Dedicated to Israa Ghrayeb and all women who have been murdered in the name of “honour”.
The recent heart-wrenching news of the murder of Israa Ghrayeb in Palestine sparked interest and debate on the concept of honour crimes in the Middle East. Every day, many women like Israa are killed mercilessly in the name of “honour”. Their stories are untold and unheard; most are overlooked and even justified in the name of culture and religion. Isra’s story, though, initiated solidarity amongst women in the region and brought international attention to one of the most pressing of global women’s issues.
So-called “honour” crimes and violence against women are neither new nor unique to any part of the world; they are as old as patriarchy. However, what is alarming about Israa’s case is that the murder was committed publicly in a hospital. Those who filmed her screaming in the hospital did not think it was possible to help her. This indicates the appalling reality that patriarchy and such an expression of what is deemed locally to be masculinity have been normalised and accepted. Average citizens in society did not think that they had a responsibility to prevent the crime taking place. This raises important questions about the collective morals of society.
Is a woman really safe in the public sphere? Who is her enemy and who is her protector? The solidarity that has surfaced in Israa’s case gives us hope, but the way in which she was beaten up in a public place shows that there is still a long way to go.
Writing this article, I wonder what the real impact of those academics who focus on gender studies really is if they cannot help people to understand the inhumanity, cruelty and immorality of killing a woman in the name of honour. Such academics need to make their work more accessible so that it may contribute to a genuine change in misogynistic attitudes. We all need to ask the right questions; initiate a new narrative; re-read history; and problematise certain cultural practices.
“Honour” crimes against women are linked to the construction and reinforcement of masculinity and neo-patriarchal practices in the contemporary Middle Eastern. Academics like Christopher Browning (1991) and John Dower (1986) have explained that masculinity is often used to dehumanise the “other”, which in this case is a woman. In this regard, one of the main issues is the highly politicised separation between the public and private sphere.
The latter is basically the extension of the political but is constructed as a separate category to allow for the division of patriarchy between the state and society; familial patriarchy in households and state patriarchy in the public sphere. The current laws in the Middle East do not deal seriously with crimes committed by family members against women, because they are considered to be private rather than public issues. The binary between the public and the private allows the political elite to decide conveniently what is to be left at the discretion of the “family” — which is mostly patriarchal in structure — and interferes in other aspects of “private” life through laws, policies and other indirect forms of influence. In contemporary Palestinian society, as elsewhere in the Middle Eastern, females continue to be killed because of their gender, despite socio-political changes and awareness about equality.
Values, norms and practices interact with culture and religion and become embedded into the institution of private life as well as the cultural and political processes. Literature and research on masculinity and mechanism related to male power and legal practices indicate clear double standards when it comes to men and women. Even though the predominant religion (Islam in this case) calls for equality in punishment for adultery, for example, in practice it is only women who get targeted for such acts, in the name of “honour”. Indeed, “honour” becomes a vague and loosely defined term that governs all aspect of a woman’s life and the tool through which a man controls it in a systemised and institutionalised manner. These include minor details from what she wears to how she talks and how she uploads her picture on Instagram, through to major rights such as her right to marry the person of her own choice.
Hence, we have to deconstruct patriarchy, to see how such practices have evolved and become institutionalised, and what forces were involved in the process. To find any solutions we have to look at the roots; to go behind the headlines. A starting point is to look at the discriminatory mechanisms that aim to change or reform woman’s behaviour to be “culturally appropriate” using the discourse that crystallises norms of behaviour against which other behaviour is judged.
Some such “acceptable and appropriate” behaviour focuses on woman’s personal and public conduct linking it to her piety. It creates a dominant, patriarchal narrative of what a pious, and thus “ideal” female looks like. Anything that falls outside of these parameters is unacceptable, bringing shame to the family, which mostly means the male family members, justifying any subsequent violence to the point of murder. In the long run, such discourse creates legally and culturally acceptable discrimination.
The preservation of woman’s honour is one of the most important aspects in the shaping and construction of the social profile of the contemporary Middle Eastern family. The control and obsession with “family” has led to justifying and legitimising violence against women as protective behaviour rather than criminal action.
Since Israa’s story was first highlighted across social media, many developments have taken place. It started with her friends sharing videos of her Snapchat stories. As the story broke and led to an online campaign, multiple narratives emerged. In one video, her brother-in-law explains in very bizarre and disrespectful language how Israa was possessed; in another her brother claims that he and his father were just trying to help Israa recover. None have any convincing logic. One of the doctors who treated her made it clear that she was apparently the victim of domestic abuse for a long time.
However, despite all of these narratives, the press conference led by Palestinian Authority Attorney General Akram Khatib announced that three male relatives were being charged with Israa’s murder but refused to call it an honour crime. This was clearly motivated by Israa’s gender and related to behaviour deemed to be “shameful” to the family, thus removing the real motivation behind her murder, and avoiding the deeper cause. Dealing with this as a distinct murder and not as the product of a patriarchal system allows such crimes to happen, and even makes them easier to be carried out.
Israa’s case leaves us with several questions: would her murder have received any attention if it were not highlighted on social media? How many other girls continue to suffer domestic abuse while the perpetuators receive no punishment because there is no systemised legal code to protect woman against such violence? Why did we not hear anything from the female members of Israa’s family? Even in the aftermath and official reports, the testimony of female members was missing. Were they scared of the consequences of speaking up, or is there a general lack of female representation in official discourse? These issues need to be addressed, before we hear about the next “Israa” on social media.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.