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The Crime of Writing

Zouhair Ghazzal

Chapter 6. The problem of recipiency in honor killings

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  • 1 The equivalent of the balṭagiyya in Egypt, see, Salwa Ismail, Political Life in XE "Index:Cairo" C (...)
  • 2 Hazim al‑Amin, al‑Ḥayāt, Beirut, 12 August 2012.

1A Lebanese journalist was reporting from the Idlib countryside on August 2012, in the heat of the wars that would possibly mark the downfall of the Asad régime, how in the holy month of Ramadan the towns and villages were receiving their daily sporadic shells from the official state army and its paramilitaries at sunset, just when their inhabitants were ready to consume their meals after a long troubled day. The journalist described a situation where the central government and its “national” army and paramilitaries were totally disconnected from their local populations, like those in the Idlib province. As the main roads, army barracks, power plants, and utilities were for the most part under state control, the local populations connected via back roads, alleys and small avenues, which were controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamist groups, an assortment of gangs and militias with no real central organization. In Sarāqib, a small town on the Idlib–Aleppo highway, to which we have devoted one of our cases (C7–4), the reporter met a young woman by the name of Ibtisam, who had just left her marital home in Aleppo, amid the city’s sudden takeover by the FSA and other groups. Ibtisam lived for nine years with her husband, whom she described as a supporter of the Asad régime, and a member of its “thugs” youth‑gangs, the shabbiḥa;1 she decided to honorably quit when the city was bombarded heavily by the “special forces.” Her husband, with whom she had five children in common, used to routinely beat her up “for no reason,” hastening his abuse in the wake of the wars that had swept the country since 2011, as if punishing his wife for the revolt’s “successes.” The irony is that her brother, who had joined ranks with the FSA, and who in that fateful August was fighting in Aleppo “the mother of all battles,” summoned her to get back to her husband—his “political foe”—to save her honor, or else he would leave the battlefield and “honorably” kill her at their parental home in Sarāqib, where they grew up together. Ibtisam’s mother said that her son only sought “protection” (al‑sitrah) for his sister, nothing more, even if that meant going back to an abusive husband, which, adding insult to injury, was working as a “thug” for the government. Ibtisam told the reporter that there was no way going back in time, seriously considering the possibility of fleeing to the nearby Turkish border, only to live among the Syrian refugees in one of the camps in the Hatay province.2

  • 3 Over 300,000 jobs were lost in the agricultural sector in 2003–07; see, Fabrice Balanche, “Le retou (...)
  • 4 Anand Gopal, “Welcome to Free Syria. Meeting the rebel government of an embattled country,” Harper’ (...)

2Ibtisam, who was born in Idlib, wedded her husband, a resident from Aleppo and close friend of her brother, as a teenage fifteen‑year old girl: “I stopped loving him three months after our unfortunate wedding, when he started beating me for no reason; this has been going on for nine long years, the beating accelerated with the revolt.” Observers failed to report that the so‑called “Syrian Revolt” has no true urban character, as the four major (Sunni) cities—Damascus, Ḥimṣ, Ḥamā, and Aleppo, which formed in Ottoman times the backbone of the economies of Bilād al‑Shām and modern Syria as well—were taken hostage to youth‑gangs and small militias in rural areas with no true political motivation, or program for that matter; the kind of groups that would have been impossible to chaotically survive as they did in non‑politicized urban settings tightly controlled by families and intelligence services. To wit, the modernizing programs of the Baathist state have produced in the countryside a surplus labor force which has been uprooted from its rural underpinnings, and which between its underemployment and unemployment has metamorphosed into a reactionary force with no true vocation, whether social or political.3 In the wake of the Arab Revolts, those male youth‑gangs were primarily mimicking protests across the Arab world against paternal and familial authority, with the state acting as the proxy agent that needs to be reformed in order to move to that undefined “something else”.4 What we therefore witness in the case of Ibtisam is the marginalization of women from the Revolt, whose condition may have even become worse, caught as she was between a “revolutionary” brother whose attitude towards women was still as reactionary as it ever was, and a husband who became more abusive than ever: husband and brother shared the same vicious honor values even though they stood on an opposite political spectrum. The Lebanese reporter failed to report that an honor killing in Syria is a “small” matter: the killing of a woman for an “honorable motive” boils down to a one‑two year punishment at most, while in neighboring Lebanon such crimes have been indexed since the 1950s as voluntary homicides, with indictments ranging from manslaughter to first‑degree murder.

3Even though honor killings are of sorts, they could, however, be divided into two broad spectrums. The first, and probably most common, are honor crimes perpetrated for an “honorable motive” (dāfiʿ sharīf), as the Syrian Jināyāt inaptly labels them. The assailants are invariably men but related to their women victims through kin affiliations. The motive of the crime is sexually rooted: the woman victim, whether married or not, would be accused of an illicit “affair,” irrespective of whether it has been effectively consummated. But, whatever the case, she would be perceived, inside her own kin, as having had dishonored her family and the values that they stand for. Such crimes ought, in principle at least, to be classified as first‑degree murders, ʿamd, that is, considering that their planning was premeditated—even though some assailants would argue that the sinful woman was caught “in the act itself,” which prompted an immediate action from the part of the assailant—they ought to be treated as voluntary homicides. How come then do they receive such an honorable treatment? Once the purpose has been identified as having an “honorable motive,” the court would then indulge at categorizing the crime as qaṣd rather than ʿamd, reducing it even further to a “killing with an honorable motivation” (qatl bi‑dāfiʿ sharīf), considerably reducing the punishment to a year or two at best (including the mandatory six months between incarceration and hearings).

4A second much broader category of honor would not be “honorable,” in that it would neither receive a special treatment, nor would it be limited to the one‑two year punishment (Chapter 7). Those are criminal cases that would be either related to land (Chapter 9), married couples (C6–3), incest and rape (C6–4, 6–5), or else more broadly to sexual taboos (C6–3). Whether such cases would be deduced to a common logic is another matter: as this chapter attests, it all depends on the method of analysis, what we understand by honor, and how honor would unfold in relation to crime in a concrete situation. Pursuant to the framework of analysis revealed earlier, namely, the triadic link between performer, victim, and audience as third‑party gaze, we will question the enigma of recipiency: who is the audience in honor killings? If the victim herself was not “what mattered” most to the assailant, then to whom was the crime dedicated? What makes honor crimes so special—at least the ones perpetrated against women for the sake of cleansing the family’s honor from indecent sexual transgression (whether imagined or real)—is the indeterminacy of the recipient. Is it the community at large? Was the assailant acting on behalf of the shared values of his community, which remain unnamable and taken‑for‑granted? Was he sacrificing himself for the sake of his community or acting selfishly to negate his repressed sexual lust? Or would the murder itself re‑inscribe the unnamable and taken‑for‑granted in order to grant it the visibility it was craving for?

From “murder” to “honorable killing”

5 [C6–1] On June 13, 1995, Muhammad al‑Hamid b. ʿUbayd was, at one after midnight, at the point of completing a late night shift to friends and acquaintances in the popular Muyassar neighborhood in Aleppo, when he suddenly noticed two men with a very young lady on a three‑wheeled motorcycle:

  • 5 Deposition to the police by the accused, the night of the murder, June 13, 1995.

I saw a three‑wheeled motorcycle with three persons, one of them was my sister Hind who is seventeen‑years old, and who had left home for two years. We heard from people that she became a prostitute (dāʿira). I took a taxi and followed them, once in mahallat Hawirz in Bāb al‑Nayrab, the motorcycle took a turn towards a dusty road. I left the taxi, entered a park, and followed them: I saw all three—two men, and my sister Hind: Having heard her voice, I was now sure that it was her, near the wall of the park. I went in their direction with a razor (mūs) in my hand so that I would be able to kill her and wash my shame (ghasl ʿāri). Once I was close to them, I identified my sister; but one of the guys took hold of me and stabbed me with a knife in my right leg and ran away. I grabbed my sister and killed her (dbabaḥ‑tu-ha) from her neck all way through [that is, the neck was completely cut, from one vein to the other, mina al‑warīd ila al‑warīd]. There was no one present when I slew my sister; no one drove me to do it; I decided it all by myself (min dhātī) or an honorable purpose (bi‑dāfiʿ sharīf) to wash [cleanse] the shame for my family. I went to my buddy ʿAbdul‑Malik Barri and told him what I did and demanded from him to inform the police.5

  • 6 Chapter 7.

6In his deposition to the police, only a few hours after he murdered his sister, the twenty‑year old Muhammad was talking in that quiet and unassuming voice. Not much would change in later depositions or in his testimony when faced with the travails of criminal justice: unlike the more “common” criminals who hesitate, shift positions, and give contradictory statements, this type of criminality—involving “honor killings”—presents itself with a different tone, that of duty, honor, humiliation, righteous anger, and shame. For one thing, the accused come self‑assured in the presence of the law: not only does Syrian law grant them protection, but, more importantly, the perpetrator, because he committed an act in view of cleansing one’s family’s honor, only needs to let his act go public. Otherwise the whole point behind the slaying of the sister (or wife, or mother, or cousin, or any other woman) loses its purpose and raison d’être, which is precisely to inform those who already “know” of the sister’s whereabouts, her alleged loss of virginity, and her going out with other men, that all this is already over and behind us: thank God, the family’s honor has been cleansed (or “washed,” according to a common Arabic dictum), once saved by someone from within the family. Thus, two things already demarcate honor (sharaf) killings from other homicides: first, they are invariably restricted to the family and its closest ties; second, even though men could be in principle targeted, honor killings, where honor is de facto associated with a sexual act (whether consummated or imaginary), invariably victimize women (as we will see, honor killings involving men as perpetrators and targets follow a different logic, and are processed as regular homicides by the state judiciary);6 third, they are by state law “protected.” In fact, even though article 533 of the Penal Code states that “Who kills another person deliberately (qaṣd‑an) shall be subject to hard labor from fifteen to twenty years,” article 192 treats “honor” killings under a special category:

If the judge realizes that the motive (dāfiʿ) was honorable (sharīf), he should rule according to the following directives:

‑ permanent internment instead of capital punishment (iʿdām);

‑ permanent or fifteen‑year internment instead of permanent hard labor;

‑ temporary internment instead of temporary hard labor;

‑ simple imprisonment (ḥabs basīṭ) instead of imprisonment with labor;

  • 7 Mamdūḥ ʿUṭrī, Qānūn al‑ʿUqūbāt (Damascus: Muʾassasat al‑Nūrī, 1993), 197 for article 533 and 75 for (...)

The judge could also protect the accused by refraining from the publication and dissemination of the ruling, procedures normally required as part of the punishment.7

  • 8 In most instances it is indeed a male; women, even though have the right to “wash their honor” too, (...)

7Syrian penal law, like many others in the Arab and Islamic worlds, shamelessly goes for reduced sentences for the “criminals” who committed a “killing for an honorable purpose”—qatl bi‑dāfiʿ sharīf is the technical term used by the courts to classify such cases. However, in practice, and in the great majority of honor killings (and this applies to that of Muhammad ʿUbayd as well), the offenders (the system does not perceive them as “criminals”) are punished with three years of imprisonment which are usually mitigated (tukhaffaf), thanks to a complacent verdict, to one year only. A presidential decree in summer 2010 raised the punishment to two years, amid protests from feminist civil‑right movements that raised concerns apropos the barbaric nature of honor killings, prompting Syria’s grand mufti, Aḥmad Ḥassūn, to declare on his website that honor killings are contrary to Islamic principles. All such good intentions, however, were apparently not persuasive enough to shake the good old mores beyond what only very recently became a two‑year punishment. Thus, the processing of honor crimes as regular homicides, as neighboring Lebanon has been doing since the 1950s, seems like a long way to go. Thus, by the time the imprisoned offender is waiting for the judge’s ruling—six months to one year—he8 would have already served most of his prison sentence.

8Honor killings are therefore much more concise than other types of homicides: the court ruling comes proficiently faster; their files are thinner (the ʿUbayd file, for example, is altogether less than twenty‑five pages); there are fewer witnesses and less direct‑ or cross‑examinations; finally, because the murdered victim is usually a woman from within a clan whose slaying became urgent for her closest relatives, no lawyers are appointed on the plaintiff’s side, and, indeed, it is the Public Prosecution Office (DA), the niyāba ʿāmma, which is in charge of such crimes and assumes the role of prosecution. In sum, honor killings are processed with a great deal of expediency, zealotry, and self‑assurance. The accused knows beforehand that he does not have much to do—he would not even need a counsel (the state appoints one on his behalf)—but to accept his fate for a one‑year prison sacrifice. As to the niyāba ʿāmma, honor killings receive an up‑front treatment: they are indexed as such from day one, and once classified as qatl bi‑dāfiʿ sharīf, the rest is a simple six‑month routine. It is, indeed, the killer himself who performs the master task of identifying the crime as an honor killing from day one: first, by giving himself up to the police as soon as the crime is committed, an indication that this is no regular homicide, executed for the petty reasons, where the police would have to search for a criminal at large; then, by identifying in the original deposition to the police that the crime is one of “honor” (it is crucial that such identification is performed by the criminal himself rather than the police).

  • 9 Not all of them, of course: in the second case below, the crime was committed with a gun.
  • 10 Report (asās) 285/3/1996, decision (qarār) 49/3/1996, dated February 25, 1996.

