Jordanian journalist Rana Husseini can never forget the way the uncles of a 16-year-old murder victim dispassionately described how their niece deserved to die.
“It was as if they were speaking about a sheep,” Husseini writes in her new book, Murder in the Name of Honor (Oneworld Publications, $24.95).
That 1994 killing of a girl named Kifaya by her brother in the Jordanian capital of Amman is among the so-called honor killings that Husseini covers in her book. A senior reporter for the Jordan Times, Husseini began delving into Kifaya’s slaying 15 years ago and found she had been killed by one brother because she had been raped by another brother. She has since spent her career spotlighting the killing of women by family members to restore a family honor “lost” by everything from a girl’s choice of clothes to, in Kifaya’s case, being raped by a brother.
WW interviewed Husseini, who will be speaking on Nov. 2 in Portland, by phone to ask whether her reporting has produced any changes and how the many murders she’s covered have affected her.
Willamette Week: How do you penetrate the culture of silence when you go to report one of these stories?
Rana Husseini: Usually I start with the families, and talk to the neighbors. I get the police version and see how it matches with their accounts.
How threatened have you been when you go to investigate?
I’m very careful about how I investigate these crimes. If I see there’s some form of danger, I try to get my information from different sources. Thank God nothing really major has happened to me. And I hope it remains like this.
Has your reporting produced any improvement in the situation?
The number of crimes remains the same. But the level of awareness among judges, police and prosecutors has improved tremendously. Now we see women taken more seriously. There has been a strong change in the attitude. One man was given a 15-year sentence for killing his sister, and this is the highest sentence we have seen since I started working. Things are moving in the right direction. These crimes are no longer as accepted as they used to be. Of course we always try for more.
What is the biggest misconception about the topic?
Many people think these crimes are only committed by Arabs or Muslims. This is an international phenomenon. You have 5,000 women killed annually in the world in 2000 [because of “honor”], according to the U.N.... I’ve covered a Christian woman who was killed. I don’t think it has as much to do with any region as it has to do with traditions and cultures, practices and control of women.
How many cases have you investigated?
You’re talking about probably hundreds of cases.
Is there a case out of those that really sticks with you?
The one I started my book with, which is the case of a 16-year-old schoolgirl who was killed by her brother because she was raped by another brother. I think this is the most sad story I came across. And it really pushed me to do all the work that I am doing. The victim was only 16 and she was a victim many times because she was raped by her brother, she survived and became pregnant, and she had an abortion. The amount of distress she lived through, she didn’t know anything in life. And in the end, she got killed. Most of these women are deprived and nobody was talking about it. So I wanted to be their voice.
Have any of your family or friends told you to stop either because they’re worried for you or because they believe in the concept of honor killings?
No. Actually, my family was very supportive and my friends were very supportive. When I started, there were some friends who said, “What are you doing, you’re wasting your time, nothing ever changes in this country.” But of course I didn’t listen to them. I listened to my heart and I listened to my conviction.
Do you still feel the same shock after all these years when you start reporting a new case?
Sometimes. Not always. I also cover other murders. You get used to it after a while. But these really anger me and give more energy to work on this issue.
Does investigating these honor killings leave you with any personal scars?
I’m a very positive person. I play sports. I play basketball. I go out with friends. I go out to movies, play cards. When I cover these crimes, I get affected sometimes. But I try to put it behind my back. Otherwise, I can’t go on.
GO: Rana Husseini speaks at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, Nov. 2. Free.