Protecting MENA’s women: The role businesses can play in preventing gender-based violence

Lara Hamidi
Researcher for ImpACT International

 

What is femicide?

Women long have been victimized by a wide spectrum of violence and abuse—psychological, sexual and physical. Femicide is on the far end of that continuum of abuses. The act of femicide is generally defined as the intentional/deliberate murder of a woman merely because she is a female, most commonly by a man.

 

Killing in the name of honour

This particular type of femicide commonly occurs in the Middle East and North African (MENA) when a male family member claims a female relative has harmed the clan’s reputation. Typically, killings for honour involve a young girl or woman accused of engaging in sexual or other inappropriate behaviour with a man who is not her husband. “Crimes” may include anything from clandestine dating to having sex before or outside of marriage—voluntary or otherwise. Even forced sex (rape) is perceived as bringing grave shame to the family.

Unfortunately, femicide is acceptable amongst many societies, due to deeply embedded cultural norms and discrimination against women. In traditional societies, a woman’s honour is her most essential possession. If anything occurs to rob a female of her honour, she not only is rejected but her entire family is as well unless they act quickly to repudiate her.

In the Middle East, the tradition of honour killing originates from both pre-Islamic tribal customs and Arabic conceptions of what is required for family stability. Despite attempts by some to defend the practice on religious grounds, however, the practice has no basis in Islam.

How to honour killings are committed to include hanging, stoning, shooting, stabbing, strangulation, burning with fire, poisoning and being thrown from a height.

 

Ahlam: Jordanian daughter 

The July murder of Ahlam, who was in her late 30s, shook the world. Amidst Jordan’s COVID-19 lockdown, her murder by her father cast a spotlight on the issue of domestic violence, which escalated during the curfew. She had suffered other accounts of domestic abuse at the hands of her father before this incident took place. Her screams in the deeply conservative suburb of Amman were recorded by streetwalkers as she ran onto the street with blood dripping down her neck. Her cries were ignored as she begged for aid from her mother, neighbours and passers-by.

Her father chased her and smashed his daughter’s skull with a concrete block. According to social media accounts, he then sat next to his daughter’s lifeless body, lit a cigarette and enjoyed a cup of tea made by his wife. The father sat on the street next to the body waiting for the authorities to come to take his daughter’s body and investigate the scene. His relaxed state of mind just emphasises that her father already knew that he would not receive harsh punishment from the law, hence why he did not flee the crime scene.

Every year Jordan, 15-20 honour killings are reported. In 2020 so far, Ahlam is amongst nine women killed in the name of honour, with many more incidents likely unreported.

 

Loopholes in Jordan’s penal code

Jordan is one of the countries in the Middle East in which honour killings are most commonly practised, due to the poorly monitored and enforced legislation (as well as numerous loopholes).  Approximately 20 lives are lost to honour killings in Jordan every year. Unfortunately, however, this crime is socially accepted.

Jordan’s penal code treats honour crimes with less importance than other illegal acts—in some cases even justifying them. Article 340 of the Jordanian penal code states that “He who discovers his wife or female relative committing adultery and kills, wounds or injures one or both of them is exempted from any penalty.” Article 340(b) allows sentences to be reduced if the murdered girl or woman killed was found with another man in an unholy/illegitimate situation. This same leniency is found in Article 98, which allows a reduction in penalty for those who commit acts against a woman in a “fit or fury” due to her perceived unacceptable behaviour. In the name of honour, male killers in Jordan have gone unpunished and will continue to act with impunity unless these outdated penal provisions are clarified or repealed.

A thorough revision of Jordan’s penal code is mandatory. It must be modified to categorize femicide as a top-priority crime, imposing harsh penalties on killers and deterring others.

 

Romina Ashrafi: Iranian teen

Fourteen-year-old Romina Ashrafi was murdered by her father, Reza, in a small village in Northern Iran. He beheaded her with a farming sickle, after offering Romina rat poison and rope and encouraging her to kill herself. As punishment, Reza Ashrafi was sentenced to only nine years in prison. Her father was infuriated by his daughter for running away with her 35-year-old boyfriend to northwestern Tehran. Her boyfriend, Bahman Khavari, proposed to the 14-year-old without her father’s permission, although under the law a girl can marry from the age of 13, but with her father’s permission.

