With the runaway success of Norma Khouri’s Honor Lost: Love and Death in Modern-Day Jordan, “honor crimes” — killings of girls or women accused of sexual transgressions, in order to cleanse family honor — are firmly equated in the eyes of the West with Jordan. Khouri’s book sold well partly because the impending invasion of Iraq increased interest in the Middle East, but also because activists in Jordan were struggling to amend a law that they argue allows males to kill “offending” female members of the household. The activities of the Campaign to Eliminate So-Called Crimes of Honor, in particular, garnered much international support. Today, attempts to amend the law have failed, for all intents and purposes, leading Jordanian activists to debate the impact of world attention on their efforts. Some are not sure that it helped.

On January 11, 1999, CNN aired a 15-minute segment featuring Queen Noor, second wife of the late King Hussein, along with members of the Jordanian Police Department’s Family Protection Unit, the head of the National Institute of Forensic Medicine, men who had committed honor crimes, several women who were residing in prison for their own protection, and Rana Husseini of the Jordan Times. The preceding year, Reebok had given its Award for Human Rights to Husseini, the only reporter in Jordan to cover honor crimes before the story broke internationally. Shocked by the murder of a 16 year-old girl by her brother because she was raped by another brother, Husseini began regularly researching honor crimes in 1994. She received the MedNews Journalist Award for an October 1994 exposé of the practice, and in 1996, she was asked by then Crown Prince Hassan to address a conference on violence against children. Husseini is indirectly credited for bringing the issue to the attention of King Hussein, who condemned violence against women in his November 1997 address to Parliament.

Inspired by the CNN segment, Basel Burgan, an Amman businessman, suggested to Husseini that they translate their common concern to stop the killings into activism. The resulting Campaign to Eliminate So-Called Crimes of Honor began by word of mouth. Husseini and Burgan contacted friends, like Asma Khader, a prominent human rights activist and lawyer, who they thought would be interested. Early meetings attracted 30 to 35 people, but soon a core group of 11 committed activists took charge, eventually relying on as many as 300 friends and family. The core group decided to gather signatures on a petition, addressed to Parliament and King Abdallah II, against Article 340 of the Jordanian penal code. On August 23, 1999, they fanned out over Amman with leaflets and petitions.

Smashing the Silence

Crimes of honor in Jordan differ from spousal abuse in the West not so much because the motive is supposedly one of honor as because a man’s right to abuse is enshrined in Jordanian law. Article 340a exempts from punishment a perpetrator who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery with another person and then kills, injures or harms one or both of them. Article 340b similarly provides for a reduced sentence for a man who surprises his wife, daughter, sister or other female relative in an “unlawful bed” and then murders, wounds or harms her. By failing to define “unlawful bed,” Article 340b includes situations, like premarital sex, where there is no adultery. Article 97 in the penal code reduces the sentences of those who commit a crime in a fit of fury, from execution to a minimum of one year’s incarceration and from life imprisonment with hard labor to a minimum of six months in jail. Similarly, Article 98 allows for a reduced sentence for a crime committed by a man in a fit of fury because of an unlawful or dangerous act committed by the victim. No time limit is placed on the state of fury. In other words, a man may murder his wife years later and invoke Articles 97 and 98 for his defense. These provisions in the penal code derive from British and French laws — not from Islamic law (shari‘a).

Using personal contacts, but also going door to door, business to business, taxi to taxi, by December 22, 1999, the campaigners who oppose these laws had collected 13,955 signatures against Article 340. The signatories were people from all walks of life.

This nationwide petition drive, requiring signatories to provide their names, birth dates and identification numbers, was the first in Jordan’s history. The activists had chosen this tactic on purpose. As one Campaign member stated, the signature campaign, accompanied by lectures and newspaper ads, was designed to smash the silence about honor crimes, forcing the Jordanian public — and politicians — to deal with the issue. Members felt the petition drive had the additional advantage of pressing their concerns in both the domestic and the international arenas. From the outset, the Campaign received tremendous media attention within Jordan — largely due to the involvement of Rana Husseini.

