In the mid-1990s, when so-called "honor killings" were rarely reported in Jordan, Rana Husseini took it upon herself to be the voice of these murdered women. A journalist and women's rights activist, she decided to write about each and every killing in The Jordan Times, where she was the English-language daily's crime reporter starting in 1993. Until then, other media outlets in Jordan had always ignored or buried news of "honor killings." She forced a mostly conservative society, which considered these killings a family matter and a taboo, to confront what was actually happening in the country. Despite facing accusations of being a "Western agent" encouraging sexual freedom among Jordanian women, she says, "I wanted the society to know that we have problems and that we need to fight it, not hide our head in the sand."
Her work exposing the reality of this violence against women in Jordan raised awareness inside and outside the country, leading to the formation of the National Jordanian Committee to Eliminate the So-called Crimes of Honor in 1998. The committee collected thousands of signatures and mobilized demonstrations to demand an end to the legal loopholes offering leniency for these crimes. In 2017, Jordan's Parliament finally amended the Penal Code to close some of those loopholes. Even after all these efforts, though, "honor killings" haven't ended in Jordan; there were an estimated 17 such murders in 2020.
Husseini has earned many awards for her reporting and advocacy for women's rights, including the Human Rights Watch Award in 2000, the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism in 2003, and a medal from King Abdullah II in 2007. In 2009, she published her first book, Murder in the Name of Honor: The True Story of One Woman's Heroic Fight Against an Unbelievable Crime. In her new book, Years of Struggle: The Women's Movement in Jordan, which was published earlier this year, Husseini tells the longer history of the fight for women's rights in Jordan, starting back in the 1940s. It is a personal account for Husseini, too. As she writes in an introduction, "I started seeing and living the discrimination on so many levels" early on, "and I knew it was because I was a woman." When she got her start at The Jordan Times after university, she adds, "I had one goal: to start from the bottom and find my way to the women's cause. However, the cause found me instead."
In an interview with Democracy in Exile, Husseini discusses the origins of her new book and the research that shaped it, including the story that motivated her to report on honor killings in the first place. She also highlights the other forms of discrimination that women still face in Jordan today, even after the progress of the past few decades, and why she will keep "raising awareness about these issues, empowering women and letting them know that there's someone there to help them."
The following transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
"I wanted to report each and every case of these women, and I wanted to be their voice. I wanted society to know that we have problems and that we need to fight it, not hide our head in the sand."
- Rana Husseini
What motivated you to write Years of Struggle: The Women's Movement in Jordan?
I wanted to document the women's movement in Jordan because there are very few books and research that document it, and there is a lot that needs to be done. At the same time, while reading other male historians' books, I noticed that they rarely talk about women, or not at all. I know that the women's movement did a lot over the years. They suffered and sacrificed a lot—this is one thing. The other thing is that in the past 20 years, there have been a lot of advancements, activities and things that needs to be done for women in Jordan, so I thought I would also document it.
In short, what are the stages that women have gone through in Jordan's history?
There have been a lot of stages. In the 1940s, I would say their work was more of a charitable nature. These were like the beginning steps, and then in the 1950s, it was more of a political domain. I think the 50s were the most powerful or active years for women in Jordan, until we went back after the 2000s. Women were very involved in all kinds of activities, be it for their rights and for the rights of the nation and for other issues back then. They were taking part in demonstrations and protests against [Israeli] occupation and so forth.
In 1975, they had the women's international forum—the U.N.'s first World Conference on Women, in Mexico City—and this basically shook things in Jordan. As I mention in my book, the government decided to give women many rights that year—that decade actually—including their right to vote and run for elections. They started appointing women [to the government]; we had the first female minister in the 1970s. And they held several women's conferences in Jordan, so this was really an interesting period.
The 1980s also witnessed some changes, such as taking part in the U.N. conferences on women [in Copenhagen in 1980, and Nairobi in 1985] and having more female ministers in Jordan. The 1990s started to see some switch. There were more NGOs, and the Jordanian National Committee for Women was formed. There were more active women's groups, opening hot lines and services for abused women, and there was more documentation of violence against women and so-called honor killings.
From 2000 until 2020, we have seen more women assuming political roles and being ministers. We even had a deputy prime minister at one point. We had many conferences taking place in Jordan, and the Jordanian government and women's movements kept taking parts in U.N. conferences.
The most noticeable thing is the percentage of women in the labor market still remains low. There are many obstacles facing women. Women are not being promoted like men, they don't get paid like men, so there are hindrances for women in the labor market. Some laws still discriminate against women.
In your introduction to Years of Struggle, you write that at points, you were "happy and smiling while reading about the tricks, strategies and maneuvering adopted by the women's movement since the 1950s to win their rights and make their voices heard." Can you give an example of those tricks or maneuvers?
There are two incidents that I liked a lot. One of them was by the renowned human rights activist Asma Khader. She was talking about going to the downtown area in Amman to protest, and they had to hide their banners in baskets so that they would not be stopped. Another story is from the activist Emily Naffaa, who ran from police during a protest and went to a restaurant pretending to be a customer. I thought these were really smart tactics. I am sure there are more stories, but these are the ones that I was able to get.
