February 18, 2010 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 588

'Honor Killings' of Women in Palestinian Society

February 18, 2010 | By C. Jacob*
Palestine | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 588


Although Palestinian society is known for its progressiveness, honor killings of women have not been eliminated. This paper will describe the problem and review the public discussion about it.

The precise statistics on honor killings of women in Palestinian society are not known, because not all incidents are reported to the authorities. According to Lamiya Shalalda, representative of the Forum of Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations, 11 women died in 2009 in honor killings in the West Bank and Gaza. However, according to the Independent Authority for Human Rights, that number was 13.[1]

Jurists such as Zayyad Thabet, president of a Gaza court, said that since Hamas took charge of the Gaza judiciary system after its June 2007 coup, many cases of honor killing have never even made it to the courts.[2]

Some Cases of Honor Killing of Women

The following are excerpts from press reports on honor killings in the West Bank and Gaza, published in the Palestinian press.

"Najla A., a 24-year-old divorcee, was strangled by her brother, who was known for his religious fanaticism, when she was staying at his home...[3] Najla worked as a clerk at a Gaza business, and [due to her work] was absent from the home for many hours; this gave rise to many stories about her. Her brother, whose nickname was 'The Sheikh,' could not bear it. Once the murder was discovered, the police arrested him for questioning. Family talks were then held, during which it was whispered in the ear of a senior police official that the matter concerned the family only, and that the woman had needed to be taught a lesson. Later, that police official received a gift – one of [Najla's] brothers, a construction worker, laid 13 meters of flooring for him. The result was that [the killer] was released from prison without anyone batting an eyelid, and without any reaction from those who knew how badly Najla needed the work so that she could buy medicines for her sick mother."[4]

In another incident, a father murdered his daughter Ahlam because she allegedly slept over at the houses of boys. "The social worker who was monitoring Ahlam's situation, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Ahlam had complained to her about her family's strictness and about her fear of her father, because he sexually abused her." After the murder, the father said: "I told her that we were going out for shawarma. I drove her in the car, we had shawarma, and I played for her songs that she loved. She didn't suspect me [of anything]. After we drove a while, I asked her to get out, and she hesitated. When she saw the knife in my hand, she asked, 'Papa, why do you want to murder me?'... The father took advantage of the law that mitigates punishment in such a case, and was released from prison so he could enjoy the pleasures of life and forget the question asked by his daughter: 'Why do you want to murder me?'"[5]

In another case, a mother strangled her teenage daughter, who she discovered had been raped by her uncle when she was little, in order to purge the shame. The uncle remained at liberty. Also, a young man murdered his unmarried sister when he observed that her abdomen had swelled and suspected that she was having sexual relations. Afterwards it turned out that she was a virgin and that her abdomen was swollen due to illness.[6]

Hamada, who is serving a prison sentence for murdering his sister, expressed no regret over his deed, and wasn't interested in the pathologist's report, which determined that his sister had been a virgin. He said: "I turned myself in to the police and I don't care if I'm sentenced even to life in prison, because I believe in what I did." Hamada's brother backed him up: "I didn't know he would murder her, but after he did I wasn't angry at him. None of us were. This is the natural outcome of her actions, which were known to everyone in the neighborhood."[7]

Most Women Murdered In Honor Killings Are Innocent

In most cases, there was no proof that the murder victims had violated any moral code of Arab society – only that their families thought that their behavior was incompatible with the moral code and with accepted custom. Sometimes a mere rumor that a woman had spoken with a man was enough to seal her fate. In other cases, "honor killing" served as a pretext for murder for other reasons, such as a dispute, rivalry, or personal vendetta.

Samia Habib, a psychologist at the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution, explained: "Sometimes it is a matter of inheritance... sometimes the father has committed deviant acts against his daughter and then murders her in a so-called 'honor killing' to cover up his crime... The woman is the weakest link. She is always guilty, even when she is a rape victim [...] The issue of honor is a very sensitive one. The families do not call for help; you can't reach them..."[8]

Palestinian Woman about Honor Killing Victim: "She Deserved to Die"

It is noteworthy that honor killings are condoned by many women. In one of a series of workshops held in Khan Yunis on the role of the media in covering honor killings, in which 60 women participated, it became clear that all the women present believed that a sinning woman should be punished with death.

