Thursday, August 05, 2004

Honor Killing "hoax" undermines real tragedies 8-3-04

By Ray Hanania

In a review posted on recently about Norma Khouri's gripping book "Honor Lost," a reader observed, "It's hard to believe that the events the author describes in this book have happened in the past few years."

Maybe that's why it has been so hard to get the world to come together in protest against the practice of "honor killings," which is common in the Arab and Muslim world. The idea that a man can murder a woman because someone claimed she dishonored the family and then avoid being punished is astonishing and shameful.

Yet it happens all the time.

One of those times, Khouri told us, involved her childhood friend, "Dalia," who was murdered by her father in 1995 when he suspected his unmarried daughter was having an intimate relationship with another man.

But now we are told that "Dalia" never existed and the story that sold more than 200,000 copies in Australia alone is a hoax. The publisher, Simon & Schuster, has reportedly ordered the books removed from stores.

It's not like Khouri had to make up "Dalia's" story. Thousands of women accused of infidelity or promiscuity are murdered in this manner all the time, and the killers (fathers, brothers, cousins) go free.

They are celebrated as heroes. That it may be a hoax has set the movement to stop "honor killings" back centuries. Worse, it gives American publishers another excuse not to publish books by Arab Americans. It's nearly impossible for Arab Americans to get a book published outside of the limited circle of academia, and only a very few are published by Arab American authors each year.

I had a brief contact with "Khouri" (her real name is Norma Majid Khouri Michael Al-Bagain Toliopoulos).

In February 2000, Cinemax broadcast a documentary called "Crimes of Honor," narrated by Olympia Dukakis, which walked viewers through the murder of three Jordanian women killed by their own family members.

It also profiled three courageous Arab women fighting to make "honor killings" illegal. Rana Husseini, a celebrated and popular female reporter for The Jordan Times newspaper; Asma Khader, a lawyer devoted to protecting the real victims; and Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a mother of three daughters who struggles to find safe havens for the victims, have all faced real threats because of their work.

Apparently, Khouri saw that documentary, too. In March 2003, she e-mailed me asking me to publicize her book, pleading with readers on my Web site to speak out against the practice of "honor killings."

I know that in the America where Norma "Khouri" or "Bagain" grew up, Arabs are constantly under pressure of bigotry, discrimination and outright hatred. The region has one of the largest concentrations of Arabs and Muslims in Chicago.

Over the years, it has had more cases of bigotry and discrimination that go unreported and unprosecuted than in any other area. Maybe growing up in that hateful environment that I also shared, Norma saw in the story of "honor killings" an opportunity to break through the ugliness. Her book was amazingly inspiring.

When I look back, I feel betrayed. And I can only wonder about the damage she may have caused to the hard work of Husseini, Khader and Shalhoub-Kevorkian.

Sadly, the hoax may undermine the campaign to force governments like Jordan to change existing laws. Maybe the controversy will elevate the subject, which has been pushed to the back burner by escalating Middle East violence and the post-Sept. 11 "War on Terrorism."

Whether or not Khouri's book is a hoax, real women are being murdered. Whether or not Khouri fabricated the story, she still deserves the opportunity and the right to defend her work. Maybe Simon & Schuster will re-categorize it from non-fiction to fiction.

After all, to them it must still be about the money. And what about the rest of us? Well, we should all remain focused on the issue that really matters most. Khouri's "Dalia" may not be a real person.

But there are thousands of women in the Middle East and elsewhere who are victims of "honor killings." It's in them that the real "Dalia" exists.

To find out more about Ray Hanania, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at


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