The Books Interview: Rana Husseini

Your book Murder in the Name of Honour continues your efforts to break the silence around honour killings. What first inspired your campaign?
I was reporting for the Jordan Times and encountered a horrific case of a 16-year-old girl called Kifaya, who was killed because she was raped by her brother and the family blamed her for tarnishing their honour. I found it very hard to comprehend.

I was sitting talking to her uncles and they were still blaming her. When I published the story, a woman rang the paper screaming that we shouldn’t cover these crimes. I was enraged that this call came from a woman. So, I decided to follow my heart; I would report each case and force people to act. It worked – a movement happened after that. Now I call them “so-called honour killings” because they have nothing to do with real honour.

You detail murder after murder in the book, almost pummelling the reader. Was this your intention?
You have to put a face to and humanise the victims. So many women are deprived of their right to live. I wanted people to read this book and be angry. When a family thinks that its female relative has tarnished its reputation, by engaging in sexual relations, by being a victim of rape, incest, by marrying the man of her choice, or even just speaking with a strange man, it feels the only way to fix things is with blood. Blood cleanses honour. Many families, when they kill their relative, want to get rid of the shame completely. Sometimes they don’t even take the corpse, and often women are buried in unmarked graves. I wanted to be the voice of these women so that people become enraged and do something.

Murder in the Name of Honour shows how you tried to alter the laws in Jordan that permit these murders. Has there been any change?
Laws alone are not going to end the crime, or protect women, but we have to try to change them, for women’s dignity. You can write a bad cheque in Jordan and get a longer sentence than for killing a woman in the name of honour. The laws haven’t changed, but attitudes have, among lawyers, judges and the police. They care more now. They don’t treat these crimes as just another woman who was killed. Now, finally, there is talk about changing the law.

The book shows that honour crimes aren’t solely a problem for Muslim cultures.
They’re not, but Muslims have always been portrayed in a negative manner. The media are not fair. Honour violence is an international phenomenon. In the book, there’s a case of a Sikh woman killed. In Italy, there were two recent cases involving Christians. And there are reports of it happening in small villages in Spain and Greece. It happens everywhere.

You interviewed several murderers for the book. How did that feel?
The first time I met Sarhan, who had killed his sister Yasmin, I felt a lot of anger. There he was, sitting and smiling. But I interviewed him several times and realised that he was ignorant. These are ignorant people. One time I suggested to him, “You didn’t want to kill your sister. Were you put in this situation?” And he said he regretted it but would do it again. He said he wished society would execute honour killers, and then his family would not have pushed him. That’s not a man proud of his actions. Men are forced into the situation by their families.

You’ve received death threats for your activist work. How do you manage these?
I believe in fate and am a firm believer in what I do. I feel that when it is my time to go, nothing will stop it. I’m doing right things that don’t contradict human rights or religion; any normal person would know that those killings are wrong. Yet I have people accusing me of being a Zionist agent, a radical feminist, a western agent who wants to destroy the morals of society. But I don’t lose sleep over death threats. There will always be people who will oppose you. That’s life.

Interview by Claire Colley
“Murder in the Name of Honour: the True Story of One Woman’s Heroic Fight Against an Unbelievable Crime” is published by Oneworld (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country