One woman, who wore traditional dress so modest that only part of one eye and eyebrow was visible, said of one of the victims: "She deserved... to die... She should be a lesson to other women." When asked whether a man guilty of similar transgressions should be punished, she replied, after a brief silence, "It doesn't matter, he's a man."[9]

Against Honor Killing

PA Official: There is Need for Diligent and Energetic Action over Many Decades

Najjah 'Omar, director of the Department of Religious Law Studies in the office of the Shari'a Courts director, explained that the custom of honor killings was entrenched in society and would take years to eradicate: "The honor killing of a woman is one of the social traditions that has roots in the jahiliyya [i.e. pre-Islamic era]. It took root in the mind and conscience of society a very long time ago, and it cannot be expected to disappear so fast from the culture, with a one-year, two-year, or three-year campaign – or even a 10-year campaign. There is a need for diligent and energetic action over many decades.

"Social change is extremely slow – and change is even slower [on an issue] that everyone thinks is part of the religious commandments, even though in fact it has no connection whatsoever to the religion. A great deal of time is needed to correct this conception, and more time [is needed] to change it and to expunge it from the mind and the conscience – but it is vital that we do not give up, that we do not despair, and that we do not stop the campaigns of opposition to this negative phenomenon that causes such injustice [...] Eventually the change will come, but we know that until then there will be many victims."[10]

Leniency towards the Murderer Encourages Violence against Women

Clerics, jurists, media members, politicians, and social studies experts have expressed their dissatisfaction with the law as it exists today, as it mitigates punishment for the murderer under such circumstances. Mustafa Ibrahim, human rights activist in Gaza, stated that the lenience with which these crimes are treated, and the light sentences for those convicted of them, increase the number of honor killings of women in the Palestinian Authority. 'Ahed Abu Sayf, legal advisor to the Interior Ministry of the Hamas government in Gaza, said, "The sentences in honor killing cases range from only six months to three years. The judge takes custom and tradition into account, along with the nature of the society and the emotional state of the accused..."

Attorney Nasser Al-Din Mihna said: "There are cases in which the court sentences the convicted man to probation, or settles for the time that he has already served in prison [while awaiting trial], if he is convinced that these are the motives that led to the crime."[11]

Dr. Sa'id Abu Al-Jabin, member of the panel of judges on the Shari'a Appeals Court in Gaza, noted: "There should be no leniency for someone who committed premeditated murder of the woman... The state is the one that must judge the adulterer and the adulteress. In most social crimes today, [the murderer] does not surprise [the woman in the act] or fall victim to overwhelming passion – people [just] base [their actions] on rumors.

"Even if the woman admits [to the deed attributed to her], the man has no right to punish her. An authorized element must be permitted to implement the law and determine the nature of the punishment. No one must take the law into his own hands, because the [alleged] adulteress could have been a virgin after all."[12]

Attorney Ashraf Jaber said that society does not understand the law very well: "There are some who murder a girl just because she spoke with a friend on the phone, or because she walked with a strange man. They think that the law is lenient towards them, and that they don't have to account for themselves because they carried out an honor killing. This is a misinterpretation of the law, and particularly of Section 340, which many understand to mean permission to murder regardless of the reasons if they claim that the background to the murder is a matter of honor."[13]

Another aspect of the issue is discrimination against women. Dr. Hassan Al-Jojo, president of the Shari'a Appeals Court in Gaza, criticized PA criminal law, which is lenient vis-à-vis a husband who murders his wife in an honor killing, but not vis-à-vis a wife who murders her husband under similar circumstances.[14]