Represented by Husseini, Burgan and Khader, for several reasons the nascent Campaign received a less than warm reception at its inaugural launch, especially from other activists working against honor crimes. [1] The group was not registered and therefore was technically illegal. Secondly, and despite the Campaign’s high media profile, it was not the first group to tackle honor crimes. In 1993, for example, the Jordanian Women’s Union began offering courses in legal literacy for women; out of this grew an effort to amend laws negatively affecting women, such as the laws concerning honor crimes. The Union established the country’s first legal consultation center for women in 1995 and a violence hotline in 1996. Also in 1996, it began its plans to establish a shelter for women in danger (now completed). The Union’s strategy, as with other women’s and human rights groups working on the issue, has been to raise grassroots and NGO awareness, step by step. [2] The Jordanian National Commission, headed by Princess Basma, has also been involved in efforts to change Jordan’s penal code. In 1998, this commission became the first to suggest canceling Article 340.

The clash of strategies caused friction for the new campaign. Beyond this, activists, even those sympathetic to the cause, expressed concern that the campaign would be short-lived and sensationalistic — in Jordan and, most importantly, abroad. Activists argued that such a sensitive issue required a quieter approach, one that would not make tribal leaders, in particular, feel on the defensive.

Costs and Benefits of Privilege

The CNN segment had also invigorated the royal family’s interest in the issue of honor crimes. In response to the negative publicity — publicity detrimental to foreign investment and aid — on February 17, 1999, King Abdallah instructed the prime minister to amend any law that discriminates against women. The resulting special committee of the Ministry of Justice recommended a hasty draft amendment that abolished Article 340 and introduced tougher punishments for adulterers, murderers of female relatives who were victims of rape, molestation or abduction, and rapists. The cabinet approved the amendment in September, and on November 22 it was sent to the conservative lower house of Parliament, where it was overwhelmingly defeated by an alliance of tribal leaders and Islamists. After being passed by the royally appointed upper house on December 13, it was sent back to the lower house, where it was once again rejected on January 26, 2000. On February 21, the upper house voted again to cancel Article 340, paving the way for a joint parliamentary session. [3]

MPs in the lower house were decidedly antagonistic toward the amendment. They objected that abolishing the law would be an “invitation to obscenity,” encouraging promiscuity and prostitution. [4] Many argued that the draft legislation would legalize adultery and destroy Islamic ethics. [5] If Article 340 were abolished, according to the prevailing view, the whole society would become morally corrupt because women would become corrupt. In the words of one tribal leader, “A woman is like an olive tree. When its branch catches woodworm, it has to be chopped off so that the society stays clean and pure.” [6] Without the threat of death, what would deter a woman from unapproved sexual behavior? As one Islamist stated, “Female adulterers are worse than male adulterers because they determine the family ancestry.” [7]

The deputies’ protestations also reflected their opinion that the West — in the form of globalization or even a Zionist plot — was behind the draft amendment. A large percentage of MPs agreed that the draft amendment had come in response to pressure from “outside forces,” some claiming that the US was “blackmailing Jordan” by blocking a significant aid package until the law was canceled. [8] In the words of one MP, the depiction of Jordan as “a retarded and ignorant society” by the foreign press “is what is pushing us to participate and speak out against the issue.” [9]

Like the palace-approved draft legislation, the Campaign to Eliminate So-Called Crimes of Honor was accused of being an agent of foreign influence. In an open letter in the newspaper al-‘Arab al-Yawm, the illegal Liberation Party (Hizb al-Tahrir) labeled the Campaign part of an international campaign led and supported by the US to impose “an American lifestyle on the world and cause changes to the social system.” [10] Such arguments highlighted the fact that the 11 core members of the Campaign presented a relatively uniform image of Westernization and privilege. The majority of these activists had studied or lived abroad or were closely connected, personally and professionally, with people and companies abroad. Most of the group lived in affluent western Amman. Though the petition drive was conducted in Arabic, the group’s internal discussions took place mostly in English — considered the language of business in western Amman. Critics of the Campaign pointed especially to Rana Husseini and her Western appearance, lifestyle and education. One activist who also works against honor crimes complained that Husseini was born with a “golden spoon in her mouth.”

