November, 7, 2017
Dina, a university student, did not know that she would be murdered twice. One day in 2012, as she was taking the bus to Damascus University she was stopped at a regime security check point and taken to one of their branches in the city. Her crime was that she was the sister of a fighter in the armed opposition groups. In the security branch she was severely tortured and brutally raped several times by members of the security branch. Dina stayed in prison for several months. When she was released, she left with her parents to one of the neighboring countries of Syria. Dina did not tell her father what happened to her out of fear of what he might do. However, after three years Dina’s father learned of his daughter’s experience in detention and decided that he had to wash away what he and many others in his community saw as the shame that his daughter had brought on them. He returned with his family to his city in Syria and, in a planned attack, murdered his daughter. This was the second and final time that Dina died. There is no protection or legal deterrent for this type of crime.
Honor crimes are the killing of a female in a family by a male member because of the suspicion or belief that the woman or girl committed an act which violates their perceived morality, such as adultery or illicit relations with the opposition sex, in order to cleanse the shame and preserve the family and community’s honor.
Legal history of honor crimes in Syria
In the Syrian Penal Code honor crimes were not mentioned, but were referred to as violations. They were outlined in articles 489 to 507. When outlining these articles’ provisions, the drafters took into account the mitigating right of society to maintain its honor. The importance of this “right” comes from the fact that in Syria it is legally acceptable for men in particular to protect their and their family’s honor or sense of modesty.
While Syrian law does recognize honor-motivated crimes as criminal acts, the law provides mitigating reasons that legitimize the protection of honor and dignity. Its punishment is set in the articles 533, 534 and 540 under article 192 of the general penal code. In article 473, the law also outlines some provisions that provide justification for honor crimes against suspected adulteresses. Lenient sentences and exemptions for honor crimes have been justified in some cases by the so-called “noble motive”, which was defined as acts committed in rage or out of honor. This was defined by Syrian legislators as "A wild psychological emotion that motivates the perpetrator to commit his crime under the influence of the sacred idea of washing the shame inflicted on him and his family by the victim."
In the beginning of 2011, Legislative Decree No. 1 was issued in which some articles on honor crimes were amended. Article 548 was replaced with another article, providing for a maximum two to seven years imprisonment for perpetrators of honor crimes. However, this amendment did not affect the main text of the Article 548, which still gives men the right to commit honor killings in practice. It did not abolish the article definitively or increase the penalty to such a degree that it might cause a person who wants to commit such a crime to be hesitant to do so. In addition, under the amendment the legislator will not be able to protect a woman from such a crime.
Honor crimes after the Syrian revolution
Today, in areas outside regime control, there is not any real legislative authority or police apparatus that can control the security situation and combat the ever-increasing number of crimes. Different factions hold control over these areas and operate according to the area’s specific cultural practices or to the group’s religious ideology, as is the case in the areas under ISIS or other jihadi groups’ control.
The unstable security situation in these areas, in addition to the political and economic conditions and the absence of applied laws and punishments, have increased the number of honor crimes in particular. Today these crimes are committed based just on suspicion. This was the case of Mary, a few months ago. Mary was a newly-wed, however a neighbor told her family that there was a man coming to her house while her husband was absent. Her brother immediately killed her. Thirty bullets were found in her body. Her parents later discovered that the accusations had been a malicious lie. Mary became another victim to outdated customs and traditions that in the absence of any laws to protect women, dominate communities.
The situation is worse in the areas controlled by ISIS. In these areas ISIS carries out honor crimes publically through stoning in front of crowds of local residents. There have been several documented cases of stoning. One of them was the stoning of Shamsa Alabdullah from al-Tabka town in Raqqa province. She was falsely accused of committing adultery by members of ISIS who had been chasing members of the armed opposition when they sought refuge in Shamsa’s house. Shamsa refused to entry to ISIS. In retaliation ISIS accused her of adultery. A statement was issued by ISIS declaring that she had confessed to committing adultery more than once. She was later brought to the market square in the town where she was stoned by ISIS members in what they considered a legitimate punishment.
Many factors affect the increase or decrease of the percentage of honor crimes. These include economic factors as well as education, laws, norms, and traditions, which remain strong in Syrian communities.
On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, some simple but meaningful questions were raised regarding honor crimes. The most prominent of these questions were: Is it not the man who betrays his wife and kills her under the pretext of defending his honor? Is not the young man at fault who locks his sister up, beats her, and sometimes kills her? Are not the young men at fault who sit with girls at universities or cafes, or even harass them in the streets? These questions are difficult to answer. There is a range of customs and traditions that have had a strong impact on penal laws that protect honor crimes as acceptable extrajudicial executions. All the while women remain victims, waiting for a future law that will protect them and bring them justice.