Rachel Pulfer is the executive director of Journalists for Human Rights.
In some cultures around the world, “honour killings," perpetrated by men who believe they have the right to kill a woman who is maintaining an “inappropriate” relationship with a man – for reasons ranging from having a boyfriend to being “overly friendly” with a man she is not related to – remain all too common. In 2000, the United Nations Population Fund estimated that approximately 5,000 women and girls are murdered this way each year, as these men try to restore “honour” to the family name.
Canada is not immune to this. In June, 2009, four members of the Shafia family – three sisters and their father’s first wife – were found in a car at the bottom of the Rideau Canal near Kingston, Ont. The car had been driven there by Mohammad Shafia, who had enlisted his second wife and son in a plot to kill the four women. An Afghan emigré to Montreal, Mr. Shafia was moved to act by rage against the so-called Western lifestyle he felt his daughters were pursuing. All three were sentenced to prison.
Syria is also no exception to this horrific practice. Recently, a brother murdered his sister in Northern Syria and livestreamed the crime on social media.
And yet, change is coming, in perhaps the strangest of ways. The Syrian Islamic Council recently issued a fatwa – a broadly defined religious decision made by Islamic scholars, often stigmatized because of the infamous fatwa that sentenced author Salman Rushdie to death – forbidding this crime. And it couldn’t have happened without the work of journalists.
In 2017, Journalists for Human Rights, Canada’s leading media-development organization, implemented a program with Syrian journalists across the Middle East, working with our network of Syrian journalists across the diaspora to co-ordinate coverage and shine a light on this horrific crime. The project – a pilot, funded by the United Nations Democracy Fund – assesses whether or not such an initiative is even feasible in an environment with such limited press freedom. But the outraged reaction and calls for redress from the Syrian community and its diaspora had to be highlighted.
When we started the program, JHR’s team was told that honour killing was a red-lined, taboo area of coverage. But led by Syrian broadcast journalist Tammam Hazem, JHR’s team of journalists worked with lawyers affiliated with the Independent Bar Association of Aleppo, local judges, 85 staff members of women’s rights organizations and a network of Muslim religious leaders who opposed the crime. The alliance worked together for three weeks, sharing information, resources and sources, including access to local authorities, religious leaders and key decision-makers.
The result: nine pieces on honour killing through February and March of this year. These included four online or on-air forums open to the general public to weigh in on these kinds of crimes and discuss what the community’s reaction to them should be. Areas of focus included legislation, religion, culture, the response of local authorities, the role of law and who is responsible.
Journalists trained by JHR in the art of the follow-up also questioned authorities, both religious and secular, about why these crimes too often go unprosecuted while women die, and highlighted the relative absence of the rule of law in northern Syria, a casualty of the ongoing conflict.
Despite a near-complete lack of press freedom in Syria itself, these stories, produced in Arabic from neighbouring Turkey, reached an audience of approximately 100,000 Syrians across the diaspora.
After the coverage, a network of local imams stepped up. In on-air forums, they explained to the public that the practice of honour killing is actually against Islam – that Islam considers honour killing, indeed killing of any kind, a grave sin.
Then, in March, the Syrian Islamic Council issued its religious fatwa, explicitly identifying the act of honour killing as un-Islamic – and hence forbidden.
Local and regional reaction to the fatwa has been explosive. Some respondents are angry. But a vocal majority are calling for a new fatwa that goes further, laying out terms for prosecution, as well as calls for secular courts to prosecute men committing honour crimes – using the full force of Syrian law.
This story is a timely reminder on this World Press Freedom Day of why journalism, and the press freedom that allows quality journalism to thrive, matters so very much.
The story is far from over. But what we are seeing is communities broken by war starting to work together – on their own terms, using their own resources, within their own leadership circles and institutions – to find solutions.
Even in Northern Syria.