Women in Iran are not given the same status under law as men; all important decisions are made by the fathers or spouses of the girls/women. As in Jordan, most honour killings go unnoticed or are leniently punished. This is allowed to happen under Iran’s Islamic criminal law, which states that if a girl or woman is the victim of murder or abuse, the father or spouse decides what kind of punishment the offender receives. The penal code protects guardians. Based on Islamic law, the Iranian penal code bans capital punishment for the killing of a child by a male guardian. However, when a mother kills her child, she faces immediate execution.

Up to 45% of murders committed in the traditional southern and western provinces of Iran are honour killings. They are not as common as in Jordan, but that may be because of a culture of silence.

 

Israa Ghrayeb: Palestinian honour killing

Israa Ghrayeb, 21, died on August 22, 2019, after being admitted to the Beit Jala Government Hospital with severe spinal and respiratory injuries. Doctors confirmed that her injuries were due to a severe beating by relatives in the name of family honour.

The violence began when a picture was published on the social media platform Instagram of a man who had proposed to Israa without her family’s prior knowledge. Her brother was instructed to punch and physically hurt Israa. When trying to flee, Israa fell from the balcony on the second floor and broke her spine. A couple of days later, her brother and another male family member brutally attacked Israa in her hospital bed to further punish her for posting a picture of herself in the hospital on social media. The family denied any wrongdoing, claiming that her death two weeks later was caused by a heart attack, whilst also claiming that Israa had mental health problems.

Israa is amongst one of many victims of honour violence and killings in Palestine and will not be the last unless laws are implemented to punish the perpetrators. In 2017 alone, 29 women were killed in Palestine under which their family members had been the prime suspects.

 

What has gone wrong?

States must address the issue of honour killings with urgency and give it the recognition it so desperately needs, or more women will die silently.

Honour killings in the region have not been given as much attention as other kinds of murders. States must address this issue with urgency and give this issue the recognition it so desperately needs, or more women will die silently. Under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, governments are mandated to take all necessary measures to protect the absolute right to life.

Nevertheless, governments around the globe continue to turn their backs on this issue. The United Kingdom and Sweden are amongst the countries that do not classify honour killing as a crime. Instead, these murders are considered part of cultural traditions.

 

What role can businesses play in protecting women’s rights?

Employers play an important role in protecting women’s rights. The International Labour Organisation conventions on female workers offer them universal protection. Convention No. 100 states that women must receive equal remuneration to men and Convention No. 183 mandates protection for women who are pregnant.

Businesses can make great change; they can invest in protecting and promoting the rights of women. For a community, increasing the percentage of women in the workforce can prove to be extremely valuable, as they will mitigate the cases of domestic violence taking place behind closed doors. For businesses, promoting and protecting the rights of women in the MENA region is crucial to growing an image of sustainability and ethical practices.increasing the percentage of women in the workforce can prove to be extremely valuable, as they will mitigate the cases of domestic violence taking place behind closed doors.

 

What they can do:

1) In the workplace, employers should guarantee the same opportunities to women as they give men. By equalising the employment of women, businesses will help generate a broader awareness of the importance and acceptance of women in society, especially in more traditional rural towns. Businesses could begin to do this by modifying their business raison d’etre and goals to promote employee equality.

By having more women employed by businesses, the men in the workforce can get used to engaging with women in a professional environment. This would allow them to be more knowledgeable role models for the men in the community, radiating respect for the opposite gender. 

 

2) Equal work policies should be implemented to give women access to better social security schemes, secure employment and legal protection from violence in the workplace. Furthermore, as women achieve more important, decision-making positions, they will gain confidence and power in their relationships. This could be done by promoting more women in the MENA region onto partnership or management positions.

By providing women with equal job opportunities it will increase the number of women who have access to their bank accounts. With financial inclusion, women will have the power to take control of their financial situations without depending on any family members.

 

3) Businesses should educate their female employees in adequate technology skills so that they can be open to increased job opportunities by working in different fields, including technological jobs specifications. Businesses should create user-friendly online work platforms so that women who are unable to attend work due to paternal duties or cultural restrictions can still work remotely. These online work platforms could allow women to continue their household duties whilst working.

