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ANGER OVER LOST HONOUR
The year 2003 was a busy and heady year — a run-away best seller (with some 200,000 to 250,000 copies sold in Australia), media interviews, book and writers’ festivals around Australia and overseas, lucrative pre-paid contracts for overseas book rights, and a second book in the pipeline. The dreams-come-true didn’t last however; in fact they turned into nightmares.
Norma Khouri signed books at appearances, spoke with conviction at book festivals, dealt convincingly with media interviewers, and was regarded as a heroine with feminists and other women. She was launched on her road to fame through her book: ’Forbidden Love’ — also known as ’Honor Lost’ in the USA.
Lynda Dean, a member of New South Wales’ Byron Bay Writers Festival Committee, reviewed Khouri’s book in the lead up to Khouri’s appearance at the Festival in early August 2003:
’Forbidden Love is a shocking tale, simply told by Norma Khouri, one of its protagonists. Its reality has come to define her life and has made her an activist, who now lives in Brisbane, unlikely ever to return to her homeland for fear of retribution by her own loved ones as well as Jordanians enraged at the stand she has taken against honour killings.
Norma grew up in a Jordan…She comes from a middle class Catholic family and her friendship with Muslim girl Dalia was encouraged by both families…Dalia’s tragedy began with the most ordinary of events - she liked the look of a young Christian man, Michael…When he found out that Dalia had been meeting a man, her father stabbed her to death, while her mother stood by, waiting before he called the ambulance to make sure she was dead. He did this, not in the heat of passion, but after three days when the girls became certain that something was wrong because of the way the family was acting. Norma’s reaction, accusing the father of murder, even speaking to him in anger, puts her under threat of her own life…Norma Khouri escaped from Jordan to Greece with her life and wrote this chilling book to tell the world that what happened to Dalia still happens to any woman who defies her male caretakers.’
Through her appearance at festivals and media interviews Khouri retold her story many times during 2003 and into mid-2004. Her book, and her re-told story, was promoted (and declared by her) as non-fiction, as truth.
Khouri sold the rights to her book to some 16 publishers around the world, including Transworld in Britain
The reality is that Khouri was a fraud and her book false. As a fictitious novel it could have been a valid story with the potential to alert people to a real and deeply disturbing issue — so-called ’honour killings’. Claiming her book to be a factual autobiographical story, based on her personal true experience, falsely launched her into the spotlight with deep sympathy and outrage for what she claimed to have experienced. That adds up to fraud.
During her appearances and media interviews Khouri promoted the cause of women who suffered as a result of ’honour killings’ and related abuse. She even encouraged people to support the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW). Ironically, Jordanian women involved with the JNCW raised concerns about the fraudulent nature of Khouri’s book. Amal Sabbagh, Secretary-General of the JNCW, together with some of her colleagues, uncovered more than 70 factual errors and inconsistencies in Khouri’s book.
Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Malcolm Knox, started to look into her story and further uncovered the extent of Khouri’s fraud.
Norma, now in her mid-thirties, left Jordan with her parents, Majid and Asma Bagain, and moved to the USA in 1973, when she was only three years of age. Her parents separated in 1986 and divorced in 1994. Her father had returned to Jordan, and her mother stayed in America to bring Norma and her four siblings up there. Later Norma Bagain married a Greek-American, John Toliopoulos. They have two children, Zoe, 13, and Christopher, 11.
Norma Khouri’s real name is Norma Majid Khouri Michael Al-Bagain Toliopoulos. She, her husband, and their children suddenly left Chicago, where they had been living and ’disappeared’ (as far as her family in America was concerned) in late 1999 or early 2000, eventually settling into Brisbane, Queensland — where she has been living as a supposed refugee from Jordan.
Somehow Khouri kept all the information about her family and her life in the USA secret from Australian immigration authorities, her publishers, her agent, various lawyers and the media — until Malcom Knox started digging into her story on behalf of the Sydney Morning Herald. By July 2004 questions began to be asked publicly and Khouri tried to bluff it out. She talked of legal action for defamation; having documentary evidence to support her claims; denied having lived in America, having a husband, or children.
Khouri’s fame turned to infamy and notoriety by the end of August 2004. She was exposed as a fraud, and it was found that she was already known as a con-artist who had been involved in shady real-estate deals in the US under the name of Norma Bagain. She fled to America, leaving Zoe and Christopher to be cared for by a friend in Brisbane (who handed them over to US immigration authorities at the end of September 2004, stating she had no more money to be able to look after the two children). Public knowledge of the whereabouts of John Toliopoulos seems uncertain.