9In fact, honor killings should probably be placed in congruence to rites of passage since they seem to follow a common pattern which distinguishes their slayings from other types of homicides. It is as if the offenders are providing the courts, their families, relatives, and the “public” out there with all the signs that would distinguish sharaf crimes from other slayings. First, the female victims have their neck cut in a specific way:9 horizontally, in half a circle, so that the frontal part of the neck is completely cut from one end to the other — mina al‑warīd ila al‑warīd, from one vein to the other. For example, in the ʿUbayd case, a description of the victim’s neck and the way it was horizontally clean‑cut, was reproduced verbatim in each report and the final ruling as well; in addition, the referral judge report (which is usually the first basic comprehensive report to be submitted to the criminal court, and also, as it turns out, would serve as the basis for future rulings) made the point that the victim (or al‑maghdūra, the betrayed, as the court texts call all their victims irrespective of the crime and its context) was slain “like a sheep (dhabh al‑niʿāj),”10 which from the court’s perspective would provide further indication that it was indeed an honor killing.

  • 11 Handwritten report by the fourth examining magistrate (qāḍī al‑ XE "judges:q<0101><1E0D><012B> al-ta<1E25>q<012B>q" (...)

10Second, the court would heavily trust all relatives of the victim. It would ultimately amount to one thing: that the victim had a “bad reputation,” and, because of this, she has dishonored her family. In the ʿUbayd case, testimonies and depositions came from a very limited number of persons, and, as is usual in such cases, neither the police nor the prosecution have even bothered to verify such allegations: everything was taken for granted and at face value. Thus, besides the testimony of the accused himself to the police (at eight in the morning, less than seven hours after the crime), his brother testified, as a “witness,” claiming that his sister was “homeless (mutasharrida) for two years, had a bad reputation, and was confined to a prison cell on more than one occasion.”11 Then was the father’s turn, another of those “witnesses” (we learn later, on the same page of the report, that the father preceded his son by killing his other daughter for ultimately the same reasons: she was also homeless for two years, with a bad reputation), who testified that his daughter “used to run away from home in order to go out with young men.” Also included is a testimony from a neighbor to the family who reiterated the sister’s going out at irregular intervals, and, of course, the “bad reputation.” A second neighbor made the point that the two sisters—the first one killed by her father and the second one by her brother—had been going out, without their parental consent for two to three years, and that they both enjoyed a bad reputation.

  • 12 Report prepared and signed the day of the crime, June 13, 1995.

11Third, this “bad reputation,” which every “witness” reiterates on his or her own, is then scientifically corroborated thanks to the coronary’s report: the victim, as the doctor aptly pointed out, “was not a virgin (ghayr ʿadhrāʾ).”12 This statement is in itself “sufficient evidence,” among others, that the victim had such a “bad reputation,” as all those who knew her had already asserted.

  • 13 For a study of the complex relationships between shame, honor, and status, see, Michael Gilsenan, L (...)

12Finally, the ritualistic process concludes with the grand finale of the verdict which publicly establishes, for all those who are interested, that there is “sufficient evidence,” beyond any reasonable doubt, that it was indeed a qatl bi‑dāfiʿ sharīf. Hence the courts serve well the strategies and priorities instituted by the actors themselves rather than impose anything “legal” on them. The social actors who commit a sharaf crime because, in their own eyes, the behavior of one of their relatives has been shameful and dishonorable to the family, hence act in accordance with well established norms within their own community. What is of interest to us here is that actors (and their “milieu”) impose their own normative values on the judiciary. Thus, the state and its judicial apparatus seem to operate within the social habitus of shame, status, and honor, providing actors with their judicial equivalent.13

My husband and my mother were not lovers

13[C6–2] On April 20, 1994, Fadila Ahmad ʿAli spent her last night with her husband. The Kurdish couple from a village close to Aleppo had a bad year: Fadila was accused by her husband for starting an “affair” with her son‑in‑law—the husband of her own daughter—and by April of that year, still according to her husband, she was already three‑months pregnant from her lover. In fact, the husband was dead certain in front of his prosecutors that the fetus was not his since he had no sexual contact with his wife for the past six months.

14On April 20, after several months of a disrupted family life, Fadila visited Aleppo and apparently had in mind staying at her brother’s home for the night. Her husband who was doing his best in tracking her whereabouts was informed of her visit and went to join her in his brother‑in‑law’s house. Their hosts, thinking perhaps of the possibility of a happy reunion of the couple after a difficult year, were so excited that they gave them their own bedroom for the night and decided to sleep in the living room. Fadila and her husband Rashid spent the night together, for the last time, and no one would ever know for certain what happened that night. Few hours before daybreak, Rashid pointed his gun at his wife (when she was probably still sleeping) and emptied two bullets in her head. She died immediately. Having confessed his crime to the police only few hours later, Rashid was imprisoned, had a straightforward trial (as all honor killings do) with a final verdict on March 21, 1995, and by April was set free.

15Syrian criminal procedures already severely constrain defendants and witnesses under direct‑ or cross‑examination, but what complicated matters further here was that all interrogations had to be performed with the direct assistance of Kurdish interpreters. Rashid Ouso (b. 1956) surrendered to the police and acknowledged his crime shortly after killing his wife, and his first statements on the motives and circumstances of his crime were uttered in front of a police officer in Aleppo. After describing his occupation as peasant (fallāḥ) in the village of Saʿar Najak, he goes on to describe his wife’s adulterous life:

  • 14 According to the autopsy report, only two bullets were found on the victim’s head.
  • 15 Which constitutes the quintessential act of surrender for an honor killing.
  • 16 Which used to be an Armenian neighborhood, now predominantly Kurdish.
  • 17 Deposition to the police on April 21, 1994; the memo which contains several depositions was dated M (...)

I have been searching in the last four months for my wife Fadila ʿAli who had left our home in our village Saʿar Najak with my daughter’s husband, Rifʿat ʿAmmuri. Yesterday [April 20, 1994], at sunset, I went to the neighborhood of Wadi al‑Muʿazah where the home of my brother‑in‑law, Ourya ʿAli, is located. I saw there my wife Fadila and probed her for the reasons for leaving our home and tried to persuade her to go back for the sake of her children. But she refused to do so, and we ended up staying together until midnight. I went to bed with my wife in our room [our hosts’ bedroom] while Ourya, his wife, and children remained in the living room where they had their beds done and slept there. Once everyone was asleep, I picked my 7‑mm war‑gun and shot my wife with five bullets14 in the room [where she was sleeping] and watched her die. I left the room and informed my brother‑in‑law Ourya ʿAli of what I just did and told him that I am going right now to give myself up to the police.15 Which is what I did, hence came and surrendered to you. ... I pose myself as a plaintiff against my daughter’s husband, Rifʿat b. Muhammad Shaykho ʿAmmuri, since he damaged my reputation, and it should be noted [that I knew] that they used to sleep together in the neighborhood of Ashrafiyyeh16 in the home of my cousin, Jamal Tino.17

16Several hours later, when interrogated by a judge, Rashid appended few other “pieces of evidence,” hoping to make his honor plea even stronger. He thus pointed out that three months earlier, his wife, son‑in‑law (her alleged “lover”), two sons, and their neighbor’s sons, were all accused of theft and confined to Aleppo’s main prison. Then, a month prior to the murder, his wife was freed and her “lover” followed suit few days later. Since then, they both moved to Aleppo, and, still according to Rashid, they had to be as close as possible to the others who were still imprisoned. It was for this very reason that he decided to travel to Aleppo to meet his wife. He furnished identical descriptions provided earlier to the police, with the chronological puzzle which eventually led to the night of the murder, but adds a detail: he wanted that night to have sex with his wife but she refused. After describing the scene of the killing, he elaborated on his wife’s adulterous relationship:

  • 18 Interrogation memo (maḥḍar istijwāb) of the defendant, 72/1994, April 21, 1994.

I did on a previous occasion take by surprise my wife with [my son‑in‑law] Rifʿat in my own home at night. They were having sex and had taken their clothes off and were together in a single bed. When I deplored what was going on, they started hitting me and threatened to kill me.18

17In a way similar to the first referral judge report which shapes and structures all forthcoming memos and rulings, the very early statements of the defendant would structure all the topoi to be found in subsequent testimonies: the adulterous wife, her pregnancy from her lover, her short‑lived prison sentence in Aleppo, and her excuse for settling in the city to help in her two sons’ release from prison, in addition to graphic details of her relationship. The sexuality is in particular useful as evidence to “confirm” that penetration (coitus) did occur, hence zinā could be legally established. The defendant, having found so many good excuses to kill his wife, will act, throughout the period of his own trial, as a chef d’orchestre orchestrating what others would say and do. Thus, the court with its judges, witnesses, defendant, and its attending public becomes the space for a rite of passage where the victim is demonized for having betrayed her husband, children, and family, and where the murderer‑defendant metamorphoses into an innocent human being whose only problem was being too naïve, soft, indecisive, helplessly betrayed by his promiscuous coquettish wife, whom he had caught in flagrante delicto.

  • 19 See infra, Chapter 7.

18It is no surprise to find that the rest of the testimonies, with witnesses on both sides, come together with a remarkable sense of faked coherence and with the same repetitive arguments, which applies to the two sides, that of the victim and her killer. In fact, while the regular thaʾr crimes are divisive because they create infernal fractures between families and clans which regress over generations,19 sharaf crimes for their part bring together, in a superfluous show of harmony, the two families of the victim and her killer: everyone, with few exceptions, would seem to endorse the perpetrator that his wife concluded her destiny with the fate she rightly deserved—death.

19Let us begin with the hosts. Ourya ʿAli, the brother of the victim, after corroborating all allegations concerning his sister’s affair with Rifʿat, added that he saw the two of them earlier that day, prior to the murder, when he was visiting one of the defendant’s cousins. He noticed his sister with Rifʿat trying to hide themselves behind a door. He defied them, urging them that each one goes separately to his own home. But he was surprised to find his sister with Rifʿat knocking at his door at around two in the afternoon, but when they begged him to leave them alone for a while, he refused to do so. He then saw his sister giving Rifʿat, prior to his leaving, some cash and a gun. His brother‑in‑law suddenly showed up, and from this point on, the story overlaps with what we already know. As to Ourya’s wife, Nabiha, and their daughter, their two‑ and one‑page statements add nothing new.

20Happily, the defendant’s cousin, Jamal Kito, a taxi‑driver which some witnesses had claimed that the victim and her lover were the morning of the murder at his place, had more to say. He first claimed that the victim and her son‑in‑law dropped regularly at his apartment once the victim’s two sons have been imprisoned. At times, they used to stay for the night and they all shared a single room together with Fadila and Rifʿat always having separate beds. One night, as he came late from work at two in the morning, his wife told him that she saw their two guests laying in bed and having sex; they also had a joint shower in the morning and Jamal noticed that they started kissing openly—a “suspicious behavior,” sulūk mashbūh, according to their host who decided to throw them out. His wife Fatima provided a separate testimony supporting her husband’s statements:

I woke up one day on sounds of kissing and [body] movements and saw the victim Fadila with Rifʿat on the top. They were having sex (yumārisān ʿamaliyyat al‑jamāʿ), were uncovered without any blanket, and had no clothes from the waist down. They went to the bathroom together and stayed there for an hour. When I told my husband about it, we decided to force them out. I then learned that the accused Rashid had killed his wife. It should be known, however, that I have seen the victim [Fatima] hitting her husband on several occasions in our home, and she was helped in this by Rifʿat.

21Comes finally the testimony of the daughter of the accused, Zaynab (b. 1977), that same daughter whose husband was allegedly having an affair with her own mother. It is certainly the only one which marks a departure from the rest, the voice of a traumatized betrayed woman.

  • 20 Interrogation of Zaynab Ouso by a judge and in the presence of a Kurdish translator, 1187/1994, dat (...)

The accused, Rashid Ouso, is my father; Rifʿat Muhammad Shaykho ʿAmmuri is my husband; and the victim Fadila is my mother. I have no qualms with anyone of them, and I do not know who killed my mother; I do not know either of the reasons behind her murder. I have not seen my husband since the day of the incident: we live together in our home in our village of Saʿar Najak, and my father did too. There were previous problems between my mother and father, and for the last twenty years, my mother had an immoral behavior (taṣarrufāt lā akhlāqiyya) with a lot of people; they used to have sex (yumārisūn al‑jins), but I do not know them. I used to hear [these stories] and my mother used to absent herself from home. My husband never left the village with my mother, and he never touched her either; and she never slept in our home. There [was] no love relationship (ʿalāqa gharāmiyya) between my husband and my mother. But the people of the village do not like my husband. The allegation that my husband and mother were having sex is incorrect.20

  • 21 Jināyāt final ruling (second court), 168/2/74, dated March 21, 1995.
  • 22 Qānūn al‑ XE "Index:Q<0101>n<016B>n al-<02BF>Uq<016B>b<0101>t" ʿUqūbāt, op. cit., 178.

