March is a special month for women. There was International Women’s Day on the 8th and Mother’s Day in the Palestinian territories is on the 21st. This March, in particular, is also special for Palestinian women for another reason: No longer will men receive reduced sentences for “honor killings.”
Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah announced new rules, to be approved by President Mahmoud Abbas, changing the laws allowing men who murder, assault and rape women in the West Bank to receive significantly reduced sentences.
A total of 18 Palestinian women were killed in “honor killings” in 2016, according to the Palestinian Public Prosecutor’s Office.
For instance, “marry your rapist,” “honor killing” and other antiquated laws, which Palestinians in the West Bank inherited from their former rulers, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, may be nixed.
According to protocol, only Abbas can amend the Palestinian legal code through a presidential decree, as the Palestinian parliament has been defunct since 2007.
The Palestinian Council of Ministers decided to to abolish Article 308 of the Penal Code that allows rapists to avoid punishment if they marry the victim within five years. In addition, government officials decided to amend Article 99 of Penal Code No. 16 of 1960, which grants judges the ability to dramatically reduce sentences if the case has “extenuating circumstances,” including the murder of women on grounds of “family honor.”
“Murdering women is a huge red line regardless of the cause.” — Haifa Al-Agha
“Murdering women is a huge red line regardless of the cause, moment of anger or anything else,” said Haifa Al-Agha, the Palestinian minister of women’s affairs. She explained that modifying Article 99 is extremely important and marks a turning point for women in Palestine, as judges can no longer reduce sentences for murder under any circumstances.
“We closed the door in front of everybody,” Al-Agha asserted, pointing out that for the past eight months, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Ministry of Justice and other women’s associations and organizations have been intensively preparing the needed evidence and materials to change the laws.
Al-Agha further revealed that Palestinian women will soon be legally afforded more authority over their children, including the ability to open bank accounts for them, request travel documents and passports on their behalf, and transfer them from one school to another without permission from the father.
“This is the beginning, there will be more changes, but step by step we will fight all of the unfair laws against women in Palestine,” Al-Agha said.
Ali Abu-Diab, the Palestinian minister of justice, points to the establishment of a legal committee to review Palestinian laws that regulate civilian sectors.
“The committee will work to update and edit the laws,” he explained, adding that the committee will act in accordance with the principles of equality and social justice in order to harmonize the Palestinian legal framework with the international treaties and conventions that Palestine is a party to.
“Canceling the mentioned articles will solve a lot of problems within the Palestinian society,” Abu-Diab said, noting that certain laws have enabled men to take advantage of women. “With the latest move, no party can ease the punishment on any murder under the name of honor in Palestine as no one has that authority anymore.”
In 2011, Abbas made changes to the Palestinian legal code with the aim of preventing “honor killings,” but some related laws have remained in place, thereby precluding comprehensive change.
Nevertheless, Amal Al-Jobeh, an employee of the Women’s Center for Legal and Administrative Guidance, confirmed that the cases of violence against women decreased after 2011.
“We started feeling that there is a deterrent from killing women in the West Bank,” she said, adding that murder is incentivized when there is minimal legal recourse available to the victims. “In so many cases, women have been killed for other reasons like inheritance, but murderers took advantage of the law to get away with it.”
Al-Jobeh also stressed that crimes against women are not exclusively a legal issue, but rather have a cultural component. Accordingly, she believes it is crucial to raise awareness of the plight of women in the Palestinian territories.
To this end, a petition has been circulating for the past six months calling on Abbas to do away with the measure that allows judges to use their discretion in murder cases that have “extenuating circumstances.” Initiated by Palestinian women’s rights groups, the petition has garnered more than 12,000 signatures.
Last year, Jordan’s lower house of parliament voted to repeal the so-called “Marry Your Rapist” provision. The move was approved by the Jordanian parliament’s upper house and then signed by King Abdullah II, whose royal committee recommended that it be revoked.
The law still remains in several other countries in the Middle East, however, including Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait and Syria.