By late August the Australian publisher Random House withdrew Forbidden Love from sale around Australia, and cancelled the planned sequel: A Matter of Honour. Simon & Schuster did the same in the USA, while Transworld in Britain looked at legal action to get their money back from Khouri.
REAL ’HONOUR KILLINGS’
Apart from anger and embarrassment in the publishing world, many women in different parts of the world are angry with Khouri for setting back their efforts to expose the enormity and horror of real ’honour killings’.
Jordanian journalist and human rights activist, Rana Husseini, has been documenting Jordan’s ’honour killings’ for 10 years. ’This woman has ruined our cause’, she complained. Another Jordan journalist and activist, Lima Nabeal, claimed that a number of groups were lining up to sue Khouri in Jordanian courts, if they can. Khouris fabrication is jeopardising genuine efforts to investigate and document real ’honour killings’ in Jordan. She declared: ’We’ll sue her, we’ll take her to court because her story affects us and on our mission or campaign against other crimes negatively.’
So-called ’honour killings’ of women in Jordan have caused international anger and protest.
Jordan has been averaging some 25 reported ’honour killings’ each year, though 22 such killings were reported in 2002 and 17 in 2003 — but many researchers in that field believe many more cases go unreported.
King Abdullah sought harsher penalties for honour killings when he introduced a temporary bill to deal with the problem back in 2001. His efforts have not been supported by the majority of Jordanian men, nor the Jordanian parliament, which voted to dissolve King Abdullah’s bill in late 2003. Harsher penalties for ’honour killings’, generally carried out by the fathers and/or brothers of women believed to have sullied the family honour, have been strongly opposed by conservative men and Islamists who fear an increase in vice and the destruction of social values if men can’t uphold the family honour. According to new reports, Jordanian MPs have argued against harsher penalties, claiming that they would ’violate religious traditions and damage the fabric of Jordan’s conservative society, where men have the final say.’
WHAT and WHERE?
What exactly are ’honour killings’ and where are they carried out?
Californian television station CBC conducted a programme on honour killings and recorded the following comments on its website (http://www.tv.cbc.ca/witness/honour/culture.html):
’The practice of honour killings has nothing to do with Islam or the Koran. The prophet Mohammed called for an end to it. Instead the practice has grown and spread throughout the world. There have been hundreds of reports in the Arabic countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, India and Bangladesh, West Bank of Israel and Jordan. Although not as common, honour killing has been also reported in many non Arabic countries like Brazil, Ecuador, Uganda and Britain.’
This statement is somewhat confusing and not quite accurate. It is incorrect to state that Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, for example, are Arabic — ethnically they are NO more Arabic than Indonesia or Malaysia. What the American presenters of the TV website probably meant to say, but felt was politically unacceptable, was that these nations are predominantly Islamic (or Muslim) in culture and belief.
The statement is correct in indicating that ’honour killings’ is a significant issue in many countries, even those which are NOT cultural Islamic or Muslim. However, evidence reveals that, even in those countries, the issue exists, predominantly, amongst Muslim sections of the community.
This is in spite of the fact that ’honour killings’, just like female circumcision (clitoridectomies), are NOT promoted or encouraged by the Quran or the Hadith (Traditions). They do NOT form an official part of Islamic faith and teaching.
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta, who has been working on a doctorate at Kings College in International Relations and Terrorism, also holds a Doctorate in Finance and Artificial Intelligence from Manchester Business School in Britain. He works in the City of London in various capacities in the Banking Sector. He also lectures at several British Universities. He wrote in India’s Hindustan Times newspaper, in February 2004 (http://www.countercurrents.org/gender-dasgupta210204.htm):
’Honour killings are murders of women by family members excused by removing some imputed stain on the family’s honour…This is looking particularly at honour killings, which are peculiarly different than passion crimes, rape and murder, bride burnings or dowry deaths. This has to do with honour as opposed to passion, materialistic tendencies or simply sexual dysfunction.
This “stain” on the family honour comes from a variety of alleged offences, such as allegations of premarital or extramarital sex, refusing an arranged marriage, attempting to obtain a divorce from an abusive husband, or simply talking innocently with any man who is not a relative. As is with these things, it’s only when the allegation become exposed and public the stain on the family honour is perceived as such…Forget about the facts of the case. In many cases, just the allegation is enough to trigger this honour killing as has been shown by the numerous autopsies of the victims proving they were mostly still virgins.
There are several aspects to this honour killing issue. First is the sheer geographic spread of this phenomenon; second are the tribal reasons behind people perpetrating honour killings, thirdly is the fact that this is not religiously sanctioned and fourth is the factor that education and exposure to women’s rights issues is the so-called solution. Honour killings occur in a distressingly large swathe of the world, from North Africa, Middle East (including Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, the Gulf Countries, and Iran), Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Isolated incidents have also been reported from the UK, Sweden, USA and Germany but these were carried out by Kurdish and other Arab immigrants to these western countries.’