22Not a single word of Zaynab’s statements were cited in the final court ruling which cleared her father from his crime and reduced his prison sentence to only one year. In the typed five‑page court ruling, statements of the accused and four other witnesses were extensively cited, one of them was Zaynab’s sister, Huda, who had testified of her mother infidelities with her son‑in‑law. As to Rifʿat, who seems to have been a key figure in this tragedy, the court heard nothing of him since he vanished from his village the day of the murder and never came back. There is therefore no sign of him in the file, even though he should have been a prime witness; but every other witness mentions him—only to demonize him, and is categorized in the Jināyāt final ruling as a ẓanīn, a suspect. According to the ruling, his crime was that of sifāḥ, or zinā, that is, adultery and fornication, and the court summoned a one‑year prison sentence for such a “crime.”21 Thus, according to this logic, a person who kills his wife with charges of adultery and fornication as a motif du crime is sentenced with the same one‑year period as that other person with whom the wife allegedly committed the adultery. Articles 473–477 of the Syrian Penal Code severely punish adultery, fornication, and incest with prison sentences of three months to two years; and article 476 in particular considers the status of aṣhira, that is, the brother/sister‑in‑law and the son/daughter‑in‑law categories, as in parallel, from a legal point of view, to the categories of mother‑father and brother‑sister: that is, sex between these categories is considered “legally” incestuous and hence illegal (subject from one‑ to three‑year incarceration).22

23Discriminations against women parallel the gender gap in the text of the Penal Code. Thus, in article 473, the first one in the series devoted to “illicit sex” (as zinā or sifāḥ), an adulteress should be punished from three months to two years of internment (§1). Her partner (sharīk), in case he was married, is subject to the same prison sentence, but if he was not, the period is mitigated from one month to a year (§2). As to evidence (bayyina) which establishes that a person was engaged in “illicit sex,” §3 of the same article surprisingly limits “legal evidence” on the “partner”: “Besides the legal acknowledgment (iqrār qaḍāʾī) and the misdemeanor which has been witnessed (al‑junḥa al‑mashhūda), only the letters and written documents drafted by the partner are adduced as evidence (adillat al‑thubūt).” But article 473 says nothing on how to determine that a woman was an adulteress: besides her confessing to the court, or direct witnessing of her in a jamāʿ with her “partner,” what would be enough evidence in this (or any) case?

24What is more surprising is the following article 474 devoted to adulterers. When we come to men, “The husband is punished from one month to a year of internment whenever he commits the zinā in his marital home or when he overtly manages a place (khilya: “cell”) [for fornication] wherever that may be” (§1). The same punishment applies for the “partner” (§2). Thus, besides the fact that punishments differ between men and women, article 474, unlike its predecessor (473), leaves a blank page as how to determine that a woman was the “sexual partner” of a man she was not married to. And article 475 makes things worse by limiting the right to file a lawsuit to the husband only (§1).

  • 23 Qānūn al‑ XE "Index:Q<0101>n<016B>n al-<02BF>Uq<016B>b<0101>t" ʿUqūbāt, op. cit., 177, note 2.
  • 24 In the U.S. there are 22 states where adultery remains a criminal act, a vestige of the way America (...)

25The 1953 amendments to the 1947 Code summoned extending the prison sentences to some zinā acts, in particular those occurring within the same family and whose status is either incestuous or semi‑incestuous: “Considering how much the crime of fornication is bad for society, the punishment in article 476 has been prolonged for this type of crime.”23 Article 192 severely limits the scope of article 533 by establishing “honor” as a special category to be dealt with separately and with much reduced punishments (one year only in the majority of cases). All articles of the Penal Code related to sexual offenses overtly distinguish between men and women in terms of the periods of punishment, evidence, and the right to file a lawsuit.24

Rethinking recipiency in honor killings

  • 25 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho‑Analysis, New York: Norton, 1981, Chapter 3: (...)
  • 26 As is well known, psychoanalysis operates a split between the subjective eye that sees (le voir) an (...)

26One way to understand honor is to introduce Jacques Lacan’s notion of the “big Other” (le grand Autre) as a field of social étiquette and appearances.25 Honor crimes bring together for the individual actor both the subjectivity of the act itself and the objectivity of étiquette and appearances. The honor games are situated at the level of the socio‑symbolic chain of signifiers which constitute the world of appearances that actors would normally abide by. An event, such as a woman “going out” on her own, would provoke a “break” or “seizure” into the symbolic chain of étiquette and appearances, but in regard to what exactly? The “break” is in “the eye of the beholder,” that is, located in the gaze (le regard) of a kin‑related male which identifies the woman’s act as abhorrent and outside the socio‑symbolic order that constitutes the norms of society.26 But then it is a long way to go between the “objectivity” of the gaze, as embodied in the big Other of the community, and the subjectivity of the criminal act, which would victimize the woman, declaring her as a postmortem outcast. What is significant in honor killings is that the judicial authorities would not indulge into the “internal motivations” of the killer, as they would normally do in homicides. Thus, one of the reasons why honor crimes receive so scarce attention, hence are conducted with scant evidence and no “character analysis,” is that the court is only interested in étiquette and appearance: who broke which order, and whether the victim deserved her fate for having gone her own way. As a rule, therefore, the offender, having already voluntarily given himself up, would not receive the scrutiny of a normal assailant, because in this instance it is the objectivity of the (criminal) act that really matters. As to the victim, her past behavior is retroactively evaluated, beginning with her murder at the hands of a “relative” up to past episodes that led to it. In other words, the whole process of psychic evaluations that we have encountered in regular homicides (Chapter 3), and which at times pushes medical examiners for absurd claims of motive, sanity, or insanity, is here totally absent. It is as if such scrutiny, albeit minimal, would only apply to the victim, which once dead, would have assailant, relatives, and friends alike posthumously assessing her character and deeds.

27But who is the third‑party addressee in honor killings? The assumption here is that the killing should not be primarily looked upon in terms of the relation between killer and victim (the two may not have even known one another, at least not so closely), but (as we did in previous chapters) in terms of a triangle where killer and victim are performers on behalf of a third‑party’s gaze. As a rule, therefore, an honor killing can only be staged for the Other’s gaze. In other words, neither does the killer act on his own behalf motivated by some kind of deep psychic disturbance, nor is the victim targeted for a profound perversion in her behavior, in spite of all that is said and done posthumously on her behalf. In his very act, the killer transfers his guilt to a third party, which we will argue is the community at large—the big Other acting as community in a desperate attempt to systematize its symbolic meaning: the rituals of honor thus act like a system of representations which in their very essence are theatrical, involving an elaborate mise‑en‑scène, and the killer’s role lies precisely in the transference of guilt to a third party. What in fact triggers his act, in a deeply divided society along kin, ethnic and class lines (e.g., landowners versus tenant farmers and peasants; property‑owners versus propertyless), and where women are harshly dominated, are unexpected changes in the symbolic texture of intersubjective relations—for example, a woman’s behavior that disturbs the symbolic order, which is interpreted as an abhorrent vice, whose resolution must be death. In other words, the symbolic order acts like a mask that would “restitute” social inequalities: it is the big Other that is at work, and whose contingent disturbance—in an act that is a pure subjective contingency—needs to be addressed through a counter‑subjective contingent act. If the addressee of the murder in honor killings is the community at large to which killer and victim both belong, the recipient maintains an ambiguous relationship with the killer—or more specifically with the guilt that he transferred to them: the community at large is neither ready to assume its guilt, nor to recognize the killer as someone who saved its honor. The killer has therefore to incessantly return for that recognition, which may imply more violent acts.

  • 27 Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, New York: Norton, 196 (...)
  • 28 Jean‑François Lyotard, “Peinture et désir,” in Textes dispersés I: Esthétique et théorie de l’art, (...)

28Framed a bit differently in an anthropological language, an honor killing would look like a symbolic exchange, where “gift” and “counter‑gift” are symbolically exchanged, through the body of the victim, between the assailant who gives his community what he owes them—the permanent restitution of the symbolic order—and the community which approves of the killing, hence restitutes the assailant as member of the community.27 The symbolic object is at the same time given and destroyed in the rite‑of‑passage—the honor killing itself. Hence the assailant is in a double bind: on the one hand, he proceeds through a rite of binding with his community: “I tie you to me by giving you the body of the women who does not deserve to be part of us”; on the other, is a rite of unbinding: “You will not be able to give it back to me.” The enjoyment (jouissance) that the female victim allegedly nurtured with her male partners is here transferred to the assailant: his jouissance comes at the expense of binding himself to the socio‑symbolic order of his community through the act of sacrificing his victim.28

  • 29 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London: Routledge, 1990; an (...)
  • 30 . Joan Copjec, “The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the Reception of Lacan,” in Read My Desir (...)

29A word of caution is helpful regarding the “masculinity” and total power of the big Other. For Lacan the gaze (le regard) is an object, hence is neither male nor female, but outside the realm of the subject proper: the gaze is not the male subject objectifying a woman. As Joan Copjec has persuasively argued, feminists29 and film theorists alike have operated with the misconception of an omnipotent male gaze to which the observed subject is totally visible to the Other and to itself.30 Visibility would be congruent with a knowledge which would be produced by the apparatuses of the patriarchal régime, the norms of law, and custom. In an honor killing the woman‑victim would thus be subjugated to the gaze of the Other through an internal mirror mechanism: not only she would be subjugated to an omnipotent male gaze, but, more importantly, she would see herself as being looked at, internalizing that external gaze. We thus become visible not only for the Other but for one’s self as desiring subject. The desire of the subject is therefore regulated—if not completely apprehended—by the desiring Other, be it the patriarchal régime or any other source of power. The apparatuses of apprehension could be, following Foucault, régimes of truth emanating from a multiplicity of discursive powers; or sociological norms which the subject “discovers” in daily encounters, “learns” and abides to. In all such scenarios, however, what the subject “knows” and abides to constitute what sociologists call the “social construction of reality,” all forms of knowledge, norms, and laws which construct the subject as subject of knowledge. But whether one postulates, pace Foucault, modes of “resistance” to such régimes of truth, or else a moral subject which can choose, the subject remains trapped in what it may or may not desire.

  • 31 Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, Livre X: L’angoisse, Paris: Seuil, 2004, 38: “Je te désire, même si je (...)
  • 32 Lacan, L’angoisse, 36.

30Following Lacan (and the Kant of the antinomies of pure reason), Copjec argues that the subject is already a split subject from the beginning: a subject which is apprehended by the social and symbolic order (the historically rooted social constructions to which Foucault and others have paid much attention), and a subject whose desire is under the power of its own imagination. The subject of desire may not desire anything at all, be devoid of any desire, or may desire without knowing what it desires: “I desire you, even if I am not aware of it.”31 What the subject desires in the Other escapes it, as it does not know what “it” is: what Lacan has named as the objet petit a, or the small object of the Other which obstructs our gaze of the unnamable Thing.32 Even if my desire is apprehended through the gaze of the Other, the processes of apprehension escape me, since they are neither rooted in any visibility nor knowledge. Theories which render the subject totally visible through knowledge rooted in historically organized modes of discursive reasoning (medical, juridical, and so on), fail to see that the subject is not totally apprehended by such socially constructed power relations. Indeed, the subject perceives the latter primarily as repressive in their very essence: the repression of jouissance tout court.

  • 33 Lacan, L’angoisse, 38: “Je te prends pour l’objet à moi‑même inconnu de mon désir”; “Je t’identifie (...)
  • 34 Copjec, “The Orthopsychic Subject,” 24.

31To come back to our honor killings, it would be misleading to simply portray them in terms of a patriarchal régime of truth, a combination of juridical and customary norms, which would apprehend both assailant and victim in an infernal circle of death engineered by the male gaze. Even if my desire is triggered by the gaze of the Other, I fail to see what I desire in her (objet petit a): “I take you as object for myself unknown to my desire”; “I identify you, you to whom I am talking, as the object which you lack.”33 As Copjec puts it, “it is the repression of this desire [of the Other] that founds society.”34 To say that the law is only positive, that it does not forbid desire but rather incites it, is to see honor killings as incited by the law (whether customary norms or state law), whereby a socially constructed scenario apprehends both assailant and victim to do what they did. When the assailant therefore voluntarily gives himself up in the immediacy of his crime, only to proudly confess his rightful act, he is confessing the law, that is, he is saying what the courts wants him to say, namely, that the law, which promotes rightful vengeance, was the cause of his desire, say, for the dishonor that his sister caused to his parents and family. It is therefore no coincidence that Syrian law labels such homicides as “killing for an honorable purpose”: the law causes the killer to have such desire to “wash his honor.” Which would leave out the essential: that the subject has no knowledge of what he or she desires.

32What is unique in our second honor killing (C6–2) is that the triangle of murder is here more complex than in C6–1 (which acts as prototype), as it is apprehended by an external gaze: that is to say, it is the triad of performer–victim–audience in its totality that is looked upon from the outside through an external gaze—that of the victim’s daughter Zaynab. The triangle itself is composed of the father who committed the act of killing, his wife–victim, and her lover, which was also the wife’s son‑in‑law (the husband of her own daughter). The addressee of the murder was not located inside the triangle but outside it: the daughter’s female gaze which acts as a depersonalized object. It is as if the father committed his act on behalf of his daughter—the true addressee—and like any recipient she was not prepared to recognize in the murder accomplished by her father–partner an act of communication, that is to say, she was not ready to assume the guilt, and heal her family in the aftermath of the murder, whilst conceding her husband’s escape and her mother’s poor reputation. In other words, the crime’s “beneficiary” would neither take over her family’s mantle (as in C9–2), nor recognize her father’s gesture. Herein lies the daughter’s crucial statement that “I don’t know who killed my mother”: the inability to recognize her father’s act. The reason is not some emotional psychic disturbance, but in that implicit knowledge that the father did “it” for her, hence as the recipient of the murder, the guilt was transferred to her, but she was unable to assume it as such, to internalize it, hence the denial. Moreover, the illicit affair between mother and son‑in‑law, which was surprisingly public knowledge to the point that the two lovers were not attempting it to conceal it even from their closest relatives, was also not admitted by the daughter. The only thing that she conceded was her mother’s “affairs” in general, which she claimed, she “heard” about from others, but never came to witness personally. The daughter therefore clears the two males in her family, accepts her mother’s infidelities, even though firmly maintains that she was unable to understand why she died the way she did. The wager here is the abstract relations between “seeing,” “hearing,” and the truth. Zaynab “heard” that her mother was relentlessly engaged in “immoral behavior,” even though the daughter refrained from “admitting” that her mother was specifically engaged in an illicit affair with her son‑in‑law, that is, with her own husband. But what were the sources of such “hearing”? As voice primes over seeing, Zaynab only “says what she sees.” The voice acts like an organ without body, as she does not just “see what she hears.” Zaynab therefore did not want to see what she had heard from unnamed sources: by limiting her gaze to hearing, she refuses to see what her mother had done. When the Jināyāt would not take her testimony into account, it was in all likelihood because the court privileges, as a general policy, seeing over hearing. When one sees only what they heard, or when one refuses to see what they have heard poses a problem for the bearers of law: we are not allowed to hear voices, but only to see what could be presented as evidence. Zaynab’s attitude was therefore one of demureness, as it expressed more delay, hesitation, and indecision than a sense of consciousness which did not (want to) see what her mother was up to—that obscene Thing—the unsayable.

