Fida was killed at the age of 17. The murderer surprised her while she was asleep and shot her dead. Fida’s mother was also killed because she wanted to protect her daughter. The murderer was Fida’s own father. His motive: Fida had damaged the family’s honor.
This crime happened last August in Beirut. Fida’s family had lived for many years in Germany. The children had managed to integrate quite well in the foreign society and their mother even learned German.
Only the father seemed to live in isolation. He was unemployed and therefore unable to be the breadwinner for the family. He felt humiliated and couldn’t communicate with his daughter’s teachers or social workers. He thought that he was losing control over Fida. That’s why he decided to bring the family back to Lebanon, pretending that their stay would only last for the summer vacation.
“One day, we found a weeping girl at the entrance of our congregation,” recalled Fredericke Weltzien, the minister of the German church in Beirut. “After a while, we could calm her down a bit. She was sure that her father would kill her.” Her oldest brother had found Fida’s diary, in which she had written about the relationship with her boyfriend in Germany, and her brother passed it on to their father. Fida urged the minister to help her go back to Germany, thinking that there nothing could happen to her. But since Fida was a minor, there wasn’t much they could do for her, but to find a place where she would be safe. The girl would have needed her parents’ permission if she wanted to leave Lebanon on her own.
It wasn’t the first time that the adolescent had run away from home due to her father’s abuse. Nevertheless, Fida missed her family and called them two days later. She then went on to live with her uncle, a lawyer, thinking that there she was safe. But two months later, Fida was dead.
“Maybe she would still be alive if the family had always stayed in Lebanon, Fida growing up in a traditional way,” the minister mused. She interpreted that the father’s violent act was a long-term result of the humiliation experienced in Germany, and of the loss of identity. But honor killings don’t just take place in migrant families. In the Arab world, they are still a common means to get rid of women who don’t behave according to the rules dictated by tradition.
After this crime had happened, Weltzien felt the urge to act. “More people need to speak about this problem, in the churches and in the mosques and families,” she said. Some time later, Weltzien met a Shiite sheikh who also fights against violence and honor killings. The religious man was able to help Weltzien in a second case, where a Lebanese Shiite used to beat his German wife. The sheikh simply told the husband that his behavior was against the rules of Islam. The man stopped abusing his wife and now both live happily in Germany.
The minister also started to contact the Lebanese Council of Women Against Violence, where she got to know female lawyers who work towards a change in civil law. She also met a Maronite priest who takes care of criminals in prison.
All these people joined together to fight violence, and they presented this newly formed, cross-confessional initiative for the first time in public last Thursday during a conference held at the Goethe Institut. More conferences are to follow in the near future.
All speakers agreed that violence against women takes place in all religious groups, in all social classes and in all countries of the world. They also said that there is a great need to publicly raise the awareness of the problem, since violence against women is often considered a private problem.
“Violence against women is still dealt with as a taboo,” the lawyer Danielle Howayek from the Women’s Council explained. “We have to make this problem an issue of public concern.” Her main focus is to change laws that often protect the violent person. The lawyer also pointed out that the term “honor crime” is misleading, since the concept of honor and the concept of crime are a contradiction in terms.
Sheikh Hassan Sharifi, a member of the Highest Islamic Council of the Shiites, sees the problem in the improper application and in the wrong interpretation of Islamic laws. “Traditional values are the problem, not religion,” he explained. He sees his role in telling the believers the right meaning of religious laws. But the sheikh has often become active in concrete cases as well.
“If I had known of the case of Fida, I would have sent her father to prison, and his daughter would still be alive,” he said. The Shiite leader emphatically said that “honor killing has nothing to do with Islam.” He also made clear that “trespassing the freedom of others is violates them.”
Sharifi gave detailed explanations about the role of women in Islam. He is against the Christian interpretation that God created Eve from Adam’s rib. He wants women to be seen as independent and equal individuals. “The Holy Koran doesn’t differentiate between men and women,” he said.
Sharifi said that around 1,500 years ago, Islam gave women rights that they didn’t have before, giving the example of burying baby girls alive, which used to be a wide-spread tradition that was changed by Islam. He also named Sayyeda Zeinab and Fatima Az-Zahra, two female figures who have heroic positions in Shiite Islam, pointing out that women have always played an important role in society.
Father Hadi Alaya was the only one of the speakers to talk about the position of the criminals. He named some figures, saying that in 2003, three honor crimes had been dealt with in Lebanese courts. However, these are just official statistics, and the estimated number of unknown cases is much higher. He also gave background information on their social status, professions and the level of education of the criminals. Apparently, most of them come from disadvantaged social classes and have a rather low standard of education.
For years, Alaya has been taking care of criminals in prison, because they need a space where they can “reflect the deed of their hands and learn to regret.” The priest believes that each human being is able to learn and to build up a healthy conscience that would prevent him from committing criminal acts in the future.
Currently, Alaya takes care of 26 individuals who have committed honor crimes. But his job is not easy he said. “Some of the prisoners don’t regret their crime, as is the case with Fida’s father. Apparently, he prefers to be hanged rather than spend a life-long sentence in prison, “because he doesn’t want to be tortured by his conscience any longer,” interpreted the priest.
The cross-confessional initiative certainly is an important step in order to fight gender-related violence. For the social work of the churches and the mosques, such cooperation is necessary in a multi-religious country like Lebanon. Ministers and sheikhs might be able to help in individual cases, but the prevention of violence as well as the help addressing the victims has to be institutionalized. But there is hope: Caritas Lebanon, a humanitarian organization, is about to build the first women’s shelter another important step in the right direction.