(The rest of his article is well worth reading, as is the website link he refers to: http://www.altmuslim.com/opinion_comments.php?id=854_0_25_0_C)
The problem is probably the worst in Pakistan where many hundreds of such murders are reported each year — and it is generally agreed that the number of killings is many times more than those reported. In October 2004 hundreds of human rights activists marched on the Pakistan Parliament in Islamabad in protest against honour killings and lack of appropriate legal punishment for the perpetrators of honour killings.
(See: http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=story_9-10-2004_pg7_26 and also: http://www.dawn.com/2004/10/09/nat24.htm)
The Herizons 2000 report reveals excerpts on honour killings from Malaysia’s Star newspaper edition of July 24, 2000. It states, in part:
’Honour killings are based on a “suspicion of immorality on the part of the victim,” the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says. Women have no way to know what behaviour could be their death sentence. They have been killed for being too friendly to a brother-in-law; having “arrogant” body language; sitting next to a man on a bus.
Honour killing exists mostly in Muslim countries, such as those in the Middle East and Central Asia, even though Islam does not sanction the practice. The United Nations says such killings have also occurred in Britain, Norway, Italy, Brazil, Peru and Venezuela. At least one case has been reported in the US… Honour killing is an ancient practice sanctioned by culture rather than religion, rooted in a complex code that allows a man to kill a female relative for suspected or actual sexual activity.
Cultures where the practice exists hold that a woman is a man’s possession and a reflection of his honour. It’s the man’s honour that gets tarnished if a woman is not virtuous. “A woman in Arab societies is an object for sex and reproduction. As long as she is an object, she is owned by a father, a husband, a brother,” said Salwa Bakr, an Egyptian feminist and writer. “The way she uses her body is not her business, but the business of those who own her”… A recent UNICEF survey found that in 1997, honour killings claimed the lives of as many as 400 women in Yemen, 52 in Egypt and about 300 in just one province of Pakistan. Jordan reports an average of 25 such killings each year.
Although most honour crimes occur in Muslim societies, Islam does not sanction such killings. “On the contrary, what’s there in the Quran is against it,” said Mohammed Serag, a professor of Islamic studies at the American University in Cairo. “In the eyes of Islam, those people (who kills in the name of honour) are criminals.”
Islam, which emphasises chastity for men and women, prescribes 100 lashes each for anyone who violates the Muslim code for behaviour. But nothing in the Quran supports the death punishment for honour-related transgressions.
Serag said men who believe Islam approves of honour crimes may have misinterpreted the Quran verse that allows husbands to beat their wives.
“As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill conduct, admonish them, refuse to share their beds, beat them,” the Quran says in Chapter 4, verse 34. Because the language is general, it has been open to many interpretations, Serag said. Some scholars believe the beating should be symbolic - with a feather, for instance. Others disagree on who should administer it: the husband or the state.
Still, some religious groups and politicians have criticised attempts to condemn the killings or introduce harsher punishments. They argue that greater freedom would set women on the road to Western liberalism.’
In Britain the Police are reopening around 117 domestic murders from over the past few years in England and Wales, on suspicion that these may have been actually honour killings. They have acknowledged that they were not really aware of the issue of honour killings in Britain, but are now trying to correct their past ignorance on the issue. They estimate that there is an average of 12 such killings in Britain each year.
The BBC has been doing a series of stories in relation to honour killings in Britain and elsewhere. These can be viewed on the following websites:
How aware are Australians of the honour killing issues?
In July 2001 the Australian division of the International Commission of Jurists held a forum to discuss the issue and to: ’raise Australian community consciousness of this horrific practice, and to cause the Australian Government to exert foreign policy pressure on those countries which condone or fail to suppress the practice.’
Khouri’s book, Forbidden Love, made thousands of other Australians aware of the problem. With her book being exposed as a fraudulent piece of fiction many Australians might now believe that honour killings are generally untrue or rare at best. The tragedy is that such thinking is wide of the mark. According to reputable research and findings the problem increased by some 35% in 2002 in Pakistan alone. British law authorities have recognised it as a real issue and problem in that nation. We believe that there have already been a number of such killings in Australia — but wonder how alert Australia’s law enforcement agencies are to this issue.
The following additional websites can help readers understand the issue even further (they are presented in alphabetical order and not in order of date, country or significance):
(From TACL Vol 25 #5 Sep/Nov 2004)