“Honour” Killings in Yemen: Tribal Tradition and the Law

Abeer Mohsen
Yemeni Journalist

Samiha was beaming with joy when she saw her family in court, only for her mother to suddenly pull a knife that she had smuggled under her garment, pass it on to her son, who then pounced and stabbed his sister in the neck.

On the morning of April 2018, fears culminated and faces frowned as the blood stains on the court’s floor showed the extent of an injustice that defies even the sanctity of the judiciary in order to subjugate women. 

The blood of Samiha al-Asadi was crying out just like the victim herself did before she took her last breath and told the judge: “My blood is on your hands.”

Samiha is a divorcee with two children. Even though her parents approved the divorce, her presence with her children at home became a new burden the family did not need. They began to harass her, and physically and verbally abuse her.

And although a second marriage would have been a way out of this cruel life; Samiha’s father strangely rejected all marriage proposals. 

Eventually, Samiha decided to escape. With the help of a friend, she went to court and asked to marry one of the suitors her father threw out. But the judge dismissed her and twice requested the presence of her guardian in court, in vain. 

The third time, the father finally showed up, along with her mother and brother. 

Samiha was beaming with joy when she saw her family in court, only for her mother to suddenly pull a knife that she had smuggled under her garment, pass it on to her son, who then pounced and stabbed his sister in the neck.

Everyone present was struck with terror at the blatant insolence of the crime, except for the parents who quickly proceeded to try to acquit their son. 

That did not work. The judge, deeming it a “public opinion case,” gave the criminal the death sentence.  

But when the father appealed, the case was transferred to an appellate court on the grounds of “honor killing.” 

A law without justice

In Yemen, a woman is viewed as a source of shame and, accordingly, stripped of her humanity in all aspects of life. 

Yemeni law is generally held in contempt and is hardly ever implemented. And in cases related to women, in particular, lawlessness is exacerbated.        

More shocking is the fact that the Yemeni Constitution institutionalized discriminatory laws that dehumanize women and turn them into mere commodities.  

Justice Sawsan al-Houthi says Samiha’s murder was impeccably premeditated and will remain a black spot on the judge’s career. 

Ms. al-Houthi references Article 42 of the Crimes and Punishment Law No. 12 (1994) which amounts ‘a woman’s blood money (diya) as half of a man’s: “In the incident of unintended killing, the law identifies a compensation for killing a male that is double the amount for female victims’ families, effectively devaluing the female’s life to half as much as a man’s.     These laws are a complete negation of Islam. The Qur’an teaches ‘Life for life, eye for eye, nose or nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal,’ without specifying the gender of the murdered and the murderer. Such discrimination is only a product of a society steeped in a tribal, male chauvinistic mindset. Oftentimes, judges who come from such an environment ignore women-related issues. Sadly, they see women as subordinates. Justice is negatively affected by these convictions,” Ms. al-Houthi asserts.  

The struggle for survival

This is one of many issues facing Yemeni women in their constant struggle for survival.  

“Honor” killings, the most serious form of violence against women, are by far the most significant violation of their dignity and freedom. For women’s bodies are considered repositories for the family and the tribe’s honor. 

Samiha’s is far from being an isolated case. 

At the “Safe Spaces for Psychological Support Project” in the Yemeni Women Union, a staff member— who requested anonymity— says that “The number of battered women seeking help has increased significantly. As the economy deteriorates, resulting in soaring unemployment rates, men continue to discharge their anger and despair in the form of physical and verbal abuse against women. Domestic violence has increased tenfold since the beginning of the war and often results in murder.” 

Intentional loopholes

There is a clear male-dominant tribal bias in the Yemeni legal system, denying women their most basic rights. Texts allow culprits to acquit themselves, further perpetuating crimes against women.

For example, Article 59 reads: “There is no retribution for a branch (son or daughter) killed by an origin (father or grandfather), only blood money or indemnity may be paid, according to circumstance,” giving a father free rein to kill his daughter in impunity. 

12-year-old Ma’ab was electrocuted by her father who filmed her writhing in pain and bleeding in different parts of her body as he tortured her, and forced her to confess that she committed adultery. 

That is despite the fact that, according to his own statement, the father had consulted three doctors in Ta’az who examined the girl and confirmed that she was still a virgin.  

The authorities announced that the 33-year old father shot his daughter twice in the back at her maternal uncle’s home where she lived with her sisters after her parents divorced. The authorities added that the child was “brutally tortured” and finally died in what the father justified as a crime to defend his honor. 

Honor crimes are very common in Yemen. But Ma’ab is the first child victim of such crimes. Her death shocked everyone. 

Article 59 was the primary justification used to acquit the father. Such impunity is sure to encourage others to kill their daughters. 

It اshould be noted that this law was derived from a hadith (Prophetic saying) that says, “A father should not be killed for killing his son.” This Hadith, though, has not been universally authenticated. It is refuted by many scholars, such as Ali Ibnul-Madeeni, al-Tirmidhi, Ibnul-Qattan, Abdul-Haqq al-Ishbeeli and Ahmad Shaker. There are others who considered it authentic, including Shu’aib al-Arna’out (Tahqeeq al-Musnad) and al-Albani (Irwaa al-Ghaleel).

Honor crimes are very common in Yemen. But Ma’ab is the first child victim of such crimes. Her death shocked everyone. 

Sheikh Ibnul-Uthaimeen said that this famous Hadith “is sometimes interpreted as follows: As the father gave life to his son, the son should not be reason for taking the life of the father.”  

Women and girls are more exposed to domestic violence, which explains the intentional enactment of such laws that conform to tribal tradition and cultural heritage.

Evasive legislations

More than 90% of the members of the House of Representatives are tribal chiefs. The unfair tribal customs and traditions are reflected in all legislations passed by the House. 

This explains why these laws, which claim to treat all citizens equally regardless of their sex, are flawed. The kind of citizenship offered to women is, for lack of a better term, deficient. 

Policies, institutions and practices in Yemen are all influenced by the patriarchal social, cultural and political structures, undermining the juridical protection on one hand, and encouraging violence against women and children on the other.

Majid Abdul-Salam, a lawyer and human rights activist, says “Yemeni laws maneuver to evade the international commitments and the acknowledgement of equality between men and women. I believe that among the most important legal rules that affect women’s rights are those that regulate the ethical behavior of women, and rules pertaining to the personal status law (family section).

Abul-Salam explains that “in order to ensure equality between the sexes and women empowerment, there is a need for drastic revision of the laws that are the direct result of society’s norms and traditions. The tribal system constitutes a parallel to the legal system, and to a religious fundamentalist approach. We need to create awareness that calls for the change of jurisprudence rules,  considered the basis for legislation”.

There are many forms of violence and murder in Yemen, but women and girls remain the major victims. 

This all seems as if we have gone back in time to an era when female infants were buried alive. The only difference now is that such crimes are protected by the law.

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