Honour killings are the killings of women for deviation from sexual norms imposed by society. Families in different parts of the world associate their honour with the virginity of their unmarried daughters and with the chastity of the married ones. Most female violators of the honour code are killed instantly by their male relatives on the strength of a rumour. Honour crimes have been reported in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda and the United Kingdom. Most crimes, however, often go unreported so it is difficult to determine the actual number of victims in honour killings. The United Nations Population Fund estimates as many as 5000 females are killed each year.
In pre-Islamic Arabia female infanticide was widespread. Female babies used to be buried alive in the sand for socio-economic reasons until Islam came and put an end to it. And although the Qur’an in the following surat condemns this practice it has survived for centuries and kept resurfacing: ‘When the female (infant), buried alive, is questioned for what crime she was killed.’
An average of 25 females are killed every year in Jordan in crimes of honour and an average of 27 adult females commit suicide, which professionals argue are crimes of honour in disguise, where the victims are forced to commit suicide. In 1993 for example the total killings in Jordan were 96 and 33 of those were related to honour. So one thirds of killings in Jordan are honour crimes.
Chastity can be achieved through purity of breed, which is seen as synonymous with the purity of females. “In Arab Muslim culture, the honour of the patrilineal group is bound up with the sex organs of its daughters and a specific term ‘i’rid’ combines the two.” Girls or women can sully their family’s honour and destroy their reputation until they get married and become the responsibility of their husbands. Women who are suspected of “immoral” behaviour usually end up dead, even though most of those who get examined by forensic scientists are found to have been sexually inactive.
Although relating women’s honour to their suspected sexual behaviour is a worldwide phenomenon, imposing a legal penalty for any deviation from the norm survived in Mediterranean societies and a number of Islamic countries such as Pakistan. While most countries, however, have abolished laws related to such crimes, a number of Arab and Muslim countries still maintain specific articles in their penal codes, which justify honour killings. The laws crime down honour killings so judges hand out light sentences a maximum of six months in prison, for example. Honour killings go virtually unpunished, which encourages the surveillance, policing and killing of females in Jordan today.
If the woman hands herself to the police she ends up living for the rest of her life in “protective custody”. The state can protect her inside the prison most of the time, but cannot do anything about angry male relatives outside the prison. I read once in the early 1990’s that a Swiss organisation approached the government to smuggle out victims to Europe to give them a profession and a normal life under a different name. There was an uproar in Jordan and opponents argued that Westerners were planning to kidnap our daughters and force them into prostitution on the streets of Europe. So the whole proposal was nipped in the bud.
No linear narrative can tell Salma’s story in My Name is Salma. She manages to escape from a Jordanian prison and sails away towards another type of prison, where she ends up an asylum seeker on the streets of Exeter. She arrives on the shores of Britain totally unequipped to face an alien society, which is suffering from post-empire depression, and learn its languages and subtle codes. On the way to her destiny she meets people who are considerate, others who are exploitative, Christians who are either fundamentalists, applying the letter of the Bible, or imaginative and compassionate. Although this mirrors her own experience of religion she is full of doubt and dissent. Throughout the novel she observes Islam being practiced from the outside, but she never practices herself because after the loss of her daughter she comes to the conclusion that religion does not offer any consolation.
If strict penalties are in place for sex out of wedlock in Jordan it is encouraged in the UK and without it she might not enjoy any intimacy or human contact. Salma is torn and is always trying to forge a new identity for her self, negotiate a new path. She ends up in a new country with a new identity, but with the same old, torn heart. It tugs her back to Jordan, to her daughter. She has no doubt that her daughter will be lynched eventually and that she has to save her somehow.
Today victims of honour crimes are dumped in unmarked graves without any funeral services. Their families bury their life histories with them and repress any acts of remembrance. This novel celebrates the life of one of the faceless victims of honour crimes and is a humble attempt to give her a name, a voice and a life. One day the civil code which allows such crimes to be committed will be replaced by a humane and egalitarian law. We shall call it Salma’s law to commemorate all the innocent victims of honour crimes. One day we shall build a mausoleum in the centre of many capitals and inscribe on it the names of women, who were senselessly murdered. One day the spirits of the unknown victims shall return home where they belong, shall return to our hearts and minds.
In the meantime . . . whenever the Jordanian breeze hits my face a sudden chill runs from the roots to the ends of each hair on my body and my chest collapses as if I were drowning. I could hear all the innocent victims calling me, their cries of pain rend Bedouin garments. This one died of three shots in the head, that one of twelve stab wounds and the victim was left for four hours to bleed to death before her father called an ambulance, she was pushed off a high cliff by her aunt, that one set fire to herself in the bathroom, it was suicide. The sound of keen fills the deserts, plains and hills of Jordan. Wherever black iris grows you would find them.
I shall kneel down to mark their graves and name names.
One day she, ‘the baby girl buried alive’, will stop crying.