“A dihonorable Affair,” by Katherine Zoepf

The incomparable Katherine Zoepf has a major story. (Katherine was a student of Arabic in Damascus after college. She began stringing for the New York Times shortly before 2005, when I met her in Damascus. She took an apartment in Beirut in 2006 where she began writing a book on women in the Middle East. Now this article.
Zahra's husband Fawaz in their apartment

The struggle, if there was any, would have been very brief.

Fawaz later recalled that his wife, Zahra, was sleeping soundly on her side and curled slightly against the pillow when he rose at dawn and readied himself for work at his construction job on the outskirts of Damascus. It was a rainy Sunday morning in January and very cold; as he left, Fawaz turned back one last time to tuck the blanket more snugly around his 16-year-old wife. Zahra slept on without stirring, and her husband locked the door of their tiny apartment carefully behind him.

Zahra was most likely still sleeping when her older brother, Fayyez, entered the apartment a short time later, using a stolen key and carrying a dagger. His sister lay on the carpeted floor, on the thin, foam mattress she shared with her husband, so Fayyez must have had to kneel next to Zahra as he raised the dagger and stabbed her five times in the head and back: brutal, tearing thrusts that shattered the base of her skull and nearly severed her spinal column. Leaving the door open, Fayyez walked downstairs and out to the local police station. There, he reportedly turned himself in, telling the officers on duty that he had killed his sister in order to remove the dishonor she had brought on the family by losing her virginity out of wedlock nearly 10 months earlier.

“Fayyez told the police, ‘It is my right to correct this error,’ ” Maha Ali, a Syrian lawyer who knew Zahra and now works pro bono for her husband, told me not long ago. “He said, ‘It’s true that my sister is married now, but we never washed away the shame.’ ”

By now, almost anyone in Syria who follows the news can supply certain basic details about Zahra al-Azzo’s life and death: how the girl, then only 15, was kidnapped in the spring of 2006 near her home in northern Syria, taken to Damascus by her abductor and raped; how the police who discovered her feared that her family, as commonly happens in Syria, would blame Zahra for the rape and kill her; how these authorities then placed Zahra in a prison for girls, believing it the only way to protect her from her relatives. And then in December, how a cousin of Zahra’s, 27-year-old Fawaz, agreed to marry her in order to secure her release and also, he hoped, restore her reputation in the eyes of her family; how, just a month after her wedding to Fawaz, Zahra’s 25-year-old brother, Fayyez, stabbed her as she slept.

Zahra died from her wounds at the hospital the following morning, one of about 300 girls and women who die each year in Syria in so-called honor killings, according to estimates by women’s rights advocates there. In Syria and other Arab countries, many men are brought up to believe in an idea of personal honor that regards defending the chastity of their sisters, their daughters and other women in the family as a primary social obligation. Honor crimes tend to occur, activists say, when men feel pressed by their communities to demonstrate that they are sufficiently protective of their female relatives’ virtue. Pairs of lovers are sometimes killed together, but most frequently only the women are singled out for punishment. Sometimes women are killed for the mere suspicion of an affair, or on account of a false accusation, or because they were sexually abused, or because, like Zahra, they were raped.

In speaking with the police, Zahra’s brother used a colloquial expression, ghasalat al arr (washing away the shame), which means the killing of a woman or girl whose very life has come to be seen as an unbearable stain on the honor of her male relatives. Once this kind of familial sexual shame has been “washed,” the killing is traditionally forgotten as quickly as possible. Under Syrian law, an honor killing is not murder, and the man who commits it is not a murderer. As in many other Arab countries, even if the killer is convicted on the lesser charge of a “crime of honor,” he is usually set free within months. Mentioning the killing — or even the name of the victim — generally becomes taboo.

That this has not happened with Zahra’s story — that her case, far from being ignored, has become something of a cause célèbre, a rallying point for lawyers, Islamic scholars and Syrian officials hoping to change the laws that protect the perpetrators of honor crimes — is a result of a peculiar confluence of circumstances. It is due in part to the efforts of a group of women’s rights activists and in part to the specifics of her story, which has galvanized public sympathy in a way previously unseen in Syria. But at heart it is because of Zahra’s young widower, Fawaz, who had spoken to his bride only once before they became engaged. Now, defying his tribe and their traditions, he has brought a civil lawsuit against Zahra’s killer and is refusing to let her case be forgotten…..

Article 242 refers to crimes of passion,” Mousa continued. “But it’s Article 548 that we’re really up against. Article 548 states precisely that if a man witnesses a female relative in an immoral act and kills her, he will go free.” Judges frequently interpret these laws so loosely that a premeditated killing — like the one Fayyez is accused of — is often judged a “crime of passion”; “witnessing” a female relative’s behavior is sometimes defined as hearing neighborhood gossip about it; and for a woman, merely speaking to a man may be ruled an “immoral act.” Syria, which has been governed since 1963 by a secular Baathist regime, has a strong reputation in the region for sex equality; women graduate from high schools and universities in numbers roughly equal to men, and they frequently hold influential positions as doctors, professors and even government ministers. But in the family, a different standard applies. “Honor here means only one thing: women, and especially the sexual life of women,” Mousa said. The decision to carry out an honor killing is usually made by the family as a group, and an under-age boy is often nominated to carry out the task, to eliminate even the smallest risk of a prison sentence…..

