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July 4, 2000

 

CAIRO (AP) - Nora Ahmed was on her honeymoon when her father cut off her head and paraded it down a dusty Cairo street because she had married a man of whom he did not approve.

 

Begum Gadhaki was sleeping next to her 3-month-old son when her husband grabbed a gun and shot her dead. A neighbor had spotted a man who was not a family member near the field where she was working in Pakistan's Sindh province.

 

Ahmed Ali used a cane to beat his wife across the stomach until she died after she returned home to their tiny village in Yemen from a two-day absence she refused to explain.

 

Hundreds of women like Ahmed, Gadhaki and Ali perish every year because their male relatives believe their actions have soiled the family name.

 

They die so family honor may survive.      

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Honor killings are based on a "suspicion of immorality on the part of the victim," the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says. But women have no way to know what behavior could be their death sentence. They have been killed for being too friendly to a brother-in-law. Having "arrogant" body language. Sitting next to a man on a bus.

 

Honor killing exists mostly in Muslim countries, such as those in the Middle East and central Asia, even though Islam does not sanction the practice.

 

The United Nations says such killings have also occurred in Britain, Norway, Italy, Brazil, Peru and Venezuela. At least one case has been reported in the United States.

 

It is an ancient practice sanctioned by culture rather than religion, rooted in a complex code that allows a man to kill a female relative for suspected or actual sexual activity.

 

"It's 100 percent tradition," according to Madiha El-Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo. "It's associated with the value of sexual chastity of the woman."

 

The law is usually on the man's side, often letting him go unpunished or with only a light sentence. The community commonly treats the murderer as a hero and considers the killing a duty, not

a crime.

 

Cultures where the practice exists hold that a woman is a man's possession and a reflection of his honor. It's the man's honor that gets tarnished if a woman is not virtuous.

 

"A woman in Arab societies is an object for sex and reproduction. As long as she is an object, she is owned by a father, a husband, a brother," said Salwa Bakr, an Egyptian feminist and writer. "The way she uses her body is not her business but the business of those who own her."

 

Ahmed Abbad Sherif, a prominent, conservative tribal leader in Yemen, insists "it's because women are weaker than men." "If she's immoral, it's the man's duty to kill her," Sherif said matter-of-factly. "Otherwise, he will be despised by the rest of the tribe."

 

Feminists, activists and human rights defenders have quietly begun work to end honor killings. 

 

"Men worry about their honor and dignity as if women had none," said Azza Suleiman, an activist at the Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance. "They have stripped us of our honor and appointed1 themselves its protector." Honor killing, although not as widespread as decades ago, still thrives in rural areas, where women remain financially dependent on men and justice is administered by village elders.

 

From early childhood, girls are taught about "eib," shame, and "sharaf," honor. They dress modestly, lower their eyes when walking in public and are segregated from boys if they're lucky

enough to be sent to school.

 

And everywhere girls go are reminders that their most important mission in life is to remain virgins until they marry. Among some tribes in Yemen, guests wait outside the newlyweds' bedroom. Custom calls for the bridegroom to emerge and fire his gun, signifying his bride was a virgin. In other tribes, a towel smeared with the woman's blood is paraded on sticks through the village amid ululations and, occasionally, the beatings of drums.  

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But virginity before marriage and demure behavior afterward are no guarantee of safety. Women have been shot, burned, strangled, stoned, poisoned, beheaded or stabbed for being friendly to a brother-in-law, sitting next to a man on a bus, falling in love with the wrong person, talking to a man on the phone or even for being raped.

 

Their killers rarely give them a chance to prove their innocence. They act first and perhaps inquire later.

 

In Yemen recently, a man shot his daughter dead on her wedding night after her husband said she was not a virgin. At the mother's insistence, the daughter was examined by a doctor - and was found to have been a virgin, said people familiar with the case. It turned out the husband was impotent and knew his problem would have been exposed because he had to display a bloodied rag as proof of his bride's virginity. He lied to protect his honor.

    ---

No official figures tally how many such crimes are committed every year. Many cases, activists say, go unreported or misreported, with families describing the deaths as accidents to prevent further scandal.

 

A recent UNICEF survey found that in 1997, honor killings claimed the lives of as many as 400 women in Yemen, 52 in Egypt and an estimated 300 in just one province of Pakistan. Jordan reports an average of 25 such killings each year.

 


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