Katherine Zoepf har reist rundt i Midtøsten for å belyse og dokumentere unge kvinners stilling i den arabiske verden. I Syria hørte hun historien om 16 år gamle Zahra al-Azzo som ble drept av sin bror i januar. Zahra var gift med en fetter som hadde sagt ja til å vaske vekk hennes fortid med ekteskap. Men ekteskap var ikke nok til å vaske vekk kidnapping og voldtekt. Familien hennes bestemte at hun måtte dø.

Men de hadde ikke regnet med ektemannen, Fawaz. Han var blitt dypt forelsket i Zahra, og har gått til rettssak. Hele Syria følger og kjenner saken om Zahra og drapet på henne. Æresdrap har til nå vært tabu å snakke om, men noe er i ferd med å skje.

By now, almost anyone in Syria who follows the news can supply certain basic details about Zahra al-Azzo’s life and death: how the girl, then only 15, was kidnapped in the spring of 2006 near her home in northern Syria, taken to Damascus by her abductor and raped; how the police who discovered her feared that her family, as commonly happens in Syria, would blame Zahra for the rape and kill her; how these authorities then placed Zahra in a prison for girls, believing it the only way to protect her from her relatives. And then in December, how a cousin of Zahra’s, 27-year-old Fawaz, agreed to marry her in order to secure her release and also, he hoped, restore her reputation in the eyes of her family; how, just a month after her wedding to Fawaz, Zahra’s 25-year-old brother, Fayyez, stabbed her as she slept.

Zahra died from her wounds at the hospital the following morning, one of about 300 girls and women who die each year in Syria in so-called honor killings, according to estimates by women’s rights advocates there. In Syria and other Arab countries, many men are brought up to believe in an idea of personal honor that regards defending the chastity of their sisters, their daughters and other women in the family as a primary social obligation. Honor crimes tend to occur, activists say, when men feel pressed by their communities to demonstrate that they are sufficiently protective of their female relatives’ virtue. Pairs of lovers are sometimes killed together, but most frequently only the women are singled out for punishment. Sometimes women are killed for the mere suspicion of an affair, or on account of a false accusation, or because they were sexually abused, or because, like Zahra, they were raped.

In speaking with the police, Zahra’s brother used a colloquial expression, ghasalat al arr (washing away the shame), which means the killing of a woman or girl whose very life has come to be seen as an unbearable stain on the honor of her male relatives. Once this kind of familial sexual shame has been «washed,» the killing is traditionally forgotten as quickly as possible. Under Syrian law, an honor killing is not murder, and the man who commits it is not a murderer. As in many other Arab countries, even if the killer is convicted on the lesser charge of a «crime of honor,» he is usually set free within months. Mentioning the killing — or even the name of the victim — generally becomes taboo.

That this has not happened with Zahra’s story — that her case, far from being ignored, has become something of a cause célèbre, a rallying point for lawyers, Islamic scholars and Syrian officials hoping to change the laws that protect the perpetrators of honor crimes — is a result of a peculiar confluence of circumstances. It is due in part to the efforts of a group of women’s rights activists and in part to the specifics of her story, which has galvanized public sympathy in a way previously unseen in Syria. But at heart it is because of Zahra’s young widower, Fawaz, who had spoken to his bride only once before they became engaged. Now, defying his tribe and their traditions, he has brought a civil lawsuit against Zahra’s killer and is refusing to let her case be forgotten.

Familien til ektemannen, Fawaz, har lagt et voldsomt press på ham for å trekke tilbake saken mot Zahras familie. Han er utsøtt, men nekter å bøye seg.

Zahra er fra en liten landsby i nord, der barneflokkene er store og mulighetene få. Det gikk nedoverbakke med faren, og hun hørte rykter om at han hadde en elskerinne. En fremmed mann truet med å lage skandale hvis hun ikke møtte ham utenfor hjemmets vegger. Det er skandaløst for en kvinne å gjøre det.

The man threatened Zahra, telling her that he would reveal the scandal if she didn’t join him outside her house, itself a grave transgression in her conservative society. That Zahra did so, disobeying her family and going out with a man unaccompanied, even under duress, is so scandalous to many Syrians that advocates working on Zahra’s case have tried to obscure this fact, preferring to describe what took place as a simple kidnapping. They also say that at 15 she was naïve in the extreme, so young for her age that she took a teddy bear to bed every night in prison.