The relative privilege of the campaigners is evidenced by how the group managed to function in the open without being registered with the government. A contact in the Ministry of Information had provided the activists with a letter asking concerned individuals to facilitate the group’s work. While the letter did not state that the group’s activities were legal, it was written in such a manner that the reader would assume so. Because of this letter, the printers agreed to print the blank petitions and the group’s leaflets. The activists made sure that the signatures on top of each sheet of the petition belonged to powerful people — princes, ex-ministers, journalists, businessmen and prominent Palestinian figures — not only testifying to their personal connections, but also reassuring others that it was safe to sign the petition. Because one member had attended school with the secretary to the queen, the group secured a room at the Greater Amman Municipality Hall to launch the campaign. As one member stated, simply being “middle-class” protected them from the government, even though they were technically an illegal organization.

A Royal Disservice

But the various efforts to abolish Article 340 cannot be portrayed strictly as the struggles of a progressive, Western-oriented king and supportive elite activists, backed by international opinion, against backward Islamist MPs. Opponents of the draft amendment raised several concerns shared by many lawyers and human rights activists in Jordan. Article 340, they argued, should be kept on the books because it makes provisions for people caught in the act of adultery, a situation in which the woman is not innocent. As one MP stated on behalf of the parliament: “We have our own customs and traditions and we…are insisting that if an individual surprises his female relative and kills her, he should benefit from a reduction [in penalty].” [11] Activist Na’ela Rashdan, a lawyer and former senator, agreed: “What do you expect from a man who catches his wife committing adultery with another man? Smile to them and apologize for disturbing them?” [12] Many human rights activists and lawyers further contended, in agreement with some MPs, that what is actually being implemented in the courts in the case of honor crimes is Article 98, rather than Article 340. The real threat to women, they argued, is found in Articles 97 and 98. Many MPs, despite their rhetoric, supported amendment of Article 340 — just not its abolition.

The government and other activists were aware of the fact that Article 98 is applied more frequently in the case of honor crimes, but chose to focus on Article 340. This law has no basis in shari‘a, which clearly states that a man should not take punishment of adulterers into his own hands. Precisely because Article 340 has been infrequently applied, the government felt it would be easier to eliminate. Finally, because the law clearly discriminates against women, as it applies only to men who catch their wives committing adultery, it contradicts the Jordanian constitution, which provides for equal rights for men and women.

Parliamentary objections to the cancellation of Article 340 must be understood in the context of Jordan’s electoral laws and the consequent composition of the parliament. Jordan’s electoral laws, implemented beginning in 1993, instituted a one-person, one-vote system that forced voters to choose between tribal loyalties and other political leanings (tribal ties won out) and adjusted the electoral districts so that they disproportionately favored traditionally tribal areas, the backbone of monarchical support, as well as rural areas and small towns. The predictable result was a deeply conservative lower house. Kings Hussein and Abdallah have pursued an unspoken policy of leaving social and cultural issues to the parliamentarians in return for the MPs’ cooperation on foreign and economic policy. The Palestinian intifada and the Iraq war have tested the limits of this grand bargain.

Parliamentary criticisms of the amendment multiplied, as international interest in the parliamentary proceedings peaked and royal concern for Jordan’s reputation deepened. Members of the Campaign point to the tremendous media coverage of honor crimes during a royal visit to France in November 1999 as pivotal. Le Monde’s full-page article on honor crimes, which only briefly mentioned the king and queen at the bottom of the page, seems to have galvanized royal will to curb the negative publicity. [13] One week after the visit, the lower house abruptly called the bill to a vote, likely to assuage the king’s desire for a rapid conclusion. Many activists feared that the timing was rushed.

Following the unsuccessful vote, the palace intervened more directly to coopt the Campaign and silence the domestic and international media attention. In early 2000, campaign members, who had repeatedly been denied permission to hold a march, were informed by the Royal Court of a protest against Article 340 that was to take place under their banner on February 14. Led by two princes, the government-organized march was composed of large numbers of tribal leaders bussed in for the occasion. Though many of the marchers did not know what they were protesting, and others said they opposed the draft legislation when questioned, following the event the government clearly took the upper hand over the independent campaigners. [14] In the wake of the march, Campaign members had increasing difficulty obtaining signatures. As they tell it, the issue of honor crimes had become too controversial and too closely associated with the government.