  • 35 American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition.

33Zaynab therefore neither “saw” her mother committing that obscene Thing, but only broadly “heard” of her “infidelities,” of her excessive desires, without anything specifying the son‑in‑law as the object of desire; nor did she “see” her father retaliate against her mother: the prosecuting judge “told” her of the honor killing. Zaynab’s imbroglio was therefore mastered by eschewing the internal process of voir‑dire, not, however, in its modern Anglo‑American meaning of screening potential jurors for the sake of a just trial, but more in its old Latin Anglo‑Norman connotation of “to speak the truth.” Voir in its modern French incarnation stands for “to see”—or the externalized gaze—while dire stands for “to say”; thus, the voir‑dire represents a quintessential act of “saying the truth about what I have seen and witnessed.” However, voir, in its old Latin connotation of vērus, designates both “true” and “see,” which means that “to see” is “the truth; while dire stands for the Latin dīcere, “to say,” “to see.”35 The combination of both terms, therefore, as voir‑dire strongly suggests a desire of “saying the truth from what I have seen and witnessed.” Zaynab for her part eschews such process: “I have not seen anything—neither my mother having an obscene affair with my husband, nor my father murdering my mother—I am therefore unable to tell the truth, because I have not witnessed a thing, nor have I seen the physical acts themselves.” To be sure, such demeanor would not indicate an attitude of “escapism” of any sort: we all have our own ways of escaping the unbearable, which precisely amounts not to see in reality—or as a pure act of imagination—what we do not want to see; hearing, therefore, saves us from what we do not want to see—the obscene Thing—the unsayable.

34The burden of the external “objective” gaze is therefore alleviated by only hearing things, by reducing events to their “voice,” which amounts to speaking within the constraints of the socio‑symbolic norms of language. If, as we have argued in this chapter, the assailant re‑inscribes his murderous act within the “objectified” gaze of the big Other, which in honor crimes, is no one else but the community‑at‑large, acting as if someone is giving him approval, Zaynab for her part was that other recipient, through which the big Other speaks differently: by telling her what she needs to know, rather than letting her see the obscene Thing. That is to say, the truth becomes bearable by not seeing it, but by obfuscating it through the “voice” of the big Other.

35The complexity of the second honor killing, which is only formally similar to the more common ones (in line with Case 1), stems from the incestuous proximity of the infernal couple: it is as if mother and son‑in‑law were publicly exhibiting their affair in a desperate act of pure jouissance—sexuality becomes sexual all over again, and is delivered from its boring homely atmosphere, once the community at large is provoked. But the community was also “too close” to let such transgressive act go without its due punishment. As in other honor killings, therefore, the symbolic order has been disrupted through the sudden emergence of a pure subjective act—the mother’s excessive desire and her sacrifice by the husband. But its difference as an enigma of honor lies in the incestuous nature of the affair—“too close” to sustain itself by its own means—not to mention the generational difference.

36Which brings us, one more time, to agentive causality, towards which we raised serious concerns in this book. The juridical discourse operates within a Cartesian division between a conscious subject and an external act committed by that same subject. In order to rationalize premeditation (or the lack of it) the subject must be legally responsible, that is, not caught in a symptomatic behavior, such as dementia or insanity, that would “relieve” him of his responsibility. Put simply, the assumption here is that either we are fully responsible through an internal conscious motivation, or else we are unconscious because caught in an “external” state of delirium, which gets hold of us, rendering us irresponsible in the eyes of the law. In both stances, however, the assumption is that the crime scene could be narrated from a first‑person perspective, and in case of delirium or insanity, the narration would lose its side of witnessing the truth. What we are questioning is precisely such presumed availability of the first‑person perspective, which the courts would like us to think is constructed though the narrative work of suspects, witnesses, lawyers, and judges. But what if such an attitude proves untenable, a product of a Western juridical metaphysical discourse, where the aim is to promote “due process,” “fairness,” “equality,” and “justice” as the main ideological modules of the system? Consider, for example, the honor killings as a product of such deadlock—that of an illusory first‑person perspective which is simply not available. When the assailant gives himself up to the police, in the hours after committing his crime, only to construct a preordained perspective of the killing that looks convincing to the point of disappointment, and which would serve as template to the verdict, is he really reflecting his own first‑person perspective? The Cartesian motto would here stand as follows: “I have killed, therefore I have saved my family from dishonor.” But who is that speaking “I”? What does it stand for? By thinking the honor killing, as we did for the other crimes (homicidal or not), in terms of a triad between performer–victim–audience, and positing that “audience” as the potential recipient of the murder, we de facto have decentered the first‑person perspective upon which every verdict stands. As human beings, whether criminals or not, we are caught in our daily lives in the mirrors of gazes, of the externalizing gaze of others on us, of the big Other which stands as moral authority; in the deadlock of sexual difference; in what we want to “hear” but not “see”; in the “truth” that is left un‑said simply because it is too much of a burden for the consistency of our socio‑symbolic order; in the vulnerability of our own selves‑as‑persons; in the flexible and often elusive boundary between the intentional and non‑intentional. All of which render the first‑person perspective a bit superfluous. We suggest rethinking such antinomies in terms of a struggling “self,” one which cannot reflect upon itself in a pure act of objectivity. When juristic discourse represents premeditation as “a well‑thought act,” conducted with “a balanced mind,” with “a calm demeanor,” we must rethink all the above as a virtual impossibility; they must be probed with an alternative gaze in order to make sense.

Negotiating sexual freedom

  • 36 Idlib Jināyāt 6/1998; crime occurred on July 1988; defendant (b. 1951) arrested on September 1, 198 (...)

37 [C6–3] The third case we are examining here,36 which dragged at the Idlib Jināyāt for over a decade, shows the difficulties encountered by the courts whenever honor killings would not fall within the broad categories of honor depicted thus far: that is, women who have dishonored their families; or inter‑generational clan feuds (Chapter 7). The assailant and his victim in this case pursued, after an accidental encounter “on the road,” a brief friendship in which they acted as “business partners,” sharing a taxicab owned by the defendant as a joint business adventure during their off‑duty hours as state employees. Their friendship soon encompassed their families, so that their wives were also in contact with one another, exchanging mutual family visits. When the defendant’s wife and then his daughter from a previous marriage both complained to him that his friend and “partner” made unwanted sexual advances to them on separate occasions, touching them on various parts of their bodies, grabbing them for a kiss, the defendant asserted that he at first did not believe them: he liked and trusted his “partner” so much that he naïvely thought he would not do such a thing. His suspicions began, however, to grow when he heard statements on various occasions from his “partner” expressing beliefs in “sexual freedom,” in a society where “women—even wives—would be freely exchanged for the sake of sexual pleasure.” The defendant further claimed that his “partner” had a serious crush on his daughter, which became more and more “visible” to him as time passed. In a climate of growing distrust between the two, and while they were going for a ride one day in the direction of Ḥamā, the defendant was allegedly angered by remarks regarding “sexual freedom.” He said that images of his wife and daughter being seduced by his “partner” came to his mind like in a light stroke. He took a turn, stopped the car, and shot his “partner,” killing him instantly, and leaving his body lying on a field, prior to its discovery by the police. It took several days for the body to be identified, and for the defendant’s arrest.

Struggling with motive

38Even if the court were to fully trust the defendant’s account of the events as outlined above, such a crime, following the common norms, would hardly fit within any of the two broad categories of honor killings. First, the defendant and his victim were unrelated to one another, except for their common origins as inhabitants of the eastern city of Dayr al‑Zor. They only had a brief friendship, and there is no record of previous feuds either individually or among their families. Second, allegations regarding the victim’s misbehavior towards the defendant’s wife and daughter could not be substantiated by independent witnesses. Finally, allegations surfaced during the hearings that the defendant himself was having an “affair” with the victim’s wife—a woman of “bad reputation,” the Idlib Jināyāt hastened to report—adding further to the complications as to the defendant’s “motives.” Even though the defendant and his counsel exemplified the case under the banner of “honorable motive” (dāfiʿ sharīf), the accused did not, however, surrender himself immediately to the authorities, and it took over a month, from the time the victim’s corpse was found, to identify the defendant as a prime suspect, leading to his immediate arrest.

39When a council pleads his client’s motivations under the rubric of “honorable motive,” for a case that is not “obviously” so, the court might have a hard time to find its way through. Witness here, for instance, the pace of the investigations. The victim’s body was found on 23 July 1988, and since its location was within Idlib’s province, the corpse’s identification was relegated to Idlib’s police. The defendant was arrested on September 1, and an Idlib Jināyāt court convicted him a decade later with the death penalty. The following year, a Naqḍ court in Damascus revoked the Jināyāt’s ruling on the basis that it failed to identify a proper “motive” for the defendant’s act. In one word, therefore, all those courts were struggling with the issue of “motive”: Why did the defendant commit the crime which he had acknowledged upon his arrest?

40For the defendant and his counsel, the answer came down to “honorable motive.” But it took ten long years for the Jināyāt to decide on the case, opting for the harshest punishment possible: a ʿamd killing, punishable under the death penalty. Having shunned the “honorable motive,” the court found no valid excuse, however, for the killing. It noted, for instance, in its final ruling, that since the “partnership” between defendant and victim over a taxicab license did not involve much financial wrestling, and since there was not much going on between the two beyond sharing a car, economic motives did not seem to have been an issue here. The court was left with one motto: cherchez la XE "women:cherchez la femme" femme.

41In its verdict, the court harnessed the victim’s character:

The victim used to party a lot. He loved going out at night, drinking a lot, and believed in sexual licentiousness (al‑ibāḥiyya al‑jinsiyya). His wife Amal had illicit sexual affairs, with the full consent of her husband. One such relation was with an officer at the internal security, for which she received money. In early February 1988 the victim met the defendant, and borrowed some money [2,000 liras] from him. A friendship soon consolidated, and they began working in common as drivers on a touristic car that belonged to the defendant. They exchanged in the meantime many family visits. Two days before the big Aḍḥa feast, the victim traveled in the defendant’s car with his wife and children to Dayr al‑Zor where his in‑laws home was located. The victim and the defendant then drove back together to Raqqa [where they both lived]. During the investigations, the defendant acknowledged killing his victim, claiming that in spite of their strong friendship, the victim attempted to assault both his wife and daughter. During a trip [from Raqqa] to Ḥamā whose purpose was to buy tires for the car, he made a turn from the main road and killed his victim. He denied any affair with the victim’s wife Amal.

42The introductory statement also noted that they were both employees at a governmental institution that managed the al‑Furat dam and lake.

Swingers: unconventional hedonistic lives, and the exchange of sexual partners

43The court soon found itself in a situation where the alleged assaults on the defendant’s wife and daughter, which for the defense pointed to the “motive” of the crime, could not be substantiated by independent witnesses, and that the statements by the two women themselves were unreliable and hardly constituted any evidence. Not a single witness came forward to either back up or deny those allegations. The court had no other choice but to turn its attention to the victim’s wife, and here it found what it wanted. First, the victim’s nephew claimed that his uncle’s wife was such a disgrace on the family that the victim had been pressured on several occasions by his relatives to divorce her. He also claimed that, few weeks prior to his murder, his uncle had suspected something “unusual” between his wife and the defendant, as the latter was multiplying visits to the victim’s in‑laws in Dayr al‑Zor. Another witness came forward with the allegation that he had a short sexual liaison with the victim’s wife, which he took out for a trip to Lebanon, and that he paid the husband for his wife’s services. A second witness, an officer at the internal security, made similar allegations. The victim’s wife acknowledged for her part having had extramarital affairs with her husband’s consent:

  • 37 The term taqaddumi is quite common in politics, designating all those on the “left,” in particular (...)

My husband considered himself a progressive (taqaddumi)37 individual, and for that very reason he summoned me upon our marriage not to wear a scarf. He then began expanding his social relations and spending a lot, far beyond our means. That is why two‑and‑a‑half years ago he established a friendship with an officer at the Raqqa police, and the latter started spending on us. He then booked for us a room at the Siyahi Hotel in Aleppo, where I had sex with him in the presence of my husband. I also had sex with him a second time in Latakia. When the officer was transferred to Aleppo, my husband befriended another guy who paid us SP6,000 [$120] and took me for a trip to Lebanon…I deny any relationship between me and the accused.