 

4) Apart from providing equality across the workforce, the business should focus on empowering young girls/women across the region. This could be done by initiating youth training programmes, these could be providing young women with essential entrepenual, IT, writing, social media and technology skills, allowing them to have access to more opportunities as they enter the age of employment.  By creating an entrepenual platform for young girls/women, the business helps them recreate their life aspirations, decreasing the likelihood of young women, accepting marriage at a young age or staying silent to domestic violence. Programmes like this will be sure to create a generation of powerful women, who will grow to be great business leaders.

 

5) Businesses should implement flexible policy changes so that women have more autonomy to continue working in the business. Women’s lifestyles in traditional communities are in most cases more restrained than those of men due to their duties in the household, most importantly childbearing. It is often difficult for them to balance work and family responsibilities. This could be done through working hour flexibility, providing childcare facilities and platforms to work from home.

 

6) Businesses should establish legal, medical and social services ready to support victims or potential victims of abuse. To create a safe working place for victims of sexual violence, businesses can work with community organisations or victim support groups to create a complete sense of security in and outside of the workplace. Businesses can establish helplines for their female workers to call in case of emergencies in the household, the business should then establish an effective system to deal with the victims and investigate their cases further. In addition to this, businesses in the MENA region should be partnered up with care houses if it is too dangerous for their female employees to return home to their abusers.

 

7) Anti-harassment and violence regulations must be implemented into the business, to regulate employee behaviour in the workplace. These policies should filter out the potential risk of harassment and promote a safe environment in which female and male employees can work together comfortably.

 

These regulations ensure employers prevent harassment or violence of the opposite sex by creating a safe complaints platform. Putting flexibility measures in place that would allow a worker to leave their designated work area if they feel they are at threat. Making all employees aware of the complaint procedures, this could be done by holding courses, training days and workshops, that teach employees about their rights to complain against another employee. Additional to complain procedures, businesses should implement grievance procedures protecting those who have suffered from domestic violence.

 

Call for state action

The conception of family honour in the Middle East and North Africa has cost thousands of innocent lives, created murderers and allowed the latter to commit barbaric crimes without punishment.

Unfortunately, as much as governments are responsible for these violent attacks due to their ill-defined or total lack of relevant laws and regulations, the fault also lies within society itself. Family customs, traditions and religion play a huge role in why these honour killings continue to occur. Reform of laws is unquestionably the most important change needed.

However, that must be combined with a break from outdated traditions through increased education in poverty-stricken areas. Most honour crimes occur amongst uneducated, poor families who often live in refugee camps, overly crowded shanty towns or rural villages. In rural Jordanian villages, families are disconnected from the country and its laws, leaving them free to continue with their traditional customs. Education in these rural villages and shantytowns will be the only lasting way to change their culture. Governments should join with community groups and NGOs to raise awareness of this inhumane practice and women’s rights.

Girls and boys must be educated through sex education, a topic not yet being taught and talked about in many traditional households in countries such as Iran, Jordan and Palestine.

Bills must be implemented to declare all sexual, emotional and physical abuse illegal and punishable by law. Otherwise, brutality against women will continue.

Apart from law reform, states should implement policies that ban the demonisation of young women. Vulnerable women and survivors of family violence or sexual assault should not be punished by the state. Instead, the state should create a safe place that survivors can visit to recount their experiences and seek justice. This could be accomplished by establishing survivor and rehabilitation centres to help women recover from their trauma. The state should also work with activists to open specialized shelters for abused women. 

Iranian teenager Romina should have been protected telling the police and investigators her life was threatened and she was scared of her father. Although she pleaded not to be sent back home, the authorities took the word of her guardian over hers, thus sending her back to her father.

Young girls and women of the MENA region should be protected by a legal system that allows them to feel safe in their own homes and with their families. Women deserve to live in a country in which their governments can be trusted to protect their lives, not to shield those who threaten them. Bills must be implemented to declare all sexual, emotional and physical abuse illegal and punishable by law. Otherwise, brutality against women will continue.

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