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June 03, 2005

"Honor" Killings May Give Insight into Terrorism

Is there a connection between the oppression of women in many Muslim societies and Islamist terrorism? The following review of the compelling book Burned Alive, a Victim of the Law of Men examines this question.

Honor crimes may give insight into terrorism


Burned Alive

By Souad.

Warner, 225 pp., $24.

From almost the moment it happened, the question hung in the air like smoke from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Who could do such a thing?

We soon knew who orchestrated the carnage on Sept. 11, 2001. We saw the faces of the men who carried out the attacks. The foreign syllables rolled off our tongues as if we'd known them all their lives: Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida. But what was in their hearts? What allowed them to turn planes to missiles and murder thousands?

The question remains a hole in American intelligence. Hot rhetoric - "They hate freedom, therefore they hate us" - doesn't explain the easy violence of Sept. 11 or the bombings as frequent as sunrise in Iraq. Neither do new hardcovers by White House and CIA insiders riding best-seller lists.

A better answer might be found in a new, unpolished but haunting memoir that, on its surface, has nothing to do with international terrorism. "Burned Alive," subtitled "A Victim of the Law of Men," offers real insight into the culture and psyche of bin Laden, his supporters and followers without ever mentioning his name.

The Palestinian-born author, Souad (writing under a pseudonym to protect herself from vengeful relatives), is one of the few survivors of Jamirat el Sharaf, a crime of "honor" in which families kill their girls and women in countries throughout Asia and the Middle East.

Before she fell in love with Faiez, an older, elegant neighbor with a car and a job in the city, Souad's life was joyless drudgery. She and her unfortunate sisters lived to serve their violent father and pampered brother, Assad. They didn't attend school; only Assad learned to read and write.

Her existence was so unremarkable that she didn't even know how old she was. The birth of a boy was a celebration in Souad's West Bank village; a newborn girl was a curse.

For Souad, a slap or kick was common if the water for her father's tea took too long to heat. More serious infractions - picking a tomato before it was ripe or falling asleep while milking the cow - drew his cane across her back or licks from his belt.

Sometimes, he dragged her across the floor by the hair, a favorite method of discipline among men in her clan. Souad argues that such treatment was the norm for women of her village. She also maintains that the pathology that passed for filial ties in her household wasn't unique; she didn't have an especially sadistic father or a Medea for a mother. Everyone, she writes, acted that way.

Chastity and blind obedience were keys to survival. Even the appearance of sexual impropriety was enough to start the town gossips clucking. Inside Souad's insular, tribal community in the occupied territories, words were sharper than sticks, deadlier than stones.

"Did she go out alone? Or was she seen speaking to a man?" Souad wondered, years after watching her brother strangle to death one of her sisters with a black telephone cord. There was no funeral, no burial. She simply disappeared. "Was she denounced by a neighbor? It doesn't take much at all before a girl is seen by everyone as a charmuta [whore] who has brought shame to the family and who must now die to wash clean the honor not only of her parents and her brother but of the entire village!"

Souad never learned what sin her sister had committed because girls shared no confidences. "They're too afraid of speaking, even among sisters," she writes. Revolt was unthinkable.

"If your father points to a corner of the room and tells you to stay in that corner for the rest of your life, you won't move from there until you die. If your father places an olive on a plate and tells you that today that's all you'll have to eat, you eat only that olive. It is very difficult to get out of this skin of consenting slave. You're born into it as a female."

Although she knew that to lose her virginity before marriage carried a death sentence, Souad agreed to forbidden trysts with her beloved in the sun-bleached fields where she tended her father's sheep. But when she told her handsome boyfriend that she'd missed a period, he abandoned her. In desperation, she bashed her belly with a rock, hoping to abort her deadly secret. Nothing worked. Soon, even her drab, loose-fitting dress couldn't hide the growing bulge.

Her parents held a family meeting and coolly selected an assassin, then left the house so the murderer could be alone with his victim.

She was doing laundry in the courtyard when her bother-in-law Hussein arrived.

"Hi. How goes it?" he said, chewing on a blade of grass, smiling. "I'm going to take care of you." For a second, Souad thought he would spare her. She lowered her head, ashamed to look at him, her forehead pressed against her knees. Then she felt a cold liquid running over her head. Suddenly, she was on fire.

"It is like a movie that has been speeded up, images racing past. I start to run in the garden, barefoot. I slap my hair, I scream. I feel my dress billow out behind me. Was my dress on fire too? . . . I smell the odor of grilled meat."

Somehow, she clambered over the garden wall and landed in the street. Two women tried to put her out, beating the flames with their scarves. They dragged her to the village fountain, immersing her in its cool water.

The fire fused her chin to her chest. But despite horrific burns and doctors who neglected to give her proper care, Souad stubbornly refused to die, even giving birth to a son alone in a dark hospital room. Word of her miraculous survival reached Jacqueline, a Western aid worker with a Swiss foundation devoted to rescuing victims of honor crimes and other religious and cultural customs that target women.

Jacqueline charmed hospital staff, convincing them to at least disinfect Souad's wounds. Later, she visited Souad's parents, who were in mourning because their daughter was still alive. She persuaded them to allow her to take Souad, and the girl's tiny son, to Europe.

More than 20 years later, a French publisher read an article in Elle magazine about a shy Palestinian woman who buttoned her collar all the way to the top, even in the summertime. She was speaking out, showing audiences her ruined skin. After three years of cajoling, Souad, now married with two daughters, finally agreed to tell her story to a worldwide audience.

Although writer Marie-Therese Cuny helped Souad write the book, the prose is far from smooth. "Burned Alive" isn't peddling style; it is designed to enrage and inform, and it does so with relentless energy.

Often hard to read, as painful and raw as Souad's charred flesh, the book has more than a few chilling parallels to "The Handmaid's Tale," Margaret Atwood's imagined world where women are little more than slaves and breeders, beaten and executed for the slightest infraction. But Souad's burns and just-as-disfiguring psychological scars aren't fiction. Although there are no reliable statistics about the number of honor killings committed each year, hundreds of women in Iran and Jordan, Pakistan and Turkey, Iraq and Saudi Arabia are murdered by the men in their lives as courts and police look the other way.

Souad's harrowing life and near-death teaches that a society that encourages men to oppress, terrorize and kill its daughters and sisters and wives, martyr them on the altar of male ego, is capable of any cruelty.

When a videotape of Sept. 11 hijackers passing through security at Dulles airport was released weeks ago, talking heads marveled at their cool. How could they board the flights so carelessly, as if going on a routine business trip?

Their nonchalance should have come as no surprise. It was as easy as dousing a pregnant girl, her head bent to her chest as if in prayer, with gasoline.

Simakis is a writer for The Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine. To reach Andrea Simakis: [email protected]

Copyright 2004 Plain Dealer Publishing Co.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

August 15, 2004 Sunday

Posted by LG at June 3, 2005 04:21 PM