After September 11, many Americans reasonably concluded that, when it came to oppressing women, the Taliban were as bad as they come. Norma Khouri’s new memoir, Honor Lost: Love and Death in Modern-Day Jordan (Atria Books, 224 pp., $24), suggests that we might want to revisit the subject. The Taliban, it seems, were just more unapologetic practitioners of a kind of misogyny that is rampant throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
Khouri’s story should have been as sweetly prosaic as a Frank Capra film. Two single women in their mid-twenties, Khouri and her childhood friend Dalia, own a neighborhood unisex beauty salon. When not cutting hair, they complain about their families, dream of romance and adventure, and gossip. Michael, a handsome male client, catches their fancy, and soon Dalia is going to cafes and picnics with him and falling in love.
But if young love seems sweet on Elm Street, in the Arab Middle East it is an abomination. The mere fact that Dalia was spending unsupervised time with a man unrelated to her was sufficient stain on the family honor for her father, Mahmood, to pick up a knife and stab his daughter 12 times in the chest. At the hospital, doctors performed the crucial tasks of pronouncing her dead—and examining the state of her hymen. But it no longer mattered that she was still a virgin, or that Norma usually chaperoned Dalia’s romantic trysts, which never moved beyond a few kisses. For the sin of love, Dalia ceased to exist, in fact or in memory. The family ignored their daughter’s burial, refusing even to provide a coffin. Mahmood pronounced himself pleased that he had “cleaned [his] house.”
What makes these horrific events even more disturbing is that these were not uneducated sheep-herding villagers: Dalia hailed from Amman and was decidedly middle class, the daughter of an accountant for a large insurance company. Moreover, Dalia’s father didn’t receive punishment for the vicious murder of his daughter. Released on bail, he never spent a single night in prison. And though Dalia was a Muslim and Michael a Christian, her fate would have been the same had he worshipped Allah.
Most unsettling of all, Dalia’s murder was not an exceptional event. On the contrary, the legalized killing of young women at the hand of male relatives is commonplace in the Arab Middle East—as common, it would almost seem, as falling in love and getting married. According to Khouri, the practice is especially prevalent in parts of the Middle East like Jordan and the Palestinian territories, whose inhabitants descend from nomadic Bedouins. Khouri ascribes much of the blame for the practice to Islam: “Good women are obedient,” she quotes the Koran as saying; if they are rebellious, “scourge them.” But something else in the culture plays a role, too: Khouri makes it clear that Christians in these parts also murder female relatives in the family name.
Most of these murders barely register as crimes by local standards. Judges wink at the perpetrators, embracing the same twisted preference for a “clean” house over a living daughter or sister. At the end of her tale, Khouri lists a number of other recent murders in Jordan: a 13-year-old boy who strangled his 14-year-old sister with a telephone cord for talking on the phone with a boy; a brother who brought his 20-year-old sister to a football field, where he struck her head with a rock and slashed her throat and stomach after discovering she was pregnant as the result of a rape. These events, though barely punished, appeared in the Jordan Times, where a courageous reporter somehow won the permission to cover them. Dalia’s murder never made the newspapers.
Khouri wants to make sure her friend’s murder gets a hearing, but she herself deserves some mention for the integrity and heroism she displays in the face of a culture that tries to terrorize its women. Beside herself with grief over her beloved friend’s murder, and aware that her own life would be at risk if Dalia’s family proved her complicity in the affair, Khouri, like the heroic captives of legends, pretends to acquiesce while plotting revenge. With the help of Dalia’s bereaved Michael, she finally succeeds in getting the papers to flee to Greece, a place as alien to this brave young woman as the moon. Today she lives in Australia, where Honor Lost has become a best seller, published under the melodramatic title Forbidden Love.
Yet Khouri’s book is more than a brief against honor killings and certainly far more than the stuff of a TV movie. It is a powerful depiction of a culture frozen in ancient brutality, whose unyielding cruelties now haunt the modern West. And it is a depiction all the more shocking in that its backdrop is the Arab world’s seemingly most modern and progressive state. The inhabitants of Dalia’s Amman own cell phones and computers, run around to classes and jobs, and work out at the gym. But behind closed doors, it’s still 1400, and women remain vassals.
In Muslim homes like Dalia’s, women serve husbands, sons, and brothers their meals, but may not eat with them. They cannot enter certain rooms when men are present. They must ask for permission to leave the house. And when they do leave, a male relative must almost always accompany them. Many are married off to men they do not know or whom they find repulsive. Woe to those who demur. “All Arab men are taught it is their responsibility to discipline the women in their lives,” writes Khouri, “and that the best way to do that is by corporal punishment.” Women receive black eyes or broken bones for taking too long with the laundry or making the wrong dinner. When Dalia’s sister-in-law complained to her husband about not being able even to take the garbage out alone, he broke her nose; she left the house only four times over a nine-month period of their marriage.
What this cruelty finally suggests is that Arab women are murdered not because there are not enough laws against honor killings, though surely such laws would be a good thing, and not because it is in the nature of men to engage in “violence against women,” as feminist groups tend to put it. They are murdered because the culture denies the humanity of all its inhabitants—men and women. To live in a world that expected him to force his daughter into domestic slavery and to kill her for loving, Mahmood had to stifle all feeling for his own child, one of the most elemental of human bonds. He is only the worst of the men described in Honor Lost, all of whom, except for Michael, are the dehumanized instruments of ideology. For all its girlish simplicity and justified rage, Honor Lost manages to show that when a society denies half its people their most basic rights, women might die—and men lose something vital too.