Gaza City, Palestine – Two teenage Palestinian girls were killed in separate incidents last month in so-called “honour killings”, revenge attacks carried out most often by family members against women suspected of “immoral sexual conduct”.
The deaths sparked protests with more than 100 people assembling outside the general attorney’s office in Gaza on March 3, demanding violence against Palestinian women come to a halt. Five women died in honour killings in the Palestinian territories in 2011. That number rose to 13 in 2012 and doubled to 26 last year.
“For the past three years, the number of women killed have increased each year,” said Mariam Abu al-Atta, coordinator of the Amal Coalition to Combat Violence Against Women, at the recent demonstration. “Today we are here to stop these crimes. Criminals should be punished by law.”
But the day after the protest, another woman, Samah Bader, was stabbed to death by her husband in their apartment in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. She became the eighth woman killed in the Palestinian territories since the beginning of the year – raising concerns the deadly trend will continue to spiral upwards.
Honour killings are common in some Arab and South Asian societies, as unsupervised contact between an unmarried woman and a man can lead to social stigma on the family.
‘Atmosphere of sympathy’
Naser al-Rayyes, a legal consultant at the Palestinian human rights organisation Al Haq, estimated that 90 percent of honour killings are in fact carried out for reasons other than “dishonouring” the family, with the assailants aware that courts are more lenient when sexual misconduct is cited as a motive.
With the political split, you don't have anyone in the Gaza Strip aiming to criminalise these offenses.
“It is to create an atmosphere of sympathy for the murderer and his family to mitigate the sentence,” Rayyes told Al Jazeera.
Al Haq has long pushed for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to ratify a new penal code that eliminates “family honour” as a mitigating circumstance, and instead mandates harsher sentences in cases in which it is claimed as the motive. Most of those convicted spend only a few years in jail.
The draft law was presented to Abbas in 2011 but still has not been passed.
Reacting to the recent killings of women, PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi called upon the judiciary, security forces and grassroots organisations to “eradicate this phenomenon in line with the principles of democracy”.
But even if Abbas signs the new law, it won’t help women in the Gaza Strip. Hamas came to power in Gaza in 2007, while Fatah remains in charge in the West Bank.
As a result, the two Palestinian territories have different legal systems which, according to Atta, creates an environment where it is impossible to implement one clear law. “We have to unite our voices towards both Hamas and Fatah to end the separation and put one law in force and take action against criminals,” she said.
Hiba Zayyan, of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, said the lack of legal clarity is a major reason for the increase in the killing of women.
“With the political split, you don’t have anyone in the Gaza Strip aiming to criminalise these offences or even to send an ethical, moral message – even if it is not put into effect. There is a complete silence from [Hamas] government institutions,” Zayyan told Al Jazeera. “It is very much connected to law and order – how people perceive the strength of duty-bearers and how they would feel about being punished or getting away with a crime.”
Zayyan also noted that Gaza is suffering from high unemployment and poverty caused by the ongoing Israeli siege and Egypt’s destruction last summer of tunnels running into the Palestinian strip. Lack of necessities such as fuel, electricity, water, food and not least money are bound to cause friction in Gazan homes, she said.
A survey by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics from 2011 showed that 35 percent of married women in Gaza had been exposed to physical violence by their husband within the past year, and that 40 percent of unmarried women had been physically abused by a household member.
In a small garden away from the noisy Gaza city streets, Al Jazeera spoke to a middle-aged woman, “Umm Mohammed”. Afraid of how her family would react to the telling of her story, she asked that a pseudonym be used.
Umm Mohammed explained how she lived with an abusive husband for 20 years. When she was 17, her father-in-law tried to kill her after a cooking accident left her with severe burns. She left to live with her parents, but moved back after four years because of pressure from her family.
“It was the worst years in my life,” Umm Mohammed said, tears streaming down her cheeks. Although her husband beat her, she decided to stay to protect their three children. “He was horrible to me. When I heard him come home, I felt a pain in my body even before I could see him.”
When Umm Mohammed was 36, her husband divorced her after beating her badly. She was forced to leave the children behind because she was afraid and unaware of where to turn for help, she said.
Today she works with a women’s rights centre, where she helps wives caught in abusive marriages to try and get divorced. “It’s a man’s society,” she said. “I tell them you have to be stronger than anything.”
After her divorce, Umm Mohammed moved in with her brother and sister-in-law, who tried to stop her from continuing her education or working, and forbade her from going anywhere on her own. She was able to move freely only after she moved in with her son and daughter-in-law.
Women in Gaza are extremely dependent on their family and husbands, Zayyan, of the UN, said – preventing many from leaving an abusive or bad marriage.
“They face the possibility of losing their children, their property and their economic security within the domestic sphere. And then there’s the social stigma. A divorced woman would start to become censored by her immediate family.”
Zayyan said she hopes for more initiatives from government and civil society to support women seeking help – before it is too late.