44As more witnesses—among them the victim’s two sons—came forward claiming that a relationship between the victim’s wife and the accused did exist, which added to her overall “bad reputation,” the court began narrowing on that one thread it had left. After rebuffing all claims of alleged assaults on the defendant’s wife and daughter as invalid, the court concluded that

the defendant committed his crime with a peaceful mind and balanced thought. He planned his crime carefully 20 days prior to its occurrence. He seized that opportunity, when the wife and children were in Dayr al‑Zor, and persuaded the victim to a ride with him in a location far away from his place of residency… then killed him in the middle of the night…All such factors indicate that the premeditated ʿamd motive was fully present, and that the claim for an honorable motive is without any grounds.

45Besides the death penalty, the defendant was summoned to compensate the victim’s heirs for SP800,000. The Naqḍ for its part revoked the ruling on the basis that “every crime has a cause and motive,” which the Jināyāt failed to clearly identify.

The price of sexual freedom

46We noted that in Case 2 the incestuous nature of the crime, even though formally an honor killing, gives the case a unique stance, and it is only in this regard that the second case could be similar in some respect to the third case of the swingers, even though in the latter, the court refused to treat it as honor per se, hence the death penalty (it remains uncertain whether it was effectively applied). The third case is about a devilish couple, where the husband and wife use each other’s services for the sake of sexual jouissance. To bypass the routinized sexual ineptitudes of conjugal life, husband and wife are into a self‑crafted partnership. The “progressive” husband sets himself and his wife into a partnership on behalf of a third‑party gaze. One can see how such partnership effectively worked in the episode described by the wife herself, as “witness” to the prosecution, whereby she details a scene in an Aleppo hotel, where she was having sex with a police officer with the husband watching. In such episode the wife’s sexuality is consummated through the husband’s gaze as a third party—that is, as addressee to his wife’s programmed infidelities, which he fully supported and encouraged. As if that was not enough, the couple were constantly looking for a third‑party‑outsider that would act as the outside gaze for their inside partnership—a “witness” to their infidelities. Needless to say, the dynamism is here very different from the regular honor crimes. In honor killings, the symbolic chain that reproduces social étiquette and appearances (Lacan’s big Other) is well respected, and the raison d’être for the woman’s murder is precisely to reinforce those symbols which have been temporarily disrupted thanks to the woman’s alleged (sexual) misbehavior. The woman’s killing—akin to an execution—is meant to be “public,” in the sense that it punishes a private behavior through a public act, and the killer’s actions in the aftermath of the crime are meant to transform a private act into a public lesson of morality. The dualism of the act of killing, set between a male killer and female victim, metamorphoses into a public event shared by the third‑party gaze of the community to which both killer and victim belong. The killer—set as “defendant” in the judicial process—would soon be “recognized” by the community for restoring the symbolic order; he may even assume, once released from jail, a leadership role among his peers. In sharp contrast to the rules of honor and honor killing, our third case of swingers establishes a totally different logic of honor. To begin with, honor nurtures the thesis of the “innocent male” versus the “adulterated female,” hence the killing itself erases all sources of adulteration and contamination; without the male’s presumed innocence the logic would simply not work, and the private act of killing would not have been absorbed into the symbolic chain of values: that is to say, it would have maintained its status of “murder” rather than “honorable killing.” By contrast, the swingers did not operate on the duality of innocence versus contamination: neither the male nor female are here innocent; their sexual playfulness and promiscuity is rather shared both ways in a double entente. More importantly, what they did was to consensually construct a third‑party gaze that acted as “witness” to their acts. There is no crime that is not dedicated in the final analysis to an addressee and third‑party gaze, and in the case of the swingers, male individuals were picked up at random to satisfy their needs. In the longest of those third‑gaze “partnerships” was a married man with a family in Dayr al‑Zor, which soon metamorphosed into a business partner, only to end up as the husband’s killer. The swingers thus established a practice whose aim was precisely to mock the traditional bourgeois middle class values, that is, to mock the family as a bedrock of satisfied sexuality and emotions. But instead of the usual infidelities common among married couples, the swingers transformed their sexual conquests into an open game, which they both openly acknowledged, and which they wanted to share with the outside world through third‑party gazes. The attempt here was therefore to “break” the symbolic order of étiquette and appearance rather than “restore” it: only the court, by declaring a death penalty verdict, attempted to “restore” the symbolic order, while in regular honor killings the court acts in parallel to the wishes of the social actors themselves, that is, it gives a juridical cover to a ritual already endorsed by the community itself (Cases 1 and 2). In sum, in an honor killing the original criminal sin is committed by the woman only, which the male addresses by officially criminalizing the woman, and bringing her back to society through murder (the “honorable killing”); while in Case 3, the criminal sin was shared by wife and husband—they were both partners, constantly looking for third‑party gazes as partners. It was in the last instance one of those partners who committed the murder, bringing the couple back to (social) justice.

Oedipus unbound

47A common characteristic to the criminal cases at our disposal is the repetitive nature of evidence. That is particularly true of crimes with sexual motives (incest and rape), but it is also visible in the more regular criminal cases. It is therefore the original deposition of the alleged culprit to the police and investigating judge that structures the entire case. The initial deposition—the only one in the dossier to “accurately” describe the crime—is quoted almost verbatim in the dossier’s major sections. But even though a great deal of such “confessional” evidence is later denied by the defendants themselves (probably at the instigation of their lawyers), the various court and judicial instances would consider the culprit’s initial deposition as the most genuine and relevant to the case. Understanding why the culprit’s initial deposition structures the entire case proves of fundamental importance to the understanding of the inner workings of the Syrian judiciary in criminal offenses.

48It is as if the suspect decides beforehand what kind of punishment fits best with his or her case; the modalities of punishment; and the procedures that ought to be followed or avoided. A prime reason for giving so much weight to the culprit’s own documentation of the crime scene is that the system would not permit much room for constructed corroboration. The absence of any serious collection of evidence, such as fingerprinting and DNA testing, considerably limits the forensic tools at the disposal of the police and the public prosecution office. Moreover, direct‑ and cross‑examinations tend to be restricted (as is the case in most civil‑law systems), even though the procedures themselves do not impose limitations per se, while the nature of such restrictions must be thought in terms of self‑imposed norms. The original defendant’s deposition therefore shapes the motif du crime for the dossier at large, and it is that kind of narrative that is generally endorsed by the judicial instances and the courts.

  • 38 Aleppo criminal courts, case 288/1996.
  • 39 “Definition of Rape Is Shifting Rapidly,” The New York Times, August 24, 2012.

49 [C6–4] Our fourth case,38 which the investigating judge in a sober account on 28 August 1995, described as “one that is greatly puzzling and astounding, being of such a rarity for the judiciary,” has the mother‑plaintiff accusing her son of raping her while asleep in their own home. In judicial language, the alleged crime was that of a young man accused of “having unwanted sex with his mother (mujāmaʿat umm‑ihi bi‑l‑ikrāh).” Rape (ightiṣāb), as defined in art. 489, is whenever the offender threatens or forces someone other than the legal spouse into a forced copulation (jamāʿ), must be punished for a minimum of 15 years with hard labor, or to 21 if the victim is a minor younger than 15. Notice how the threat of force is all by itself illegal, even if no copulation took place. Moreover, the article does not seem to take into consideration a forced sexual intercourse—“rape”—among married couples. Finally, all the articles that fall under the rubric of rape (489–492) are not gender specific, which means that offenders or victims could be simultaneously male or female. Compared to U.S. criminal law where “levels of sexual assault” have gradually replaced a basic “definition of rape,” which has become nearly impossible to sustain in a system where both alleged offenders and their victims come to court armed with experienced lawyers,39 the Syrian definition of “rape,” understood as ightiṣāb, is simpler, as it generally involves a male perpetrator who allegedly penetrated a female victim for the sole purpose of forced copulation (jamāʿ) (C6–5), although cases of underage boys being “sodomized” by an adult are also common (C8–2). Article 492 unexpectedly brings the topos of rape (ightiṣāb) to the domain of familial incestuous relations, albeit the word “incest” (sifāḥ al‑qurba) remains at bay: when a 15‑ to 18‑old minor is forced into a sexual intercourse by a legal or illegal “parent” or brother/sister‑in‑law, father/mother‑in‑law, or anyone who legally acted as “parent” (sulṭa sharʿiyya), the offender must be punished for 9 years with hard labor. Article 493 inaugurates the section on “adultery” (faḥshāʾ), which is framed in similar terms to “rape,” except that in this instance the illegitimate sexual act which is described as “beyond decency” or simply indecent (fiʿl munāfī li‑l‑ḥishma), is subject to a minimum of 12 years with hard labor.

50The original depositions of both parties to the police were in a brief two‑page recto‑verso handwritten report. The mother Fattuma (b. 1955) claimed that at two in the morning that same day (June 3), while sleeping in the inner courtyard with her daughter and son approximately seven meters away, she felt a hand fondling her leg:

I woke up and saw my son Nidal next to me, who threatened his sister once she woke up and told her that he would kill her if she started screaming. He then forced me into the eastern part of the courtyard, and when I pushed him away he threatened to hit me with a stone. I told him ‘I am your mother,’ and he responded ‘I want to sleep with you. Why do you allow (tasmaḥīn) my father and you do not accept me?’ He then grabbed me and forced me on the floor, when I felt losing consciousness (ighmāʾ) once he threw himself over me. After a while I managed to wake up, saw my (pajamas’) pants close by, and noticed some sperm on my sexual parts, which shows that he did it with me (iftaʿala bi). I then washed my sexual organs only (al‑nāḥiya al‑tanāsuliyya faqaṭ) and also my face. He then urged me that we travel. No, my daughter has not seen her brother penetrating me (yujāmiʿu‑ni). I request that an investigation be opened, and to have me medically examined. I consider myself as plaintiff on my own behalf (muddaʿiya shakhṣiyya), and ready to pay a deposit.…

51That was followed by the son’s deposition. Nidal was a single man (b. 1974) who was living with his mother and sister.

I was asleep in bed and suddenly woke up with the desire to have XE "sexuality:desire to have sex" sex (uḍājiʿu) with my mother. I went to her bed and had my arm over her leg. She woke up and I forcefully pulled her from her bed towards the eastern dark section of the courtyard. I then threw her on the floor and took her (pajamas’) pants off, but I have no knowledge whether I had sex with her or not because I was in such a nervous state. I have had such states of mind before, with the desire from time to time to have sex with my mother, and I did attempt that before but it never happened. I regret all that. When I woke up my mother, my sister woke up too, and I insisted that she shut up or I will slaughter her (adhbaḥu‑ha), but she never left her bed.

52The final deposition was that of the sister. Nora was born in 1980, hence six years younger than her accused brother.

At two in the morning (June 3) while in bed close to my mother, I woke up at my mother’s voice. I saw (my brother) Nidal with my mother sitting beside him. She then stood to leave the room, but my brother followed her to the eastern part where it was dark. He told me: ‘Go to bed, and if you follow me I will hit you.’ I went to bed without knowing what happened between them. I would add that my brother did attempt previously to have sex with his mother, but he promised not to do that anymore. He never talked to me before about an unnatural relationship (ʿalāqa ghayr ṭabīʿiyya).

  • 40 DNA testing is not common in Syrian courts.

53The report concludes that the plaintiff’s husband had left to Lebanon two months earlier, and all her brothers were also outside the country; it was therefore not possible to take their depositions. A medical report confirmed the presence of sperm in the mother’s vagina for the last twelve hours, but was short from identifying the source.40

54Except for the defendant’s deposition, which will be denied in toto in a counter‑deposition to the criminal court on January 1996, not much novel factual evidence would come to the dossier. It was as if everyone—from police and prosecution, to the Jināyāt court, not to mention plaintiff and defendant—were all satisfied with the three statements uttered by the mother, son and daughter, and that everyone was convinced of the accuracy of the rape scene. But the “rape scene,” however, was precisely the indescribable part, as it allegedly occurred in total darkness (the eastern part of the inner courtyard), with no witness outside the plaintiff and defendant, both allegedly fainted and only recovered after the fact, while the daughter—and only “witness”—preferred to stay in bed, because she allegedly felt threatened by her brother, leaving him with her mother in the darkness of the courtyard.

55There are few more details in the three depositions (maḥḍar istijwāb) that mother, son, and daughter individually shared to the investigating judge. The son was interrogated first the day after the alleged rape (June 4). The night of the incident (June 3) the defendant was at a wedding ceremony at their village of Khafsah Kabir where, according to his own testimony, he went back home totally drunk. His mother was on the floor and asleep, and his sister was close to her:

  • 41 It remains unclear whether the “before” here means before the current incident or including the all (...)

I came close to my mother with the intention of having sex (mujāmaʿatu‑ha), and once she felt my presence she pushed me away. I tried to beat her, and in the meantime (my sister) Nura woke up and I addressed her with a threatening voice—‘Go to bed or I will kill you!’ Once my sister was back asleep, I pulled my mother’s hand and took her to a dark corner of the eastern part of the courtyard. Since my mother was resisting me, I held her and forced her on the ground and pulled her (pajamas’) pants off. I did not, however, penetrate her (ujāmiʿu‑ha), since I had left her and begun to cry. When I woke up I came to the conclusion that I often feel things that I am unable to explain. When, for instance, I am asleep, two persons that I do not recognize come by and wake me up from sleep. One of the mashāyikh (village elders) told me that I might be under the influence of magic (siḥr). I soon began to do abnormal things, when I woke up, I realized that I drunk a lot the previous night. I must add that I never had sex with my mother before.41

56To the question that “the doctor’s report indicates that penetration (mujāmaʿa) had occurred to your mother, while you are in denial,” the defendant replied that “that’s utterly false. My father is married to another woman and has been living in Beirut for three months, and has not come back ever since.” The interrogator added in a note that the defendant was “thoughtfully” (yujību bi‑rawiyya) replying to the questions, and he often mentioned that he was into a “scandalous” situation (faḍīḥa).

