Rofayda Qaoud — raped by her brothers and impregnated — refused to commit suicide, her mother recalls, even after she bought the unwed teenager a razor with which to slit her wrists. So Amira Abu Hanhan Qaoud says she did what she believes any good Palestinian parent would: restored her family’s “honor” through murder.
Armed with a plastic bag, razor and wooden stick, Qaoud entered her sleeping daughter’s room last Jan. 27. “Tonight you die, Rofayda,” she told the girl, before wrapping the bag tightly around her head. Next, Qaoud sliced Rofayda’s wrists, ignoring her muffled pleas of “No, mother, no!” After her daughter went limp, Qaoud struck her in the head with the stick.
Killing her sixth-born child took 20 minutes, Qaoud tells a visitor through a stream of tears and cigarettes that she smokes in rapid succession.
“She killed me before I killed her,” says the 43-year-old mother of nine. “I had to protect my children. This is the only way I could protect my family’s honor.”
The guilty brothers are in jail.
Qaoud’s confessed crime, for which she must appear before a three-judge panel on Dec. 3, is one repeated almost weekly among Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel. Female virtue and virginity define a family’s reputation in Arab cultures, so it’s women who are punished if that reputation is perceived as sullied.
Victims’ rights groups say the number of “honor crimes” appears to be climbing, but at the same time, getting little attention. Israelis and Palestinians are too busy with political and military issues to notice what they dismiss as domestic disputes, says Suad Abu-Dayyeh, who works for the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling in East Jerusalem.
Police in Israel investigated at least 18 honor killings in the past three years.
Palestinian police reported 31 cases in 2002 — up from five during the first half of 1999 – the last time such incidents were counted before the current Palestinian uprising began, according to the center’s study.
But the number of killings is likely higher, given that Palestinian police investigate only crimes that have been reported, said Yousef Tarifi, the Ramallah prosecutor assigned to Qaoud’s case. Shalhoub-Kevorkian says her past research showed the likely number to be 15 times higher than the number of reported cases.
According to court records, Rofayda was raped by her brothers, Fahdi, 22, and Ali, 20, in a bedroom they shared in the family’s three-room house. On Nov. 26, 2002, doctors at a nearby hospital who were treating Rofayda for an injured leg discovered she was eight months pregnant.
Palestinian authorities whisked her off to a women’s shelter in Bethlehem, where she gave birth to a healthy boy on Dec. 23. He has since been adopted by another Palestinian family, court records show.
Rofayda, meanwhile, wanted to return to her parents in the Ramallah suburb of Abu Qash. Ramallah Gov. Mustafa Isa called a meeting with the family and village elders, demanding they pledge in writing not to harm the girl. “He asked me if everyone in the family and the village would promise not to bother this girl, but I told him I couldn’t give him a guarantee,” Abu Qash Mayor Faik Shalout says.
Rofayda returned home in late January without notifying the authorities.
The shame was unbearable, Qaoud said. Relatives and friends refused to speak to her family. Her elder daughters’ husbands wouldn’t allow them to visit because Rofayda had returned home.
On Jan. 27, Rofayda sent word that she was in danger to crisis counselors at Abu-Dayyeh’s center in East Jerusalem. They, in turn, called Palestinian police in Ramallah, who have jurisdiction over Abu Qash.
Qaoud, meanwhile, sent her husband, who suffers from heart disease, to a doctor in the nearby village of Bir Zeit. Her three youngest children went to a cousin’s house.
At 11:30 p.m. she killed Rofayda, court records show. Tarifi says he’s convinced Qaoud had an accomplice, but Qaoud insists she acted alone.
Qaoud turned herself in and, after four months in jail, was released pending the resolution of her case.
While honor killings committed in the heat of the moment — for example, by a husband who catches his wife in bed with another man — generally carry a six-month to one-year jail term, Qaoud will likely be sentenced to three to five years in prison, Tarifi says. The fact she is a mother who was trying to protect her family’s honor mitigates the crime of premeditated murder, which is punishable by death under Palestinian law, he adds.
The brothers are serving minimum 10-year sentences in a Palestinian jail in the West Bank city of Jericho for statutory rape of a relative, Tarifi says.
No trace of Rofayda or her brothers remains in the family home. Qaoud says she ripped up all of their photographs and burned their clothes. The bedroom in which she killed her daughter is now a storeroom.
Erasing the memories is harder, she admits. She eases her pain by doting on her three children still living at home, especially the youngest, Fatima, 9, whom she lavishes with kisses. The children say they’ve forgiven Qaoud and return her affection.
“My mother did this because she does not want us to be punished by people,” Fatima explains with a shy smile. Leaning into Qaoud’s arms, the little girl adds: “I love my mother much more now than before.”