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It was nearly a decade ago that Norma Khouri, author of the “honour killing” tale Forbidden Love was exposed as a fraud. Until that time, she had been heralded as a brave Arab Christian woman whose Muslim best friend, Dalia, had been murdered by her male relatives.
Dalia's crime was having a chaste love affair with a Christian man, and her death was intended to restore family honour. When Khouri exposed the alleged crime against her friend – to wild acclaim, incidentally – she claimed she also fled her home in Jordan for her own safety.
But it was all a lie, as numerous investigations within Jordan and Chicago, Khouri's true place of residence, revealed. While it was SMH journalist Malcolm Knox who wrote the biting expose, the Arab journalist who first queried the authenticity of the book was Rana Husseini.
Rana Husseini's book, Murder in the Name of Honour.
Being based in Jordan, where the story was set, Husseini spotted numerous factual inaccuracies. With the assistance of Knox and another contributor, a list of 75 of these factual errors and generalisations was sent to the publishers.
“After the story was exposed by Malcolm Knox, both publishers had to apologise and withdraw the books, and change it to fiction. Even fiction is bad,” says Husseini.
Many argued that the book, despite being a fabrication, brought a crucial social issue to light. But activists in the area felt it did more damage than good – sensationalising a serious problem that many were working tirelessly to dilute and, eventually, eradicate.
Husseini recounts the experience during a recent visit to Sydney as a guest at the Australian Arab Women Leaders' Dialogue, where the opportunity to meet and interview her came about. I was curious not only about what has happened post-hoax revelation, but also how – if at all – the situation is changing for women encumbered by demands of honour and certain expectations of social behaviour.
Since the hoax, Husseini has penned a book, Murder in the Name of Honour, and spends a great deal of her time consulting, lecturing and educating about what she says should be called “so-called honour killings”.
A focus now, Husseini says, is on terminology.
“If we say honour killings, it's as if we are justifying the murder. And we want to change this perception in people's minds. We've gone a long way in Jordan in working on this issue, and people's mindsets have changed.”
Indeed, nearly 10 years on it's a markedly different situation in Jordan, one of many nations spotlighted as a problem area for so-called crimes of honour. Husseini says the improvement lies in the justice system. Where once these murders would attract a meagre sentence of three to six months, perhaps a year, the penalty is now 15 years to life in prison.
“The application of the law changed, and that's one thing that we're pushing for – people's attitudes and acceptance towards these murders have changed. Now more people are against these murders or against the lenient sentences.
“It's not 100 per cent [change], there's still murder happening, but now at least the public view or perception has changed, and this is very important.”
Moreover, Husseini notes there is a dialogue, and the media is tackling it.
“More people are becoming aware, more people are talking about it, and this is how you make a change.”
The most up-to-date statistics on so-called crimes of honour date back to 2000, with approximately 5000 women killed a year for allegedly tarnishing the respectability and honour of her family. It's a number Husseini says is under-reported.
The poor recording of statistics may perhaps be put down to a culture of acceptance – while it takes courageous journalists like Husseini to question and document these crimes, the hard part is changing the mentality around them.
It remains a major issue around the world, including in Western nations. According to the Honor Based Violence Awareness Network (HBVAN) , in the UK, there are 12 so-called honour killings a year. But in India, the figure stands at 1000, and the same number applies to Pakistan.
Like Husseini, HBVAN says the figures are “widely believed to be severe underestimates”.
“Due to lack of focused reporting and recording of Honour Killings internationally very little is known about the true extent of HBV worldwide.”
Generally, these crimes – meant to absolve a family of dishonour brought on by a female relative who has committed an allegedly “shameful” act (such as a love affair outside of marriage, or fleeing an arranged marriage) – are viewed as crimes specific to a religion (particularly Islam), or culture.
However, the perception that it's based on religion is a mentality Husseini has been working hard to dissolve.
“These kind of murders and this problem is not Islamic. It happens in all religions. I've covered it among Christian women,” she says, also citing discussion about honour-based violence in Israel, South America and among the Yazidis and Hindus.
And it's a cause Husseini believes all should be concerned about – whether as individuals or in groups, it's a matter of justice, and it requires attention and activism from both men and women.
When Husseini helped establish the Jordanian National Committee to Eliminate So-Called Crimes of Honour, she says several men gave their support.
“There are a lot of men who are now engaged, either by Facebook, by Twitter; reporters themselves, [are] starting to report more about the issue. This is very important.”
Meanwhile, Husseini's script is clear: liberating and empowering women, empowers a family.
“And this is the thing that I think some men or some people do not comprehend, even sometimes women. They do not comprehend it, or they're brought up in a way not to think of it in this way.”
It's an attitude that goes some way to explaining why Husseini dedicates so much time to raising awareness of so-called honour killings.
“. . . if it's a small documentary, if it's a book, if it's an article . . . anything will make a difference, anything will raise awareness. We have to always address it.
“In Jordan, I go and lecture everywhere, even if it's three people, if it's 100 people. Wherever they invite me I go, and I don't take money, unless somebody says, OK, we're going to give you for your time. But I never charge, some people do.”
While Husseini says she writes about other matters, including crime in general and court reporting, this is an area she first tapped into in the mid-90s. At the time, it was a subject much of the media shied away from. But Husseini says the timing was right, because Jordan was ready for change.
“Society was ready for more openness, more freedom of press, more freedom of expression.”
Husseini downplays any negative reaction to her work, saying there were many people who weren't happy – mainly Arabs living abroad – but she said it didn't reach “any hostile point”.
“There were people who didn't like my work, there were people who liked my work. But I didn't listen to anyone. I will listen to my heart and what I felt was right at that time.
“I'm doing something that I hope people will remember me for when I die. That I did something good. I know I saved lives with my work and that's very important.”