n 1999, a woman fleeing a forced marriage was shot by a contract killer in a human-rights worker's office. "The practice," explained a BBC report, "has been going on for ages in many of the tribal and conservative parts of Pakistan." Last year, a woman living near the border of Afghanistan was ordered stoned to death because she had been raped. The New York Times noted that she hailed from "the barren northwest," a victim of "Pakistan's strict Islamic laws."
Such crimes are treated as rarities, occurring today only in particularly barbaric outposts of the Middle East. In the bustling streets of Amman, Jordan, however where the events described in Honor Lost took place men in Western suits drive Jeeps and schedule their business appointments by cell phone. Surely those old, brutal remnants have been wiped out by the civilizing forces of capitalism?
In fact, as author Norma Khouri explains, honor killings which derive from laws codified in 1200 B.C. remain an accepted part of Middle Eastern life. Article 340 of Jordan's penal code allows killers to be prosecuted for "crimes of honor" (punishable by three to twelve months' imprisonment) rather than murder (punishable by death). The "honor killing" defense is permitted if the woman killed has been surprised in an act of adultery, or in a "situation" of adultery. Merely to be seen with a male stranger qualifies as a situation of adultery.
Khouri knows these laws well. In 1996, a girl named Dalia with whom she had been friends for 22 years, since the girls first met at the age of three was killed by her father for having been seen in public with a man. The dead girl was buried in an unmarked grave, and her killer ultimately served no prison time. "I want the world to know Dalia the way I knew her," Khouri recently told the New York Times. "I want them to know that she represents thousands of women who are still dying."
Khouri opens her story by describing some of the regulations to which Jordanian women, Muslim and Christian alike, must submit on a daily basis. Women are responsible for cooking and serving meals; they may eat only after the men of their families have finished and left the room. A woman's every decision from what (or if) she studies to whom she marries must be approved by a father, husband, or brothers. The most trivial infractions incur severe penalties: When Dalia's sister-in-law complains about not being allowed to leave the house alone even to take out the trash her husband responds by breaking her nose.
In a bid to stay together, Norma and Dalia had persuaded their parents to let them open a hair salon in 1990. Even as working women, however, they live under constant surveillance, accompanied everywhere by Dalia's brother Mohammed. Private conversations must wait for the rare occasions when the two are unchaperoned; to be safe, they turn on a radio to foil eavesdroppers.
The story of Dalia's ill-fated romance begins in 1995, five years after the salon's opening. A young Arab named Michael has been to the salon several times and he and Dalia find themselves deeply attracted. Some of the most powerful details of Khouri's book come across in moments like this; gossiping about the young man, about love, about marriage, the two women sound more like adolescents parsing a first crush than like 25-year-old women running their own business.
Because Michael is Catholic, a dhimmi, he cannot ask for Dalia's hand, or even meet her socially. The girls know as well as anyone the price of disobedience; one of their own clients, a 17-year-old, was killed after being molested by a relative. Nonetheless, aided by Michael and his sister Jehan, Norma and Dalia scrupulously plan outings to drink coffee with them at local restaurants. The girls manage to enroll in a computer class as a cover for their absences on Friday afternoons. "We began to feel like military strategists," Khouri writes. "We started charting, on a neighboring street map, exactly where we thought our brothers and fathers would be during the crucial hours "
On only a handful of their dates are the lovers alone; over the course of the entire courtship, their physical contact is limited to two kisses. As the year passes often with weeks passing between opportunities to meet or speak Michael and Dalia fall genuinely in love. At last they resolve to go abroad, where they can be free to marry.
Before the escape, however, Dalia is killed as suddenly in Khouri's account as she was in life. Norma later learns that after stabbing her in the chest twelve times Dalia's father had carefully waited to ensure that his daughter was dead before sending for an ambulance to remove the corpse.
Bills to enact penalties for honor crimes have repeatedly gone before Jordan's parliament, and have repeatedly been defeated. The practice is too widely cherished to be ended easily. In November 2000, a U.N. draft resolution condemning honor killings was put to a vote; 20 countries abstained. More recently, a 20-year-old Jordanian girl became pregnant after being raped. Her brother struck her multiple times with a rock, then slashed her throat and left her to die. After paying his bail, his family full of pride that the boy had avenged their honor brought a white stallion for him to ride home on.
According to the published figures, another Jordanian woman dies in an honor killing every week. The real numbers, of course, are almost certainly higher. Moreover, Amnesty International reports that murders committed for financial gain are also increasingly being disguised as honor crimes.
In some sharia countries, politicians have at least paid lip service to the idea of legal reform. But in Jordan where driving without a seat belt still carries a harsher penalty than killing a woman for honor the authorities haven't even done that. In 2001, then-justice minister Abdul Karim Dughmi was asked about raped women who are later killed by their own families. His response: "All women killed in cases of honor are prostitutes. I believe prostitutes deserve to die."