57A couple of remarks apropos this second testimony. First, the defendant, 24 hours after his first testimony, fully denied sexual penetration with his mother. His first testimony to the police (the day of the alleged incident) acknowledged the possibility of penetration. I say “possibility” because his alleged fainting once he pulled his mother’s pajamas leaves room for uncertainty. Both mother and son had fainted in their original police deposition. Twenty‑four hours later, the son denies penetration in toto—a stance that will be maintained at trial. Now, as in his prior deposition, the defendant portrayed the alleged incident in a dreamlike stream. Either he was unconscious, or else he was dreaming, not to mention magic and his conversation with a wise elderly man. He has been doing unusual things in his dream life; his encounter with his mother—whether fictional or true—took place in a dark corner of the house; while his sister went to bed as soon as he summoned her to do so. Portraying the rape episode through dreamlike magical images enables the protagonist to review the scene via an external gaze, that is, as a spectator gazing from an outside “neutral” point.

58The mother gave her own deposition to the investigating judge two weeks later (June 20). Contrary to her son (whom his mother claimed had often worked in Lebanon with regular visits to his family in Syria), she alleged that the three of them were in that village wedding and all returned home early in the morning. She slept as usual on the floor close to her daughter while the son was in his own bed five meters away in the west of the courtyard. The plaintiff‑victim then repeated similar statements to the ones already furnished in early June to the police: that she woke up at 2:00 in the morning only to find her son’s fingers over her leg; that the daughter woke up and was threatened; that her son took her by force to a dark side of the courtyard and raped her:

I fell on the floor on my back and my head hit the wall. I lost consciousness for a while, then took hold of myself. My son had left me naked by taking my pajamas off. I felt humid water inside my vagina and realized that my son had raped me. He pulled his bed (from the courtyard) to the bedroom and slept after telling me “Go and complain against me in the morning.” I went out in the morning with the excuse that I will be buying some bread, and told the police about the incident. They went and arrested (my son) and subjected me to a medical examination .… Roughly two months prior to the incident, (my son) had torn my clothes off, and I had complained against him to the police back then. The mudīr (director) of the nāḥiya (district) gave his guarantee that I will not be beaten up and humiliated. My husband Musa al‑Dhahir works in Lebanon and has a second wife who lives with him over there. He has been already absent for three months prior to the incident, and he never came to visit us. When my son was arrested and jailed, my husband came back from Lebanon, and when I told him about the incident, he promised that he would attend the court hearings and testify against his son.… I should add that my son has no medical problem, never went to a shaykh (village elder), and I am not aware that he is tempted by any magic (siḥr).

59The third deposition, that of the daughter, also on June 20, does not add much to the above, except perhaps on a single point worth mentioning. The night before the incident, her brother had already proposed sexual penetration to their mother and apparently threatened her with a bottle with the following words: “You do not have one man only, but you have got two men.” If the one man refers to the husband and father, and the two men to the father‑husband and son, then we are into an unbound Oedipus. The absence of the father, and the son coming to fill his father’s shoes, have all played in the son’s imagination. More importantly, they have become tools for the disputants to rationalize their behavior. The mother probably perceived her son’s behavior as one of father‑envy, while the son gives “the absence of the father” parody a central theme: he went out to Lebanon for a work opportunity, stopped visiting us (his family), probably forgot all about us, and married another woman without even apparently divorcing the first one. Thus, the lack of authority, or its weakness, pushes the son to substitute himself to the diminishing authority of the father. Such a weakness was an outcome of a multitude of interrelated factors: the weakness of the internal labor market and the availability of other nearby markets (primarily Lebanon); the dissolution of family bonds: the father not only went for another and stronger labor market, but left his family behind and married another woman; finally, the other male figure in the family—the son—was in turn left with no role, whether real or imaginary, in the absence of the father figure. The sexual penetration of the mother substituted for the loss, placing the son in the commanding role of the father—as head of the family.

60When informed that “the doctor’s report had detected some sperm in your mother’s vagina, and that this must have resulted from penetration, which you have been denying,” the son replied to the investigating judge (June 4) that “there is no truth in that because my father is married to another woman, and both live in Beirut and he did not visit us in the last three months.” The mother could not therefore have had any sexual intercourse in the last three months because of the absence of the father. And, in his reply, the son strangely took the prosecutor’s question literally, as if he was asking him about his mother’s sexual liaisons in general, and as if he was not specifically targeted by that question. But the reply could also be read as follows: “Since my father was absent, I was not there too, therefore my mother could not have had sex with anyone.” The substitution with the father figure worked both ways: as an absence (no father), and as a presence (penetration).

61In the extremely brief doctor’s report on June 3, the medical examiner noted that he did not see any bruises or signs of violence on the mother’s body, which shows that “most probably there was not any resistance from her part.” Furthermore,

  • 42 Obviously DNA testing could have determined the sperm’s origin, but that kind of testing has still (...)

and when her sexual organs were examined, there were no signs of violence or force (duress) either. Upon further examination it turned out that there are remnants of sperm in the vagina, indicating that the woman had intercourse in the last twelve hours.42 It is worth noting that she took off her clothes in an ordinary way and without shame.

62How the doctor could have reached such a conclusion about the plaintiff’s clothing remains uncertain, but it is worth noting that the implied “consent” in the doctor’s report was thus far one of the few things that could have played in the defense’s favor. In itself, the doctor’s remark points to an invisible “social order” at work: étiquette and conventions are in particular operative for a woman undressing in front of a doctor she hardly knows, and which will examine her for an allegation of rape.

63The first comprehensive report was drafted by an investigating judge (qāḍī al‑taḥqīq) on August 28, reiterating word‑for‑word the June depositions of the only three “witnesses” in the case. In a manifestation of sympathy towards the plaintiff, the report concluded that

the defendant’s denial does not match any tangible evidence (dalīl mādī) for the sperm that the doctor’s report confirmed was present for twelve hours in the plaintiff’s vagina. Consequently, the defendant’s denial and his allegations of magic and loss of consciousness, and his inability to explain his actions, all point to attempts to minimize the gross nature of the crime that he committed, and to delineate himself from any responsibility, considering that his father was absent in Lebanon for the last three months.

64The judge therefore recommended a punishment for the crime of rape with violence (ightiṣāb bi‑l‑ʿunf), which is punishable under articles 489–199 of the penal law.

65The gap between the defendant’s denial, the lack of an “outside” witness, and the presence of sperm in the mother’s vagina, led the judge to the conclusion that the denial relied on no “tangible evidence,” overruling the possibility that the mother could have been penetrated by someone else than her own son. Only DNA testing could have brought that kind of “evidence.” But the judge bridged that “gap” all by himself and proceeded with the criminalization of the defendant.

66The dossier was finally transferred to the Jināyāt criminal court through the referral judge whose ruling was submitted on October 30. Again, the report mostly consisted of a word‑for‑word reiteration of what had been stated before without any substantial change. Only in its concluding remarks did the report drift from those submitted by the general prosecution and investigating judge: both had reconstructed the misdemeanor (junḥa) to be one of rape punishable under article 489 of the penal code, while the referral judge condemned that kind of rape—the son to his own mother—as “an act contrary to life” (fiʿl munāf‑in li‑l‑ḥayāt), punishable under article 506 of the penal code, even though the judge simultaneously approved the lesser punishment of forced intercourse under article 489/1. He recommended, however, the more forceful punishment under article 506.

67When the dossier was transferred to the Jināyāt, the court was seized with the opportunity to begin the examination process from scratch. The complete hearings, however, handily comes in four handwritten pages, the outcome of two sessions on February 8 and March 7 1996, which do not add much to the case. In the first session the defendant stated that he reiterated his previous statements on January 17 to the Jināyāt, in which he had stated that (articles 273 and 274 of the penal code require that defendants be interrogated prior to the hearings in order to check whether they abide by their previous declarations to the police),

There is no element of truth in what was attributed to me. It is out of question that I would do such a thing, and my mother’s allegations are lies. I have noticed her going out quite often, and I have seen her with people. The day of the incident I requested not to go to the wedding, and that she goes back to her parents’ home because of her behavior. But the second day she made the claim that I have had sex with her. The police arrested me, and my statements to the investigating magistrate were incorrect because I was not aware at the time of what I was saying. I therefore request to be declared innocent.

68The defendant thus acknowledged his previous statements, only to deny their veracity due to a “lack of awareness,” therefore de facto “withdrawing” his previous testimonies a month prior to the courts’ hearings. Nonetheless, in that very brief assertion, it was the only time that accusations of misbehavior were made against his mother, the kind that are usually furnished by defendants in honor killings, prior to their acquittal. In fact, and in a way very similar to honor statements in C6–1 and C6–2 the plaintiff transformed himself, less than a month prior to the Jināyāt hearings, to someone protective of his mother’s honor, of her honesty, and sense of shame. The crime committed here—assuming there was a crime—was one of incest rather than murder per se: the young man who denounced his mother’s improper behavior raped her but did not kill her. Rape therefore assumes here the status of an honor killing. But instead of honoring himself, the offender was dishonored, and the mother reassumed her role as mother, as someone protective of her child.

69As the defendant only recapped his January 17 statements, the first hearing session of February 8 had nothing new: its sole purpose was to let the defendant deny his after‑crime statements. But even the second and final session of March 7, which had the mother and her “witness”‑daughter examined, had absolutely nothing new either. Indeed, a common trait to all the interrogations that we have been through is their low‑profile attitude towards disputants and their witnesses, to the point that court examinations—always conducted by the chief judge—seldom add any new factual evidence to the dossier prior to its circulation within the Jināyāt.

70On June 6, only a week prior to the verdict, the court received two different pleas, one from a representative of the prosecution office, and the second from the defendant’s lawyer. The former, who recapped all the known facts once more, pleaded to punish the defendant according to articles 489/1, 497, and 492 of the penal code. The latter while aiming at the alleged mother’s misbehavior, then shifted in a three‑page memo to the mother’s and daughter’s contradictory statements.

71The Jināyāt ruling of June 15, based on that of the referral judge, sentenced the defendant to ten years imprisonment with forced labor according to article 489 of the penal law.

Documenting the indescribable

72An actor has that inner ability to recognize and organize “socially acceptable behavior” or “joint lines of action.” In the interaction between psychoanalyst and patient (analysand), the process is one of linguistic communication, where the psychoanalyst decrypts and interprets the meaning of words and statements uttered by the patient. The psychoanalyst’s “synthesis” is itself rooted in language and cannot escape the “hermeneutical circle” of any interpretivist enterprise. In the criminal case outlined above, there were three settings that served as the basis for the interaction between the three “witnesses” and various policemen and judges (in addition to a medical expert): the police station, the investigating judge’s office, and the courtroom. The above quoted statements were all uttered in those three well‑defined settings, and were then either quoted verbatim or paraphrased and edited; but the social order is not given once and for all, as it is rather construed in every situated encounter. What we see unfolding, from document to document, is the three “witnesses” documenting incest and rape. By the time the verdict was ripe, we come to realize that what those “witnesses” were doing was an attempt to delineate the “socially acceptable behavior” between mother, son, daughter, and the absent father. It is therefore possible to pick up individual statements, as they were stated in the documents (which might not conform to the oral originals), and analyze them as units of social behavior, or as indexical expressions situated within frames of analysis. The combination of indexical expressions and practical actions constitutes the contingent accomplishments of organized artful practices of everyday life. Moreover, the contingent nature of social behavior limits measurement to indices of the actor’s intended meaning. In other words, for every utterance, there exists an intended meaning, which is indexed on what the actor recognizes as “socially acceptable behavior.” For that very reason, what we see are three witnesses struggling to define the acceptable behavior of their community—not the rape itself (or the possibility of incest), which only looms behind the scenes.

73Let us consider some of the witnesses’ statements, uttered on various occasions, in 1995–96.

  1. mother: I am your mother.
  2. son (based on mother’s testimony): I want to sleep with you. Why do you allow my father, and you do not accept me?
  3. mother: I felt losing consciousness once he threw himself over me.
  4. son: I have no knowledge whether I had sex with her or not because I was in such a nervous state.
  5. sister: I went to bed without knowing what happened between the two of them.
  6. son: I did not, however, penetrate her, since I had left her and begun to cry.
  7. mother: I felt humid water inside my vagina and realized then that my son had raped me.
  8. mother: [I was assured that] I will not be beaten up and humiliated [by the police].
  9. son (based on sister’s deposition): You do not have one man only, but you have got two men.
  10. doctor: It is worth noting that she took her clothes off [for the medical examination] in an ordinary way and without shame.
  11. son: I have noticed her going out quite often, and I have seen her with people… She should have gone back to her parents’ home because of her behavior.
  12. son: I was not aware at the time [after the arrest] of what I was saying.

