The death of Israa Ghrayeb has ignited furious reactions regarding so-called “honor killings” in Palestine and throughout the Arab world. It has also caused confusion with respect to the jurisprudential foundation of such crimes, which are often committed in the name of protecting a family’s honor.
Israa, a 21-year-old makeup artist from the town of Beit Sahour in the West Bank, was reportedly beaten to death by her own brother for “dishonoring” the family. The tragic episode was apparently ignited by a video posted on social media that showed Israa spending time with her fiance.
While Palestinians and other Arab communities are genuinely angry regarding the violent mistreatment of women, others have found another platform to indict Islam and condemn Arab society. Predictably, the issue quickly and conveniently branched into the realms of politics, ideology and religion.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Lenient laws regarding honor killings in the Middle East (and other parts of the world) do not originate from Islamic Shariah law but from France’s Napoleonic era Penal Code of 1810, which largely tolerated “crimes of passion.” In France and Italy, laws concerning honor killings were not abrogated until 1975 and 1981, respectively.
The exploitation of weaknesses in Arab and Muslim societies is an old and thriving business. Anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric has been at the forefront of many of the West’s military and political campaigns, from the early colonial era to the recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. For many years, elaborate discourses have aimed at justifying war and rationalizing intervention to distract from the real motives of economic exploitation and violence.
“The mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes,” said former US President George W. Bush in January 2002, celebrating his country’s supposed “victory” in Afghanistan. “Today, (Afghan) women are free.” Bush made that preposterous claim only weeks after his wife, Laura, supposedly the defender of women worldwide, declared that “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
The fact that hundreds of thousands of girls and women were killed and millions of others were widowed or orphaned in America’s protracted “War on Terror” doesn’t seem to impede this fallacious logic in any way. The sad, but predictable, truth is that the rights and well-being of Afghan, Arab and Muslim women have sharply deteriorated as a result of US/Western military interventions.
This is the crux of the problem. As intellectuals, educators and human rights activists, we often find ourselves trapped in a restricting paradigm. Aware of the real motives of the Western media and official propaganda, we engage in a battle of self-defense, desperately trying to shield our religions, countries and societies from ill-intentioned criticism. In the process of doing so, however, we often neglect to speak out on behalf of the disadvantaged and vulnerable groups; the likes of Israa and millions like her.
We neglect our responsibility to stand up for the marginalized sectors of our society because we are afraid of being misunderstood or of our words being misinterpreted and misused by the rising far-right propagandists from the US to France and from India to Brazil.
But this is hardly fair to Israa and millions of other women. Palestinian and Arab women are suffering from dual injustices that men don’t experience. They are victims of war, political instability and economic marginalization, but are also victims of patriarchal societies and outdated laws.
It is infuriating and inexcusable, for example, that Palestinian women in the West Bank and Gaza are suffering multilayered forms of violence, emanating both from the Israeli occupation and from their own family and society. The former justifies its violence in the name of “security” and the latter in the name of “honor” and tradition.
But where is the honor in the fact that nearly 30 percent of all married women in the West Bank and 50 percent in Gaza “have been subjected to a form of violence within the household?” According to UN Women, the majority of these women prefer to remain silent to protect their families and avoid further abuse.
Palestinian and Arab women (and many men) are not just angry over honor killings and the tolerant laws that make it possible for criminals to get away with their brutal deeds; they are also angry because the practice symbolizes a much wider phenomenon where women are marginalized and victimized as a matter of course in all aspects of society.
According to Amnesty International, 21 Palestinian women and girls were the victims of so-called honor killings in 2018. This requires immediate attention and a complete overhaul of the Palestinian laws that allow criminals to walk free after serving reduced prison sentences. But the fight should not end there. Palestinian women are more educated than men, yet enjoy far fewer work opportunities. Despite their crucial role in the resistance against Israeli occupation and apartheid, they are marginalized in politics and decision-making.
Those who killed Israa and hundreds of women like her in the name of “honor” should know that the agonizing screams of their sisters and daughters are no different from the cries of pain of Razan Al-Najjar after she was shot and killed by Israeli snipers during Gaza’s Great March of Return; that the same pain endured by these women is the pain being felt every hour of every day by Israa Ja’abis and her sisters in Israeli prisons; and that the abuse of women at the hands of their families is the same abuse they experience at Israeli military checkpoints and by unhinged Israeli Jewish settlers.
Justice is indivisible, and it is time we broke our silence and respected this noble maxim. Speaking out against violence, discrimination and the marginalization of women in our societies should be part and parcel of any genuine struggle against human rights abuses, regardless of the identity and motive of the abuser.
Let the screams for help and pleas for mercy of Israa be our guide as we fight against injustice in all its forms and manifestations.