Thursday, December 3, 2009

32. Murder in the Name of Honor: The True Story of One Woman's Heroic Fight Against an Unbelievable Crime
by Rana Husseini

I saw this book on the new non-fiction shelf at the library and was intrigued. I know a little bit about honor killings -- I've heard of the practice happening in the Middle East and in immigrant communities here and in England (and once saw a Law & Order: SVU episode featuring the topic). I was interested to know more, mainly because I don't understand the concept of honor as a motivation to kill someone. In my experience, losing face or not having honor doesn't have the same significance that it does in other cultures. There are a lot of conservative people in our society, as well as an endless amount of people willing to judge you, but the things that might cause someone to lose honor are becoming more and more commonplace and accepted. Even when you hear about someone who has been disowned by their family, the word "honor" isn't really used in talking about it. So I checked out the book in the hope of gaining some insight.

Husseini starts her book with an account of the first honor killing that she reported on in 1994. She swiftly adopted the cause, investigating and reporting on as many honor crimes as possible. In this, her goal was to humanize the victim and break the taboo surrounding the practice. She expanded her efforts into campaigning against the laws in Jordan that allowed for lenient sentences of the perpetrators. The second half of the book explores the nature and frequency of honor crimes throughout the world -- from other Middle Eastern countries (Iraq, Iran), to European countries (Sweden, Holland) to both South and North America. Husseini's writing is accessible for the most part, although she tends to get mired down in statistics. She offers suggestions for prevention and dealing with the matter throughout, which I appreciated but would rather have read about in one cohesive chapter. The history of honor killings is not extensive, although I'm not sure how much documentation exists past the last twenty or thirty years. All in all, it's a fairly well-written introduction to the topic.

I was incredulous at the defense of this tradition documented in the book. Many honor killings happen in broad daylight, within sight and earshot of bystanders. People who are aware of what's happening don't try to stop it and speak of it casually after the fact. Many people feel that there was nothing else a family could do after losing their honor; they had to restore it and an honor killing was the only way. Husseini was told by one man that the the male perpetrators of honor killings were the ones who suffered the consequences, rather than the female victims -- clearly demonstrating the value he placed on a woman's life. While most people involved in honor killings feel no remorse and would gladly repeat their crimes, some do experience mixed emotions. As one person put it to Husseini, no one wants to kill their sister. And yet the society they live in is so rigid, they don't feel they have another choice.

So what can lead to a loss of honor so great that it could lead to one of these murders? Some examples from cases covered in the book: if a woman is raped, has a consensual sexual relationship before marriage, commits adultery, becomes pregnant out of wedlock, dates or marries someone that their family has not approved, tries to divorce a husband that the family does approve of, is seen walking down the street with a man that her family does not know. Or, most distressing of all, if there is gossip about a woman having done any of these things, even if there's no proof. And for many women whose families have emigrated to Europe or North America, the reason is often that a young woman became too acclimated to the West -- wore revealing clothes, spent time with people not from their community, rebelled in any way against their parents' way of life. And that's what's really at stake for so many people -- the preservation of a way of life that is increasingly becoming outdated. A way of life that devalues women and relegates them to property.

The stories in Murder in the Name of Honor will break your heart. Not only are the many accounts of honor killings graphically violent, but the senseless loss of life will weigh on you. I can't shake the story of one young woman who was beaten to death in front of a crowd of twenty people -- including members of law enforcement -- some of whom recorded the murder on their cell phones. After thirty minutes of this brutal attack, the killers buried the woman in a shallow grave with the corpse of a dog, to show how worthless she was. It makes me sick to think of it.

If you re-read the book's subtitle, you'll probably be able to understand the main problem that I had with this one. As Husseini puts it, this is the true story of her heroic fight against an unbelievable crime. I thought perhaps that was something that her publisher suggested, a simple marketing ploy. But throughout the book are subtle and not-so-subtle pats on her own back that are ultimately off-putting. I fully acknowledge that her work is important and that she has done a great deal to raise awareness and be a catalyst for change. But I hate bragging in any form. Why not tell me what happened and let me decide that you're heroic? It's a more gracious approach that won't detract from your cause.

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