74Even though the above statements were kept in their chronological order, the dates of their enunciation is not what matters most, at least for our purposes here. Observe first how the son’s two most incestuous statements in 2 and 9 were not based on direct utterances by the son himself, but by allegations from the mother and sister. The two statements fall short of directly accusing the son of incest, but nevertheless prepare for the rape charge, even though rape is not explicitly mentioned. Incest, and its corollary, rape, are therefore present through their very absence, and the non‑said about the incest and rape combo constitutes one of those “indexical expressions” which would delimit the social negotiations taking place within a specific setting. In other words, the triad of witness‑actors, together with the others involved in the framing of the case (policemen, lawyers and judges, and doctors), were all attempting—each one independently, and also in conjunction with each other’s statements—to frame what was socially acceptable behavior based on the event under discussion. They did so by indexing various expressions and behaviors into what was acceptable/not acceptable. For example, the doctor in 10 seems to be suggesting that the way he saw the mother undressing and dressing for the purposes of his medical examination indicated a bodily “ease,” even though she was in the presence of a male stranger; hence the assumption here was, having done it without shame in front of a perfect stranger, she could have done it with anyone else. But that’s never stated explicitly, and the doctor did not bother to realize that when people undress, they usually do so differently from one setting to another. As before, the indexical expression, which in this case consisted of a negotiation of what was a shameful behavior in the privacy of a doctor’s clinic, was based on what was not stated by the doctor. By the same token, the son’s statements in 11, which amount to an accusation, never come to terms with what this “going out” was all about: the mother’s shameful behavior was simply implied because the “going out” on her own was not a socially acceptable behavior for a woman. Considering that the contingent nature of social behavior limits measurement to indices of the actor’s intended meaning, the process of indexical expressions is like a language game where actors allude to things and background information which are always assumed without being explicitly stated.

75Which is what brings this case to Case 2 when it comes to the voir‑dire conundrum. In this instance, mother, daughter, and son all engaged in a deliberate policy of marking the obscene Thing as the unsayable, that about which the truth could not be revealed. Indeed, the whole rape episode, whether real or imagined, wrestled with that abyss between the voir and the dire, so that the combination of voir‑dire was a near impossibility. If “speaking the truth” places the protagonists on the verge of an abyss which they are unwilling to penetrate, it is because the son’s excessive desire could not be seen, that is, there was that impossibility at visualizing it as such, even in terms of basic testimonies that would not hide the truth beneath the veil of fainting, loss of consciousness, memory loss, or magic. If, therefore, “to see” implies half the “truth,” while the “to say” is that other uncanny half, then in this alleged rape crime, no one was able “to see” anything, because no one was willing “to say” anything that would be grounded on the vulnerable act of seeing. Obviously, such a deadlock did not prevent the court from proceeding with its verdict, punishing the assailant for raping his mother, as if the court made the connection between the antinomy of “seeing” and “saying” through its own reasoning, which assumes the availability of the unavailable first‑person perspective totally conscious of its own actions.

Triple rapes

  • 43 Idlib Jināyāt 357/1998.

76 [C6–5] In the late 1990s, on the road from Bāb al‑Hawa to Idlib (northern Syria), two peasant families working in farms owned by large landowners, reported similar cases of burglary and rape.43 In the first incident, the farmer and his wife were awaken by midnight by loud knocks at their door. When the farmer asked the intruder to identify himself, he said that he was a shepherd who had lost some of his sheep, and was asking for permission to search for them in the farmer’s own land. When the farmer, who still had his door locked, gave his word that he saw no sheep on his lands, the intruder begged for some water. But as soon as he opened the door, the farmer was surprised at the sight of three‑hooded men brandishing a knife and a gun, and threatening to kill him if he asked for any help. They sealed his mouth and hands with a tape, and did the same with his wife, searched the home carefully, picking up whatever valuable goods they found—there was no cash on the way, which is not that uncommon to farmers: a black‑and‑white television set, a watch, and few other personal belongings were among the items that the assailants took with them. The wife alleged that each one of the three men raped her while she had her hands tied and mouth sealed. Even though it was very dark that night and the electricity was off, the woman was able, thanks to the lights of passing cars and trucks (coming mostly from Turkey) on the main road, to identify at least one of the assailants, who, needless to say, denied all charges.

77Four months later, three hooded men in the same area allegedly used the same procedure to violate the sanctity of another farmer’s home. They also used tapes and ropes to tie the farmer, his wife, and their daughter. After stealing their TV set and few other items, all three allegedly raped the 23‑year old daughter who sustained that she was still a virgin at the time. That second incident triggered a more prolonged police search, which eventually led to the arrest of three farmers, all of which kept denying all charges until the very end. The two thefts would have been “minor” were it not for the alleged physical assaults on the homes of the farmers: in both cases, the farmers claimed that the assailants intruded their privacies, tied them up, then raped the wife in one and the daughter in the other. The alleged rapes have therefore de facto imposed themselves as central to both.

78When on 3 November 1997 the house of the farmer (b. 1936) on the Bāb al‑Hawa–Idlib road was allegedly intruded after midnight by thieves, and some of its properties stolen in the presence of the owners, whose only daughter was raped by the all three offenders that same night, the farmer waited until the early morning hours to report the incident to the Miʿartmisrin police. In what follows was his first 9:00 a.m. deposition.

Plaintiff statements Comments
At 4:20 after midnight I heard a light knock at the door of my house. I opened the door and saw three persons, among them the sons of Fawwaz Sultan from Miʿartmisrin. I do not know their [first] names. The third is called Amin. I do not know his last name (kinya or kunya). He is from the village of Yatinah. They were hooded, and asked me for their lost sheep. I told them that I have not noticed anything. Considering that all three intruders were hooded—even though the description failed to mention how the faces were exactly concealed—the plaintiff was quick to identify them. The defense would play precisely on that weak spot in the plaintiff’s deposition: if all three were hooded, and it was still very dark and the house without electricity, how then did the plaintiff manage to identify them that easily?More importantly, however, is that the alleged offenders were not identified by their full names: while two of them were purportedly the sons of X, the third was known through his first name only.In sum, none of the offenders was fully identified, but only globally in terms of the nisba: father, locality, and village, that is, in terms of what really matters. But what matters for the community is not necessarily what the state authorities are looking for: to the latter what matters most are individuals identifiable with their full names. The plaintiff’s strategy—in the early hours after the incident—was to locate the assailants through their community.
They pushed me into the room and tied my hands and feet, and did the same with my wife and daughter with a scotch tape. They also sealed our eyes and mouths to prevent us from screaming and seeing. They started searching the room, mishandling the furniture, opening the closet, then searched into a small wallet, looking for money, but did not find anything.
They assaulted my 23‑year old daughter Sabiha, and all three did it with her (iftaʿalu maʿaha). The daughter’s rape, in the father’s account, was extremely concise—one sentence. In itself it does not account for the gravity of the accusation, as it says the indescribable. But such conciseness is typical of many accounts—in particular when it comes to sexuality—as it is generally assumed that the listener will realize on his or her own the gravity of the situation, and will refrain from asking for more. What really matters here is what is left out, and which the listener will have to assume on his/her own.
They picked up various objects, took a black‑and‑white size 12 TV (SHARP), a clock, and a watch from the closet’s drawer. Notice that the stolen objects were accounted for in the same flat tone as the alleged triple rapes. But since we are relying on modified police transcripts, we will never know for sure the level of performance in the plaintiff’s voice.As the TV set was the most easily identifiable object, it will turn out as the only reliable piece of evidence.
They seized a golden necklace from my wife’s chest. Even though they could not find anything else, they stayed in the house for about an hour, searching and damaging all along before leaving.
I would like to request investigating all the three that I have named, and to subject my daughter to a medical examination. I am therefore placing myself as a plaintiff on my own behalf (muddaʿi shakhṣī) against all three. I recall that Amin was wearing a gillabiyya, while the sons of Fawwaz Sultan had regular pants and jackets. All three were hooded and carried different kinds of knives. That’s my deposition. Since every crime must be investigated by the general prosecutor, even if no plaintiff is available, plaintiffs can still pursue a case as part of their individual rights. Many plaintiffs, amid private settlements, drop their case before the final ruling.

79The overall deposition was very brief, which is not unusual. The police’s lack of aggressiveness continues all along with prosecution and courts in the shallowness of investigations and interviews. The plaintiff’s deposition therefore represents the basic minimum, which was pursued by a police visit to the farmer’s home, whose description was included in their report. They noticed that the house was in bad shape, the drawers were all open, and “a 20cm blood stain covered the sheets of Sabiha’s bed.” Had the triple rapes effectively occurred, the assailants might had dragged Sabiha on her bed, where she was sleeping prior to their intrusion, and raped her there, or else the blood stains might have been an outcome of later bleeding. The police were not, however, that curious at working out such details: much of the investigations heavily rely on the unsaid (le non‑dit). During their visit they managed to interrogate Sabiha (b. 1974) and her mother (b. 1937).

Sabiha’s deposition Comments
At 4:20 a.m. this night, while I was home with my father and mother, we heard a light knock at the metallic door. My father opened the door, and three hooded persons jumped in. Two were the sons of Fawwaz Sultan from Miʿartmisrin—I do not know their names—and the third was Amin from the village of Yatinah—I do not know his full name. Thus far the documentation is identical to the father’s, which is not unusual. Depositions, cross‑examinations, and court hearings are populated by statements that are repeated verbatim from one person to another, even though uttered in different contexts. Sabiha’s deposition did not even specify whether she “guessed” the intruders’ identities on her own, or whether all three made such a guess later—ex post facto.
They tied our hands, legs, and eyes with scotch tape. All three raped me, and the first one was Amin. I knew that even though my eyes were fully closed, because he was wearing a gillabiyya. Then the sons of Fawwaz Sultan followed. We could not scream because they had sealed our mouths with tape. They left me alone and went away, taking a TV set and two watches with them. The documentation of the rape scene, even though more detailed, did not add much to what the father had stated earlier.
We were afraid to go out until the morning. They had threatened that they would kill us if we went out, and I noticed that they carried several knives.

80The daughter’s deposition only established what the father had already stated, adding very little to what was known. Again, it is not that uncommon for family members who witnessed the same event to come together with an almost identical description, even though they were separately interrogated. The assumption that common XE "Index:witnesses" witnesses, who were common victims, should come with a “united” stand is shared by both speaker and listener, namely the alleged victims and their interrogators. What seldom comes in such interrogations is the “voice” of the victim herself, who even though might have “shared” the “same” crime scene with other persons, had a different perception of the obscene Thing, or of few salient details which might have gone unnoticed to others.

Silence and the force of what is not said

81In criminal investigations it is common practice to scrutinize statements uttered by plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses, with the hope to detect inconsistencies, in order to show that the other side is not telling the truth. Consider, for instance, how the defense counsel acting on behalf of the sons of Fawwaz Sultan, two of which were accused of theft and rape, scrutinized in a memo addressed to the Jināyāt the inconsistencies in the statements uttered by the plaintiff Sabiha on various occasions. In addition to her first statements above to the police few hours after the alleged thefts and rapes, Sabiha had more to say to the prosecution and Jināyāt judges.

Sabiha’s deposition to the prosecution Comments
I heard someone knocking at the door and say: “My uncle, did you see any sheep?” My father responded by saying: “Go and look for them in the cotton fields!” The other replied: “I need some water to drink.” When my father opened the door to show him the water tap in the generator room, three persons rushed through. One of them was wearing a dark gray gillabiyya with a jacket; the other two were slightly taller but younger. Both were wearing pants and jackets, one was slim, and the other was more obese. No mention here of the hooded intruders, as in the police deposition, though the introduction here is more detailed.
They threw themselves over my father and tied his hands and legs, sealed his mouth and eyes with scotch tape, prior to hitting my mother with an ax. They had a small lamp, tied her shoulders and taped her mouth and eyes. One of them stood close to me and said “If you move I will slaughter you.” I was afraid and begged them to leave and take whatever they wanted. The others came and tied me with a scarf and pajamas that were mine and close to me. They threw me on the floor and my mother started screaming. One of them told her “Shut up you ʿabiyeh! ” They placed a cover on my eyes and started messing around with the room.
One of them said, “If we cannot find anything in the room we will tarnish the man’s reputation.” He came towards me and another held me from the front, when the third raped me. The other two also raped me after they took off my pajama. One of them sat on my belly with his legs crossed after I hit him. The triple rape scene is here a bit more graphic, even though it is still very concise. For one thing, it associates rape with manly honor—that of the father—and also as “compensation” for failing to find much valuable goods.
… I am certain that those who assaulted me were Amin al‑Amin and two of the sons of Fawwaz Sultan, because I know the first from his voice and look—he is tall—and because he used to bring us some stuff last year. In the last year and a half he attempted to pick up fine potatoes for his sheep, and when my mother stopped him he got upset…As to the sons of Fawwaz I have also known them because I have heard their voices before. A year ago I heard one of them, Burhan, say to my mother, “What did you get from your parents?” And she replied to him, “I got some chains of gold.” He said: “Where do you hide them?”… Even though the alleged assailants received a better identification, there is still not much evidence, mainly because the victim had no chance to see them, but only got to identify them through their voices.

82The defense went on with statements by the plaintiff, uttered in different contexts, contrasting them in order to show how contradictory and unreliable they were. Due to the fact that the assailants were hooded, and their victims had their eyes sealed, not to mention the complete darkness in the room, such factors, according to the defense, pushed the plaintiff to speculate, leading to gross errors. Picking up on Sabiha’s statements—this time to Idlib’s Jināyāt court—that “I knew who they were because I was trying to talk to the assailants so they would respond,” the defense sarcastically rebuffed such claims, noting that

what is so surprising is how such a young girl with her mouth tied with a scarf, who had just lost her virginity, and who was raped by three men in a row, was still able to talk to them, hoping that they would respond, with the sole purpose of identifying them through their voices.…This girl must have such ingenious senses, enabling her to identify all three rapists with such a precision under circumstances in which most people would have lost their minds.

  • 44 Those were the two left out suspects of the many sons of Fawwaz Sultan.