Samfunnet er besatt av kvinners møydom og seksualitet: etter en bortføring eller voldtekt må kvinnens vagina undersøkes for å se om hymen er intakt.

Syria does not have shelters where girls or women can go if they are threatened with honor killing; instead, minors are often placed in girls’ prisons for their protection. Like many of the teenagers who arrive there, Zahra felt humiliated at having gone through the forcible genital examination and tried at first for a show of defiance, according to Maha Ali. «I came in and met Zahra,» Ali said. «And she just looked at me and said, ‘God, do I have to tell the story all over again?’ «

For girls like Zahra, prison is only a temporary solution. Even the most murderously inclined families often issue emotional court appeals to have their daughters returned to them. Judges usually try to extract sworn statements from male guardians, promises that the girls, if released, will not be harmed. But those promises are often broken.

Among Syria’s so-called tribal families — settled Bedouin clans like the one that Zahra belonged to — first-cousin marriage is common. So it wasn’t a shock when her family, looking for someone who could marry her while she was in prison and help secure her release, turned to one of her cousins, Fawaz. But Fawaz hadn’t intended to marry a cousin, he told me recently, and was startled when Zahra’s brother Fayyez showed up one day at his home.

Fawaz var perpleks. Han var allerede forlovet. Men han gikk med på å hilse på Zahra. Da hun kom inn i rommet var han solgt. Fawaz’ far var mot. Han fryktet at familien likevel kom til å drepe Zahra.

Fawaz told me that, according to his interpretation of Islam, he was «honoring Zahra again» — restoring her lost virtue — by marrying her. In this decision he was supported by his sheik, or religious teacher, who according to Fawaz subscribes to a progressive school of Koranic interpretation. Fawaz and his immediate family, though not well educated, are proud of their open-mindedness, and he boasts about Zahra’s intelligence and literacy. Even so, he and the family rebuffed Zahra’s efforts to describe her ordeal to them, so that to this day they know the details only secondhand. «So many times, when we were married, she wanted to talk to me about what had happened to her,» Fawaz said. «But I refused. I told her, ‘Your past is your past.’

Det er ikke slik at familien til Zahra gikk stille i dørene om æresdrapet: Zahras bror kom på besøk i Damaskus, og sov i Fawaz-familiens leilighet. Han hadde en mobil med seg, og Fawaz undret seg over det, for det hadde han ikke hatt. Men det var onkelen som hadde lånt ut telefonen, for at Fayyez skulle kunne ringe og fortelle om drapet. Samme kveld var hele landsbyen invitert til å feire!

«He couldn’t afford to have a mobile,» Fawaz said. «I’d been wondering about that. It turned out that his uncle had given him the phone so that he could call and tell the family that he’d killed his sister. We learned later that they had a party that night to celebrate the cleansing of their honor. The whole village was invited.»

Så skjer det merkelige at Zahras sak blir kjent og omtalt over hele landet. Og alle har et synspunkt: de holder enten med Zahra og Fawaz eller familien som drepte sin datter for å gjenopprette æren.

Most honor killings receive only brief mention in Syrian newspapers, but Zahra al-Azzo’s death has been unlike any other. Dozens of articles and television programs have discussed her story at length, fueling an unprecedented public conversation about the roots and morality of honor crimes.

In shawarma sandwich shops and juice stalls, most men had heard of Zahra, but more than half of them believed that the practice of honor killing is protected — or outright required — by Islamic law. A man named Abu Rajab, who ran a cigarette stall, described it as «something that is found in religion» and added that even if the laws were changed, «a man will kill his sister if he needs to, even if it means 15 years in prison.»

Yet the notion that Islam condones honor killing is a misconception, according to some lawyers and a few prominent Islamic scholars. Daad Mousa, a Syrian women’s rights advocate and lawyer, told me that though beliefs about cleansing a man’s honor derive from Bedouin tradition, the three Syrian laws used to pardon men who commit honor crimes can be traced back not to Islamic law but to the law codes, based on the Napoleonic code, that were imposed in the Levant during the French mandate. «Article 192 states that if a man commits a crime with an ‘honorable motive,’ he will go free,» Mousa said. «In Western countries this law usually applies in cases where doctors kill their patients accidentally, intending to save them, but here the idea of ‘honorable motive’ is often expanded to include men who are seen as acting in defense of their honor.

