Murder in name of family honor Palestinian woman slain by cousins when her virtue is doubted

September 22, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIT HANINA, Israel -- In the hills outside Jerusalem, a young girl secretly scratches out a poem. It is a simple elegy for a sister slain in the name of family honor.

"Now once again we are going back to the time before the prophets," Abeer Mileihat writes, "back to the vicious barbaric time where man abandons his feelings, his humanity and throws himself into destruction and the arms of fear ."

Abeer cannot cry for her dead sister, Taghreed. Fear has eclipsed grief. The Palestinian teen knows the men who killed her 19-year-old sister. They are Taghreed's fiance and his brother -- cousins of the sisters. The two confessed their crime, telling investigators Taghreed had dishonored the family by associating with a male stranger.

Two months ago, police found Taghreed's body in a dirt field, the white veil of a modest Muslim framing her pale face. The medical examiner counted 11 stab wounds.

"The fatal wound was in her breast," says the chief police investigator. "It's connected to this honor [business]. Unfortunately, the girl was a virgin."

The confessed murderers sit in a Palestinian jail miles from the hillside outside Jerusalem where Abeer's family has fled. But the 18-year-old finds no comfort in their imprisonment. She and her sister had been lured out of town by the stranger.

"There was a decision one of us must die," says the teen. "It was as if Taghreed was the sacrifice for all us."

The newsletter of a Palestinian women's organization called Taghreed Mileihat "a martyr." Her death was among the two dozen or so "honor killings" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since Palestinian self-rule began in 1994, according to law enforcement figures.

"This is still a closed society where honor is regarded in a very special way," says Suheir Azzouni Mahshi, director of the Ramallah-based Women's Affairs Technical Committee. "They feel a woman should take care of herself and be a virgin. If she committed adultery, there are courts that have rules for that. Fathers, husbands or brothers should not be the ones who decide."

Honor killings occurred during the Israeli occupation, of women suspected of collaborating with the Israelis. Then, as now, the killers often surrendered to police. "It is a heroic thing to do," says Col. Muhammed Salah, the chief investigator in Taghreed's murder.

But many women are killed without justification, says Mahshi. Palestinian women's groups have called on authorities to impose stiff prison terms in these cases and to provide more programs for victims of domestic violence. Sentences in honor killings vary from 10 to 15 years, compared to 30 years in other murders.

While many in Palestinian society condemn the phenomenon, Mahshi says, "it takes one mad person to kill a woman."

For Abeer, "the world is scary now." Since her sister's death in late July, Abeer has been confined to the family campsite. Her parents watch her every move. They do the same with Abeer's two younger sisters.

The Mileihats live in the tradition of nomadic Bedouins. Burlap sacks stitched together provide the roof of their makeshift tents.

The father, Mohammed, works as a laborer. The daughters tend the family's goat herd and help their mother, Fiheidah, with the younger children, nine in all.

The family moved here from a village in the West Bank to escape the gossip, the insults, the knowing silence that followed Taghreed's murder.

"She was beautiful, sweet," the mother says of her spirited daughter. "But I discovered she wasn't telling me her secrets. She was hiding things from me. If I knew she was doing these wrong things, I would have stopped her."

Fiheidah Mileihat holds a photograph of the smiling girl who hoped one day to be a hairstylist. In the photo, Taghreed wears Western clothes, a black turtleneck, a silver chain with a half-moon charm around her neck. Her blondish-brown hair falls to her shoulders. The image provides a stark contrast to the knot of women sitting in the family tent.

Fiheidah's kin lounge on mats covered in colorful cloth. Intricate embroidery adorns the yokes of their long cotton dresses. Scarves cover their heads. Three generations of women come to comfort a mother in mourning.

In this society, among Bedouin tribes or middle-class religious Muslims in Ramallah, a woman's virtue is paramount. And Taghreed was suspected of improper behavior. She befriended a man and his wife, a couple later suspected of illegal gun-running. She socialized with them and introduced her three younger sisters to the couple.

At one point, the girls were taken to Beersheba, a town about two hours' drive from Jerusalem, and didn't return home that evening. Panicked, their parents called the police. After four days, the girls were returned to their family.

"When we got them back we made their family pledge they are not going to touch them," says Salah, chief of criminal investigations for the Ramallah district of the Palestinian police.

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