Lingering Impact

Shortly after the march and the negative outcome in the lower house, the group began to dissolve. Many members simply became discouraged, while others questioned whether they should shift their activist energies to solidarity with the intifada. Despite disbanding in 2000, the Campaign received the highest honor bestowed by Human Rights Watch — the first time a group, rather than an individual, was so recognized.

In retrospect, some members of the Campaign wonder if they did themselves, and Jordan, a disservice. More than any other state, Jordan is now associated with honor crimes in the international public mind. Thanks to the Campaign, since 2001 Amnesty International has printed a separate subsection specific to honor crimes in its reports on Jordan. Campaign members are pleased, though they realize that this measure fuels the flames of counter-protest. Members of the Campaign are also extremely proud that they introduced new methods of democratic participation into Jordan — methods that subsequent groups have emulated. But for some the doubt remains whether their chosen method was too forceful (and perhaps too Western). Some members, while still active in the fight to end honor crimes, worry that the issue is now so sensitive as to stymie progress, and that years of work have been undone. Activists must confront the accusation that they receive foreign money. It is no coincidence that today activists dealing with honor crimes avoid using the phrase, preferring the larger rubric of family protection and spousal abuse.

Their concerns are not unsubstantiated. In 2001, King Abdallah suspended Parliament. In its absence, the cabinet approved 211 temporary laws, including, in December 2001, an amendment to Article 340. When the parliament was reconvened after the June 2003 national elections, MPs in the lower house were once again faced with the task of voting on Article 340. The 2003 elections, however, predictably brought another conservative lower house to power, one with high representation from tribal regions such as Karak and Tafileh. In the broader political context, where the lower house recognized that it would have little say in questions of foreign policy and economics, activists feared that MPs would use Article 340 as an opportunity to flex their new muscles. Indeed, they did, and the issue of international interference reared its ugly head. Once again, accusations directed against the West and Western-oriented groups were heard. By early September 2003, the amendment had been voted down twice by the lower house, leaving it in limbo until a joint session of the upper and lower houses is convened. Sixty of the 85 MPs, including four of Jordan’s six female deputies, voted no.

Despite the seemingly progressive stance of King Abdallah, the negative outcome was largely a result of the government’s own policies. Yet neither the king nor the electoral laws were a subject of criticism in Western coverage of the honor crimes debate. In the case of honor crimes, the debate in Jordan became about international media coverage and Jordan’s image abroad, rather than about appropriate punishments for murder. Following the failure to abolish Article 340, activists continue to debate the lingering impact of the Campaign and the value of international support. In the short run, some activists feel that their impact may have been negative. Others hope that, eventually, their pressure will pay off, leaving the king with little choice but to force a change in the law.

Author’s note: Thanks to Jillian Schwedler, Maha Abu Ayyash, Sa’eda Kilani and Basma Abdel Jaber for their help with this article.


[1] There were not less than 20 local and foreign journalists and approximately 30 activists present at the launch.,br /> [2] Interview at Jordanian Women’s Union, September 28, 2003.
[3] For details, see Stefanie Eileen Nanes, “Fighting Honor Crimes: Evidence of Civil Society in Jordan,” Middle East Journal 57/1 (Winter 2003).
[4] Jordan Times, November 17, 1999.
[5] Jordan Times, November 22, 1999. Some argued that abolishing the law would in fact protect prostitutes and adulterers. Al-Sabil, February 22-28, 2000.
[6] Jordan Times, February 15, 2000.
[7] Jordan Times, November 30, 1999.
[8] See Jordan Times, September 29, 1999; Jordan Times, February 25, 2000; al-‘Arab al-Yawm, February 24, 2000; and al-‘Arab al-Yawm, July 4, 2000.
[9] Jordan Times, May 18, 2000.
[10] Jordan Times, November 9, 1999.
[11] Jordan Times, February 15, 2000.
[12] Jordan Times, March 10, 2000.
[13] Le Monde, November 15, 1999. Queen Rania also gave a television interview while in France, in which she was questioned about honor crimes.
[14] Al-‘Arab al-Yawm, February 15, 2000. Many tribal members had come to defend themselves against accuations that “the tribes” were responsible for honor crimes. Nanes, op cit.

How to cite this article:

Janine A. Clark "“Honor Crimes” and the International Spotlight on Jordan," Middle East Report 229 (Winter 2003).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This