Communities in the West Bank were horrified last month by the death of Israa Ghrayeb, a 21-year-old Palestinian woman, who was allegedly beaten and killed by family members for posting a video of herself with her fiancé on Instagram. Ghrayeb was reportedly attacked by her brother Ihab, who was said to have been incensed she had posted something publicly before being married. She reportedly broke her spine after falling from a second-floor balcony while trying to escape. After being hospitalised, campaigners say she was then beaten a second time by male relatives and died several weeks later. Her family has denied responsibility for her death but the case has prompted protests in the West Bank and on social media, demanding justice under the hashtag #WeAreAllIsraa.
Yet, this alleged honour killing is far from an isolated incident. Honour crimes account for nearly one in every eight killings in the West Bank, according to Palestinian police. Protesters are calling for authorities to act now in order to save women’s lives, by enacting a 2004 law that is still under consideration. The law would give women better protection against acts of domestic violence. Demonstrators find that Palestinian law allows for too much leniency in the case of honour crimes, particularly a clause in the penal code that pre-dates the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which allows judges to drastically reduce sentences in case of “extenuating circumstances”.
However, this is not an issue restricted to one community, or indeed one region. Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia are among the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, based on five categories, including honour killings, according to a 2011 report by TrustLaw.
The Honour Based Violence Awareness Network, a digital resource centre, says 5,000 people die every year in “honour crimes”, nearly half of which are in Pakistan and India. Killers are rarely jailed as they are often protected by legal loopholes. In Pakistan for example, if the family of the victim forgives the killer - who is usually a relative - then they can be pardoned and evade justice.
But even victims in countries where they are protected by law are often unable to escape the violence. Honour crimes are prevalent within extremely conservative communities, which exist in a bubble and often operate with little regard for the law of the land. In the case of British teenager Shafilea Ahmed, for example, her Pakistan-born parents, who were living in the UK, imposed such restrictive conditions upon their children that they considered her wearing a short-sleeved tee shirt cause to kill her. They forced Shafilea’s younger siblings to watch as they suffocated their daughter to death with a plastic bag in 2013. Both were sentenced to 25 years in prison. However, in the case of Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch, who was allegedly killed by her family for posting pictures they disapproved of, no one has ever been brought to justice.
These tragic deaths are entirely preventable. Some countries are taking steps to curb honour crimes and stop such femicides. In 2011, Lebanese legislators annulled a legal bill which mitigated the sentence of people who killed or injured a relative on “honour” grounds. In Jordan, legislation was amended in 2017 to remove a clause, frequently invoked in honour killings, that allowed leniency for killers “in a state of great fury”.
But legislation alone is not enough to protect women. There needs to be a collective mental shift within these communities to acknowledge that there is nothing honourable about honour killing. Only then can we counter archaic traditions that punish women for treading their own path in life.