With his tightly wound white turban and giant pearl ring, the grand mufti is one of Syria’s most recognizable public figures. He is a charismatic and generally popular sheik, but because he is appointed by the state, many Syrians believe that his views reflect those of the ruling party, and they may find his teachings suspect as a result. In downtown Damascus, one man I interviewed on the street declared that the grand mufti was not a “real Muslim” if he believed in canceling Article 548. “It’s an Islamic law to kill your relative if she errs,” said the man, who gave his name as Ahmed and said that he learned of Zahra’s story on Syrian television. “If the sheik tries to fight this, the people will rise up and slit his throat.”

There are religious figures who defend the status quo. At a conference on honor killing held this year at Damascus University, Mohammed Said Ramadan al-Bouti, one of Syria’s most esteemed clerics, maintained that the laws should not be changed, defending them on the principle in Shariah law that people who kill in defense of their property should be treated with lenience (he is believed to have moderated his stance since). When, at an earlier conference, the grand mufti announced that he didn’t believe protecting a woman’s virginity was the most important component of honor, many attendees were upset. In response, a group of about a dozen women, all dressed in the long black abayas that in Syria are usually worn by only very conservative women, walked out of the room.

In our interview, the grand mufti told me that he believed Article 548 would be struck down by the Syrian Parliament within months, and given his government ties he might be expected to know…..

Rana Husseini, a Jordanian women’s advocate, told me that though an effort to establish harsher punishments for men who kill female relatives received support from members of the royal family, Jordan’s Parliament rejected the law in 2003 after conservative groups opposed it. In Morocco, a campaign to stop honor killing resulted instead in a ruling that, if anything, endorsed the practice, by extending to women who kill in a fit of sexual jealousy the same protection under law that men had.

Yet there are signs of change. In Lebanon last month, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the top Shiite cleric and spiritual leader of Hezbollah, issued a fatwa banning honor killing and describing it as “a repulsive act, condemned and prohibited by religion.” And earlier this year, Egypt’s grand mufti upheld a fatwa stating that Islam permits a woman to have her virginity “refurbished” through hymen surgery, ……. 

“Our parents tell us that there was an earlier day when honor meant that you were honorable in your work, that you didn’t take bribes, for example,” Kadi said. “But now, the political and economic situation is so bad that some degree of corruption is necessary to survive. People will say that you’re a good earner for your family; they won’t blame you. Historically speaking, all our other ideologies have collapsed. No one talks about loyalty to country, about professional honor. Now it’s just the family, the tribe, the woman. That’s the only kind of honor we have left.” ….

But Fawaz told me that he didn’t understand his own feelings about honor killing until Zahra’s death, and that he hoped the publicity surrounding her case would help other men to re-evaluate theirs. “In Zahra’s case, the girl was basically kidnapped,” Fawaz said. “If she’d been a bad girl, if she’d decided to run away with a man, I’d say, maybe. It’s a brutal solution, but maybe.”

His father broke in. “Even then! When a girl does something wrong like that, especially a girl that young, I don’t think that she is responsible. The family is responsible. The father is responsible. I don’t want to give anyone excuses for murder.”

Fawaz nodded. “I start thinking about Zahra lying there, dying, and I don’t think I can believe in that set of values any longer.” (Read whole story, here)

Comments (6)

Kamal said:

Very painful reading 🙁

I wonder where the “300” figure comes from. In Jordan, where I lived for 6 months and worked with a human rights organization, only about a dozen cases are reported every year, but it is widely known that dozens more cases go unreported. Now, I’m 100% sure the situation for women is far worse in Jordan than Syria, so the figure seems high to me, but what do I know…

September 22nd, 2007, 11:27 pm


Ruth Roded said:

A Palestinian feminist colleague told me that Hamas made a plea for the women’s vote in the last PA elections by publicly coming out against femicide and violence against women as un-Islamic. I believe there are other countries where the Islamists have tried a similar tactic. BTW, KATHERINE ZOEPF’s excellent article may affirm my hypotheis that Islamists are reacting to the raising of the family violence issue by feminists.

Looking forward to the book!

September 23rd, 2007, 5:18 am


The Istor said:

Honestly, I was not at all surprised by the attitude of Buti. It is very typical of him to take such stand. I remember when Muhammad Habash published a few years ago a book about the rights of women in Islam, Buti expressed severe condemnation of the book for its author offered a fresh prospect on the status of women in Islam. In fact, Buti also slammed the activities of women rights groups in Syria as a kind of internal conspiracy (as always) that suspiciously coincides with the external “American Zionist plot to divide the country”.