There are laws that continue to discriminate against women, such as denying passing citizenship to children of Jordanian women who are married to foreigners. Why does changing that law continue to meet resistance despite efforts for reform and equality?
This is major discrimination against women in Jordan, because this kind of treatment does not portray them as full citizens, when they cannot pass their citizenship to their children or husbands. On the other hand, men can do that, and this alone is discrimination. It's really unfortunate. But the government is not open to [changing] this for many reasons, mostly political, as they claim. The entities and individuals who oppose granting citizenship to family members of these women, particularly those with Palestinian husbands, say the measure will only lead Israel to implement its "ultimate plan of creating a substitute homeland for Palestinians in Jordan." The government claims that they still want to secure the "right of return" for Palestinians.
What motivated you to focus on honor killings and women in general in Jordan?
The motivation was the story of a 16-year-old schoolgirl who was killed by one of her brothers, because another brother raped her and they basically blamed her for the rape. Her family accused her of seducing her brother, and this girl lived a horrific life during her short lifespan, as her brother who raped her attempted to kill her because she told her family she became pregnant. She underwent a secret abortion, and then they married her to a man who was 34 years older than her. Six months later, this man divorced her, so the family killed her claiming "family honor." For me, this was a shock. Of course, this is not a story that happens every day in Jordan, but this was the story that pushed me to do everything in mid-1994—everything that I'm doing now.
"I had one goal: to start from the bottom and find my way to the women's cause. However, the cause found me instead."
- Rana Husseini
How were stories of honor killings covered before you started reporting them? Were they only reporting the incidents without looking into them as a problem, or without digging into the legal flaws that gave the killers leniency?
We are talking about an era when the press would rarely report about such cases, and if they did, it would be a short story, like maybe a few lines in one of the newspapers buried somewhere, or sometimes not even reported. So I felt that I wanted to report each and every case of these women, and I wanted to be their voice. I wanted society to know that we have problems and that we need to fight it, not hide our head in the sand. Then I discovered that men who would kill their female relatives also get lenient sentences, so I decided also to focus on that, because at that time, nobody wanted to tackle such an issue. They considered it a taboo subject and a family matter.
In terms of the official and most-read newspapers, it was rarely reported. Many people didn't know it existed, and they didn't look at it as a problem until later, after 2000.
How difficult was it for you to report on honor killings in a society that generally viewed it as "cleansing the family honor," and when some—even officials and members of parliament—viewed any attempt to solve this problem as a means to spread promiscuity? What obstacles have you faced?
Of course, in the beginning it was a bit difficult, and not many people were happy or welcoming the fact that I was reporting on this, but there were others who were very supportive and wanted me to report. I thought at the beginning that it was only targeting me, but I noticed that most human rights activists in the world also faced many problems, such as being accused of being Western agents and wanting to destroy their societies—the same was true for me. These were some of the problems. Of course, there were people who didn't want to give or share information, but there were others, also in the government or in certain entities that were related to investigations, who were happy to, because they wanted an end to these crimes.
And yes, some people accused me of being a Western agent or wanting to encourage women to become sexually free and all of that, but I didn't listen to anyone. I listened to my heart and to the fact that what I'm doing is not against any religion or any human rights concepts or values, because human beings' lives are sacred. We should all fight to maintain or protect people and not to be quiet or pretend that this does not exist.
As a woman, how much did these crimes affect you emotionally?
It was hard in the beginning. For me, it was, How can you kill someone? If I see an ant, I think you can't kill it, so how come some people just find it very easy to take someone's life? It was sad and frustrating, and sometimes I become very angry when I hear about a story. I feel like I need to do more, I need to talk more, be more active and try to keep exposing this issue in the hopes that more people will join and more reporters will start reporting.
In a recent op-ed, you wrote that, when you started reporting on honor killings back in the 1990s, "most perpetrators would get away with little more than a slap on the wrist. Their sentences would range from three months to two years in prison." What do you think the sentence be for such killers?
The proper punishment, in my point of view, is life in prison. In Jordan, the maximum sentence is between 20 and 30 years. But I mean, I want them to spend their whole life in prison, not only 20 to 30 years.
In 2016, Jordan's Iftaa Department issued a fatwa saying honor killings are not compatible with Islam. Do you see honor killings as more of a religious matter or a tribal tradition?
It's a tradition. These crimes happen in Jordan and elsewhere in the world. It has nothing to do with tribes or religion. It happens in all religions and, in some countries, among all classes, like in Pakistan.
Every now and then, Jordanian men convicted of murdering their female relatives for reasons related to "family honor" are still included in royal pardons. Do you think there should be an exemption from royal pardon for this category of murder?
I think they should not benefit from any pardon, especially in cases where individuals commit crimes against family members. I think there should be no pardon or amnesty or reduction in penalty, because someone needs to protect family members from each other. If the family members cannot protect themselves from each other, then the law should intervene and be the protecting tool.
Have you ever been offered a position in the government related to dealing with violence against women, or a chance to share your strategies for solutions?
Of course not, even in committees related to human rights. I don't know why, but it's OK. I still spread knowledge among society by taking part in various activities and talking to people and students and responding to interviews such as yours. I believe it's important to keep spreading the word and raising awareness about these issues, empowering women and letting them know that there's someone there to help them.