PA Leaders Support Changing the Law

The centrality of the issue of honor killings has not been ignored by the Palestinian Authority leaders. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said, "The Palestinian Authority has successfully ended the state of chaos, rebuilt the security institutions, consolidated its ability to institute the sovereignty of law and enforce public order. These achievements have, to some extent, reduced the violence and crime to which women are exposed, including the so-called honor killings. [However,] we still have a long way to go to eliminate violence against women, to gain respect for their lives and their status, and to ensure justice for them by fully upholding their rights."[15]

Dr. Adnan Abu 'Omar, legal advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, attempted to reassure the women's and human rights organizations. He explained that "according to the president's guidelines, work is underway to change legislation such that it will be possible to protect women from honor killings and to treat such crimes as murder."[16]

Palestinian Legislative Council member from Fatah Dr. Najat Abu Bakr said that the council was responsible for the rise in the number of women murdered in so-called honor killings. She said that she hoped to either head or to be a member of the PLC constitutional committee in order to change the law and the regulations and make sure they meet the needs.[17]

In an investigatory article, journalist Asma Al-Ghoul, who herself had been harassed by the Gaza modesty patrol, wrote: "For over a decade, women's organizations have tried to pressure for change in Penal Law No. 74 of 1936, to introduce special sections on the issue of domestic violence, to which many women are victim, and to assure equality between women and men as set out in the Palestinian Basic Law. In 2004, the PLC passed, on first reading, a proposed amendment for the Penal Law that the women's movement thought would make it more just for women; however, broad sectors of society opposed the proposal and saw it as 'violating the balance of customs in society.' After the 2006 PLC elections, the women's organizations very much hoped that the [amended] law [would be passed] and implemented, but the [Hamas-Fatah] schism [and in its aftermath] meant that the PLC did not convene, and prevented [this amendment from passing]."[18]

Clerics: Women Who "Fornicate" Must Be Punished, But Nobody May Take the Law into His Own Hands; The Root Problem Is Moral Licentiousness

Clerics who discussed the matter stressed that Islam requires sentencing for women who "fornicate," but that no one had the right to take the law into his own hands and to murder women suspected of violating family honor.

Ihab Al-Ghasin, spokesman for the Interior Ministry in the Hamas government in Gaza, said that even those who collaborate with Israel must be tried – no one has the right to murder them.

Gaza Shari'a Appeals Court president Dr. Hassan Al-Jojo said that the family must "act with moderation and adopt preventative education, that is, monitoring the sons and the daughters, asking about lateness, and monitoring mistaken behaviors."[19]

Islamic intellectual Sa'id Dwikat stated that "the reason for the crime of adultery, which causes honor crimes [i.e. killing], is moral licentiousness. There are no rules of behavior regarding watching satellite television broadcasts, and mobile phones can be misused. [Youngsters] keep evil company and dress sloppily, and many parents neglect their children's upbringing. These are the causes of the disease [of moral licentiousness], and if they are taken care of, there will be no disease [...]

"There is need for proper Muslim upbringing; real awareness among parents and also among children must be increased; limits must be set to the mixing [between the sexes]; and children must be constantly supervised. Parents must be close to their children and listen to them, so that they know what their problems are and can respond to their needs – so that these children will not run away from their problems by engaging in forbidden behavior."[20]


* C. Jacob is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.



[1] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), December 14, 2009.

[2] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), December 20, 2008.

[3] Throughout this document, three dots indicate an ellipsis mark in the original. Ellipses inserted by MEMRI are marked by three dots in brackets.

[4] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), December 20, 2008.

[5] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), December 20, 2008.

[6] Sawt Al-Nisaa (Palestinian Authority), December 3, 2008.

[7] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), May 15, 2009.

[8] Sawt Al-Nisaa (Palestinian Authority), December 3, 2009.

[9] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), December 20, 2009.

[10] Sawt Al-Nisaa (Palestinian Authority), November 11, 2009.

[11] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), May 15, 2009.

[12] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), December 20, 2009.

[13] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), December 7, 2008.

[14], April 19, 2009.

[15], Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), December 14, 2009.

[16] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), December 14, 2009.

[17] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), December 14, 2009.

[18] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), December 20, 2008.

[19], April 19, 2009.

[20] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), December 7, 2008.

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