(مقالة الدكتور محمد سعيد رمضان البوطي، بعنوان: “قضية الحريري.. وعلاقتها بمخطط القضاء على الإسلام”- كلمة الشهر- كانون الأول( 2005



الدليل على هذا – أيها الإخوة – هو أن الغرب الأمريكي والصهيونية العالمية المتمثلة الآن في إسرائيل كلاهما عندما يخططان لهدف مما نتحدث عنه، المخطط يسيّر من جانبين: جانب خارجي وجانب داخلي. دائماً.

الآن هذه المعضلة لها جانب خارجي هو الذي تحدثنا عنه الآن، هذا الذي يجري من حولنا، هذه الدائرة التي تُضيَّق شيئاً فشيئاً علينا، هذا شيء خارجي، لكن هذا الوضع الخارجي لا يمكن أن يجدي، ولا يمكن أن ينجح إلا إذا كان معه خط آخر داخلي. ما هو الخط الآخر الداخلي؟ تمزيق نسيج وحدة الأمة، تمزيق نسيج وحدة الأمة، هذا مع ذاك دائماً يتم، لا تمزيق النسيج وجده يكفي، ولا الخطة الخارجية التي ترسم والتي تحدثنا عنها تكفي. ولذلك أنتم تلاحظون الآن، ولعكم تعجبون، في هذا المنعطف الخطير الذي نمر به أو يمر بنا ننظر فنجد أن نشاطات مريبة وغريبة لم تكن موجودة بالأمس ظهرت اليوم، تفور فوراناً عجيباً، جمعيات ما كانت موجودة، أسماء جديدة: جمعية المبادرة الاجتماعية، نساء سوريات، أفراد ينشطون ويتداعون إلى ندوات في ردهات فنادق هنا وهناك، عجيب! ما الخبر؟! أين كان هذا النشاط قبل عام أو عامين؟! أبداً..

هذه الأنشطة ما آليتها التي تشتغل بها؟ الأنشودة أو الأغنية القديمة القديمة القديمة التي يعاد إليها كما أريد جرّ البلد إلى معضلة من المعضلات، كلما أريد فتح ثغرات في داخلها: موضوع الأحوال الشخصية، موضوع المرأة، موضوع الطفولة، موضوع توصيات صندوق السكان، مؤتمر صندوق السكان الذي عقد في أوائل التسعينات من القرن الماضي والذي رفضت سورية آنذاك العمل بأي بند من هذه التوصيات، الآن تنشط هذه الجماعات، الآن استبانات توزع كما توزع المناشير، استبانات عجيبة وغريبة لا عهد لسورية بمثلها: أجب هل توافق على ما يقوله القرآن عن تعدد الزوجات؟ يعني أعد النظر في علاقتك بالقرآن يا أخي. هل أنت إلى الآن موافق على أن تتبع القرآن؟ هل توافق على كذا وكذا مما يقوله القرآن؟

ما الهدف؟

الهدف ليس انتصاراً لبند من بنود قانون، أو إلغاءً لبند، أبداً، الهدف الإثارة، الهدف إثارة زوبعة، الهدف إحداث شقاق، لعل هذا الشقاق الداخلي يكون ثورة داخلية، ومن ثم تلتقي الثورة الداخلية مع الخط الخارجي في هذا الموضوع.

See an interesting comment by Basam Al Qadi of Syrian Women Observatory


September 23rd, 2007, 1:35 pm


Equal Representation in Media said:

Only an article like this- that presents Arabs in such a bad light- would get full frontal, full page coverage in the NYT. It makes an eventual attack on these “Arab savages” just that much more of a “white man’s” imperative now doesnt it? Its a reprise of the one-note, endlessly recycled story calculated to pave the way… Funny how these dual-loyalty “journalists” get the ear of the NYT etc. Never see an arab byline at that rag. Where’s the similar story on bruatlity perpetrated by IDF on Palestinian women? Not going to happen…

September 23rd, 2007, 4:01 pm


lujayn said:

Equal Representation…

I am not sure the media is meant to be selective in order to present Arabs in a good light, seeing as the issue at hand – an honor killing in Syria – is an ugly affair, whichever way you present it. Although welcome, publishing parallel stories about IDF violence against Palestinian women will not lessen the magnitude of this heinous crime. The article does, however, point to the changing attitudes towards honor killings in the religious and traditional spheres in Syria, which is very heartening. I believe that social issues transcend political boundaries; female circumcision, child slave labor and human trafficking being good examples. If it weren’t for the international media (agenda driven or not), much of the advocacy and positive work being done to bring an end to these practices would not have taken place.

As for giving the white man pretexts to invade the “savage” Arabs, I doubt Arab women’s human rights are high on the list of White House administration priorities.

September 24th, 2007, 12:09 pm


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