Syria, which has been governed since 1963 by a secular Baathist regime, has a strong reputation in the region for sex equality; women graduate from high schools and universities in numbers roughly equal to men, and they frequently hold influential positions as doctors, professors and even government ministers. But in the family, a different standard applies. «Honor here means only one thing: women, and especially the sexual life of women,» Mousa said. The decision to carry out an honor killing is usually made by the family as a group, and an under-age boy is often nominated to carry out the task, to eliminate even the smallest risk of a prison sentence.

Stormuftien av Syria er mot æresdrap og sier det ikke er belegg for det i Koranen. Men siden han er utnevnt av regjeringen betrakter noen ham som løpegutt.

There are religious figures who defend the status quo. At a conference on honor killing held this year at Damascus University, Mohammed Said Ramadan al-Bouti, one of Syria’s most esteemed clerics, maintained that the laws should not be changed, defending them on the principle in Shariah law that people who kill in defense of their property should be treated with lenience (he is believed to have moderated his stance since). When, at an earlier conference, the grand mufti announced that he didn’t believe protecting a woman’s virginity was the most important component of honor, many attendees were upset. In response, a group of about a dozen women, all dressed in the long black abayas that in Syria are usually worn by only very conservative women, walked out of the room.

Motstanderne av æresdrap må veie sine ord. De må fremstille kampen i religiøse termer: Islam sanksjoner ikke praksisen, hvis man så mye som antyder feministisk ståsted er slaget tapt.

With tensions like these in play, Syrian women’s advocates are careful to phrase their criticisms of tribal traditions of honor and Article 548 in Islamic terms. Though some will privately admit that they are secularists, even feminists, they keep it quiet. It would be politically impossible to suggest in public, for example, that women have the right to choose their sexual partners. The basic culture of chastity is in no way being publicly rethought. Some advocates say that their cause is damaged if they are perceived as sympathetic to «Western values,» and even that honor killing is seen by some conservatives as a bulwark against those values. Where 15 years ago Syria banned the import of fax machines and modems, today the Internet is widely accessible. «There’s been a very complicated reaction to the new availability of Western media in this part of the world,» Kadi, the women’s rights advocate, explained. «We’re going through a transition, and our values are changing dramatically.

Så gir Kadia en interessant forklaring på hvorfor presset på og kravet om kvinnens ære har vokst og er mer intenst enn noen gang: Det er fordi samfunnet er blitt så korrupt, lojalitet og samhold med stamme og slekt forvitrer. De gamle dydene dør, derfor blir kvinnens ære noe av det eneste man har igjen og kan kontrollere.

«Our parents tell us that there was an earlier day when honor meant that you were honorable in your work, that you didn’t take bribes, for example,» Kadi said. «But now, the political and economic situation is so bad that some degree of corruption is necessary to survive. People will say that you’re a good earner for your family; they won’t blame you. Historically speaking, all our other ideologies have collapsed. No one talks about loyalty to country, about professional honor. Now it’s just the family, the tribe, the woman. That’s the only kind of honor we have left.»

Blant eliten er æresdrap lite populært. Men de herskende må passe seg for de religiøse fanatikerne. Ofte stopper reformforslag pga motstand fra de religiøse.

Rana Husseini, a Jordanian women’s advocate, told me that though an effort to establish harsher punishments for men who kill female relatives received support from members of the royal family, Jordan’s Parliament rejected the law in 2003 after conservative groups opposed it. In Morocco, a campaign to stop honor killing resulted instead in a ruling that, if anything, endorsed the practice, by extending to women who kill in a fit of sexual jealousy the same protection under law that men had.

Yet there are signs of change. In Lebanon last month, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the top Shiite cleric and spiritual leader of Hezbollah, issued a fatwa banning honor killing and describing it as «a repulsive act, condemned and prohibited by religion.»

A Dishonorable Affair