, brothers or other family members when they are thought to have brought dishonor on the family. The so-called dishonor, however, can stem from situations ranging from refusing to agree to an arranged marriage, being victim to a sexual assault, seeking a divorce from an abusive husband, to simply communicating with a man outside of the family. There is no judge or jury and usually the women has no opportunity to offer her side of the story.

Fifteen years ago, as a cub reporter for the Jordan Times, Rana investigated the murder of young Kifaya and was deeply affected by the heinousness of a family consenting to have a brother butcher his sister because another brother raped her. In the family’s eyes, Kifaya must have played a role in seducing the rapist because men do not succumb to their urges without provocation. Moreover, Kifaya was no longer a virgin and that alone was crime enough in their culture—no matter how it came to pass that she lost her virginity. Rana then discovered the lenient sentences given to the killers—in Jordon current laws have enabled some killers to go free after as little as three months in prison. Over her career, she has used her position to expose such sordid crimes in a country that long hushed them up.

But that’s not all. She has become a devoted activist advocating for women’s rights in Jordon at the grass-roots level. She has organized rallies and marches, lobbied legislators and traveled across Jordon to get signatures for legal petitions to change the archaic laws of Jordon that allow murderers of women to get off essentially scot-free. Of course, so-called honor killings are not just a Jordanian phenomenon. They are common in many Middle Eastern countries, some South American countries and they’re even showing up in immigrant communities in Western Europe and the United States. In Jordon so-called honor killings average about 25 per year—about a third of all murders of women, whereas the annual worldwide number of victims runs as high as 5,000, according to the United Nations Population Fund. Of course, those are just the honor-killings that are reported. Many are never reported or they are disguised as suicides or accidents.

Rana has used her skills as an investigative journalist to illustrate otherwise unreported stories of murdered girls and women in different regions of the world and to identify what government, economic and social problems contribute to so-called honor killings in individual countries. She has served as special advisor to Freedom House on women’s issues and press freedom in Jordan and has worked as a regional coordinator for the United Nation’s Development Fund for Women campaign to eliminate violence against women in five Arab countries. In 2007 she received a medal from Jordan’s King Abdullah II for her work and Jordan’s Queen Noor praised her by saying: “Husseini almost single-handedly brought this problem to the attention of the public.apostrophe She has made great strides in bringing honor killings to the attention of the international community—and she’s done so at risk to herself. She has received death threats for castigating what some people insist is tribal tradition or cultural practice. Rana rejects such claims and reminds us that us that so-called honor killing is contrary to the teachings of Islam.

So far, Rana has not succeeded in changing the laws of Jordan, but she and her supporters have witnessed a big change in attitudes in Jordan. Honor killings are now openly discussed in the media; court judges are handing out 7.5-15 year sentences instead of three month sentences; at public lectures on the topic men don’t stand up and publicly defend the practice as they did a few years ago; and school plays and other theater shows even depict the issue now, which never happened before. These are all significant changes over a relatively short period of time. Rana notes that such changes at the grass-roots level are the most important step because without a change in attitudes, so-called honor killings won’t stop whether or not the laws change.

Of course, she’s still determined to see Jordan’s laws changed. The time might come as early as the end of this year when Jordan tentatively plans to hold parliamentary elections at which point Rana and her supporters will renew their campaign to ban so-called honor killings. Hopefully, by then her book publicity will have carried her message to an even larger global audience.

For more information on Rana Husseini visit http://www.ranahusseini.com/ or http://www.murderinthenameofhonor.com/.

Photo Credit: Dan Morgan