The evidence was everywhere: mysterious accidents, suddenly missing family members, and private, heartbreaking memories. So-called “honour killings” — the murder of those who dishonour the family — could happen in Palestinian communities whenever women or girls were thought to have shamed their families by engaging in sexual intimacy outside marriage, or by being subject to rape, sexual abuse or incest. Some unmarried women have faced an excruciating alternative: forced marriage to the perpetrator.
Over the last decade, these deeply embedded practices have begun to shift in some parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, due in large part to the efforts of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC), a recipient of several UN Trust Fund grants.
Activists at WCLAC realized early on that the lack of reporting and documentation of “honour killings” presented an impediment to their efforts to eliminate the practice. They had set up some of the first services for women victims of violence in the Territory, including a hotline. Trust Fund grants allowed them to develop an advocacy strategy, starting with the comprehensive documentation of information about cases that reached the centre. They also interviewed traditional community and religious leaders as well as the police, documenting the numerous ways in which their responses to crimes against women reflected cultural and social gender biases. Death certificates, for example, listed women as dying from “fate.” One 26-year-old was said to have died of “old age.”
The findings encouraged the centre to re-label “honour crimes” as femicide, and to broaden the definition of the practice beyond the actual killings to include the histories of psychological abuse, death threats, fears of scandal and social pressure that led up to them. WCLAC has used its research to raise public awareness, and press for improved services and legislative reform. Training for judges, also supported by the Trust Fund, has focused on opening the justice system to new ways of thinking about women’s rights.
WCLAC activists have also applied their research to strategies to deal with individual cases. They go into communities to work with families, officials and religious leaders, offering Koranic verses, Arab sayings and knowledge of both Islamic sharia and modern court proceedings to convince families that they have options besides murder. One innovative approach has been the use of written contracts, with which families publicly commit to refrain from killing.
The road to eliminating harmful traditions such as “honour killings” can be long. Palestinian women’s human rights advocates remain committed; stimulating discussion about what was formerly an unchallenged practice is a major step forward. As Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, who played a major role in the WCLAC research, says: “Getting society to acknowledge what’s happening, and opening a national dialogue … it is only then that we can empower women to speak out and help themselves.”
Women's Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling (WCLAC) received a grant in 1998 from the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women for the project titled, "Legal Victimization of Women in the Arab World: The Palestinian Case-study”. (Story reprinted from A Life Free of Violence Is Our Right! The UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women.)
(Story Date: 8 March 2007)