83The defense cited the medical report, drafted on November 1997, in which the three examining doctors concluded that “it would have been impossible for a girl to have been fully conscious after she had just lost her virginity and went through three successive forced penetrations.” For its part the defense looked at the plaintiff’s allegation that “I was fully conscious all that time” as “contrary to scientific logic.” One of the accused, Amin al‑Amin, had for a time his own counsel, who in a memo to the Jināyāt pointed at his client’s age—47—and that of his second wife—25—as an indication that his client could neither have teamed with two of a younger generation (b. 1971 and 1973),44 nor could he have raped a woman of the same generation as his wife. Basing himself on the medical report which adduced that there were no visible signs that Sabiha’s body had been subjected to violence, the counsel questioned for his part how a young woman “in her prime age” that was raped could have maintained her calm all along, “because a girl that was raped and lost her honor and fortitude metamorphoses into a beast (waḥsh) that destroys itself and every body that comes close to it.” For its part, the Jināyāt in its final ruling, and referring to the two Sultan brothers, reached the whimsy conclusion “that it was unlikely from an intuitive point of view (al‑nāḥiya al‑fiṭriyya) that two brothers would come together to jointly rape the same girl.”

84The centerpiece of the case was not the alleged thefts but the rapes—a 23‑year old women lost her virginity, while a married woman was raped in the presence of her husband and children. As no one—not even the accused, prosecution, and judges—seem to have had the guts to question the veracity of the alleged rapes, the identification of all three accused became the center issue. The fact that they managed not to be seen but only recognized from their voices was the major hurdle for plaintiffs and prosecutors alike. Moreover, all three defendants had witnesses endorsing that the nights of the alleged incidents they were at different locations to the ones supported by the plaintiffs. Prosecutors and judges also targeted the plaintiffs’ main representation of the process of identification: they pointed out that only the daughter was able to identify her rapists, while both parents, in a gesture of solidarity, simply followed suit and had no means to come up with a close description of their assailants. Yet, as noted earlier, a barrier of mutual silence soon erupted over the alleged rapes, and the young lady would not be pressured for “more.” Identification notwithstanding, the biggest handicap was motivation: why did such acts occur? Small rural communities tend to have their norms challenged even more strongly, in light of such incidents, than much larger urban agglomerations, in particular when the alleged perpetrators were farmers and shepherds like the bulk of the working population. Consequently, possible motivations or intentions of the assailants were only hinted at, never forcefully elaborated upon. Yet, one should precisely look beneath and behind such allegations, accusations, and counter‑claims, and see how presumed motivations implicitly keep popping in—and even imposing themselves—in the process of negotiating crime. Such communities are in effect structured along ongoing violence, feuds, honor and shame, so that an accusation of rape, where the victim clearly identifies her rapists from day one, would not go without all the unconscious social prejudices that it entails. Moreover, when the victim was a young woman, which society perceives as naïve, and with a limited social and sexual experience, questions abound as to her legitimate “right” in offending the honor of older men with responsibilities towards their families and community. Such a harsh questioning as to the “legibility” of the main witness for witnessing the conditions she was placed into was evident, for instance, in the “scientific” medical report. Her “legibility” was further suspected by witnesses, police, prosecutors, and judges. Thus, for instance, the Idlib Jināyāt, in its final 17‑page ruling on February 1999, probed how Sabiha could have possibly known her assailants solely from their voices, considering that “as a girl (fatāt) she had been much less in contact (iḥtikāk) with the accused [prior to the incident] than her father.” The court, which was referring to Sabiha’s assertion that she had been observing the accused for months prior to the incident, because they kept trespassing over their properties, while overhearing two of them addressing her mother regarding her inheritance, stated in its opening address that “we are not willing to argue with the plaintiffs on the veracity of their claim on the rapes that Sabiha had been subjected to from three persons.” Having already distrusted Sabiha’s ability to identify on her own her assailants, as if she was in need of a mentor, the court then argued that evidence pointed that Sabiha had been the sole source for such identifications. Sabiha’s maternal uncle had witnessed first to the prosecutor and then in court that her father had told him that he solely relied on his daughter’s knowledge of the assailants’ identities. A policeman overheard Sabiha saying to her mother that “There is no one but them—the house of Fawwaz Sultan,” while Sabiha herself was quoted as providing contradictory evidence apropos the (un)certainty of her information, as she kept shifting between a firm “I am sure it is them,” to a more uncertain “I think it must be them,” or “I suspect them.” (In some witness accounts the Sultan brothers—not simply the accused two but all of them—were referred two as “bad guys” (ashqiya) often looking for trouble.) The court must have therefore assumed that the identification of the accused did not come firsthand, but was an outcome of guesses and speculations. In its concluding statement the court agreed that there is no tangible evidence that would decree anyone of the accused guilty of any wrongdoing, ruling that all three should be immediately set free.

Denying the facts, finding the truth

85If our general idea that every crime is not to be solely limited to the analysis of the relationship between murderer and victim (there could be none), but invariably involves a third‑party addressee, which may be a collectivity (in honor killings), which might not be aware of itself as recipient, or might know it but nevertheless refuses to undertake such burden, then we should also think of incest and rape within the framework of a triangle of crime, even though in such instances there was neither murder nor murderer per se. Both rapes in C6–4 & 6–5, however, were committed as if they were murders—to figuratively murder the victim via gross intimidation.

86In the incestuous rape between mother and son, the third‑party addressee was no one else but the absent father. It is not that in his criminal act the son wanted to “replace” the father, as much as to place the burden on him. But the father would not indulge at recognizing in the crime accomplished by his son an act of transgression for the lack‑of‑father he was experiencing (or the lack‑of‑husband that the wife‑mother was into), that is, he would not be prepared to assume the guilt. The absence of the father, both real and symbolic (as the emblematic figure of the Law), placed the son in the privileged position of an impotent male left with his own gaze with his mother as the object of desire. The (alleged) act of rape not only violated the sanctity of the mother’s body, but more importantly, it attempted to murder the mother as mother, that is, as bearer of family values and conventions (the motherly superego). In other words, it was indeed that agency that hindered the protagonist’s normal sexual relation, the maternal superego, which had to be murdered through the symbolic (and real) act of the rape. In his interviews at the hands of prosecutors and judges, the son repeatedly portrayed his mother as a woman with “excessive desires,” an accusation of sorts which was implicitly shared by the doctor who examined her, which signals an enigmatic deadlock for the son: “If my mother is having so much fun with so many outsiders, why not me in the meantime?”

  • 45 Incest is obviously much less reported than honor killings and other sexual crimes; its criminal re (...)

87In the confessional evidence, commonly shared between mother, son, and daughter, there was that eerie uncertainty as to whether “it” really happened: once confronted with the outside gaze of the judiciary system, which forced all three protagonists to objectify the criminal act, the act itself could neither be documented‑as‑seen (the excuse was a magical loss of consciousness) nor accepted as such in its materiality, as something that did happen. Thus, while the outside gaze of the judiciary represents the big Other in its symbolic dimension of social order and conventions, the incestuous desire by contrast was long nurtured inside the family domain, hence oblivious to social norms. The incestuous desire, in the way it publicly disclosed itself through rape, was therefore dissimilar from the unfolding of an honor killing in public. I underscore the distinction between how a criminal act presents itself in public, as shaped by public events, and as represented as such by the narrative of the judiciary, and the way it may have unfolded in private, in the intimacy of the bedrock of the family and sexuality. In the first honor killing with which we inaugurated this Chapter, it was indeed the public representation of the murder that proves much different from the incestuous crime (C6–4): in the honor killing, there was no allegation as to anything incestuous between the brother‑murderer and the sister‑victim; hence all the crime centered on the public persona of the brother‑and‑sister combination; even the sister’s alleged “infidelities” to her family’s honor, were only posthumously represented through the external gaze of kin members, as pure acts of betrayal. Let us imagine for a moment that there was an incestuous desire between brother and sister, and that the brother had raped his sister instead of killing her, the case would have been legally identical to the fourth one between mother and son. So, between regular honor killings, which tend to be fairly common, and the less common incestuous triangles,45 it all amounts to what was publicly displayed in the language of shame and honor. Had the son killed his mother instead of raping her, with allegations that she was unfaithful to her absent husband, it would have become an honor killing in line with C6–1. Such distinctions are revealing because, as we have repeatedly argued, each crime, whether involving a murder or not, is set within a triangle where the offender and victim are not the only two parties at stake, as we have to look at the other side of the triangle for the real recipient, which could be a person, a collective agent, or a collectivity in the form of the community to which both offender and victim belong. In common honor crimes (C6–1 & 6–2), the addressee is the community at large, while in an incestuous crime the recipient is no one but the absent father. But even regular honor killings do not obey to a single logic. For example, between Cases 1 and 2 there were big differences at stake. In C6–2 the mother‑victim was allegedly into an affair with her son‑in‑law, which already sets the murderous triangle into an incestuous partnership. Here the wife, which had dishonored her husband, split as lover to her daughter’s husband, that is, with her own son‑in‑law. Again, this case could be brought in parallel to the incestuous C6–4, as both involved incest, but differ on the public resolution of the crime. In C6–2 because the husband took action against his wife and murdered her for an “honorable purpose,” the incestuous triangle fades back into privacy, becoming irrelevant for the juridical handling of the case. The sublime beauty of Case 2 is that each protagonist split as an incestuous Thing: the husband‑murderer was father to the daughter whose husband was allegedly having an affair with his own wife; the wife‑victim was mother to the daughter whose husband was allegedly into an affair with her mother; the daughter, acting as recipient to the murder, was also the wife to a husband who allegedly was into an affair with her own mother; finally, the daughter’s husband, who vanished in the aftermath of the killing, was at the same time the son‑in‑law and lover of the mother‑victim. However, the complexity of the incestuous triangle was of no interest to the Jināyāt court, as what mattered for the verdict was the fact that the husband committed his crime as husband (that is, not as father) in order to honorably redeem his wife for her infidelities (that is, she was not redeemed as mother to the daughter with whom she was having an affair with the latter’s husband). Case 2 could have therefore been similar to Case 4 had the father simply reported his wife’s infidelities with her son‑in‑law; the court would have labeled the case as “a sexual act against nature,” subjecting the wife/mother and the son‑in‑law/lover to a maximum 15‑year punishment. What therefore sets all such cases apart was not so much their internal private motives and dynamisms, as much as the juridical nature of the crime, and the very act that made them subject to the public gaze in the first place.

88The novelty in Case 3 (the swingers) was that uncanny split of two mid‑aged couples, each comprised of a husband and wife. As the first couple was the one to have initiated the second into its “progressive” mores, it was also the one to have instituted the rules of “exchange,” even though it remains uncertain what the quid pro quo with the second couple consisted of (allegations had surfaced regarding the husband‑victim in the first couple to have been in an “affair” with the wife in the second couple). Whatever the level of “exchange” (sexual or otherwise) among the two may have been, it is clear that they mirror one another, that is, the second couple was recruited by the first to act as an external gaze. In a way similar to the husband‑father‑murderer in Case 2, the husband‑murderer in the second couple found himself caught in an infernal triangle between his wife and the other husband and wife. He could have done what the husband in Case 2 did: kill his wife for blatant infidelities, and the crime would have been classified as in Cases 1 and  2 as one committed for an “honorable purpose.” Or, to shift the perspective even further, had the husband in Case 2 behaved like the one in Case 3, that is, had he killed his son‑in‑law rather than his wife, he may have been punished with the death penalty in lieu of the much mitigated one‑year incarceration. What such possibilities illustrate is that with the special juridical category of “honorable purpose,” the chastisement waiting the murderers may shift dramatically—from the one‑two‑year norm up to the death penalty—pending on who is targeted in the murderous triangle, and how the murderer behaves in the aftermath of the crime. The “honorable purpose” provides that unique opportunity to register the crime directly in the symbolic chain of social étiquette and appearances (the big Other), precisely by targeting the woman rather than her alleged lover(s). The husband‑murderer in Case 3 may have felt deeply dismayed and dishonored at his partner’s behavior, but the decision to kill the partner rather than his own wife made the “honorable purpose” impossible to apply under such circumstances: the crime was, as expected, classified as a homicide. The husband may have therefore taken the risky route of the death penalty to commit a murder with his wife as the third‑party addressee: the feeling of guilt was transferred to her, and as all recipients she was not set to recognize in the murder accomplished by her husband an act of redemption for her own sake, that is, she would not have been disposed to accept herself as the bearer of the guilt.

89As the daughter in Case 5 rightly observed, her brutal victimization right in the presence of her parents was a direct message to her father: the father was the true recipient to the crime. The three men could have been content with theft only, and could have left as soon as they took hold of the few things that caught their eyes, but they decided to go ahead and rape the daughter (we are taking for the purpose of this analysis all allegations of theft and rape at face value, as we did for the other cases). As in Case 4, rape directly challenged the symbolic big Other, and the symbolic order is redeemed only by bringing the criminal to justice and charging him of crime. There was therefore no “honorable” exit here: there was no woman to be punished, hence all was criminal.


1 The equivalent of the balṭagiyya in Egypt, see, Salwa Ismail, Political Life in XE "Index:Cairo" Cairo’s New Quarters: Encountering the Everyday State, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006, 139–45.

2 Hazim al‑Amin, al‑Ḥayāt, Beirut, 12 August 2012.

3 Over 300,000 jobs were lost in the agricultural sector in 2003–07; see, Fabrice Balanche, “Le retournement de l’espace syrien,” Moyen–Orient, 12, October–December 2011, 24–30; Samir Aïta, Labour Market Policy and Institutions in Syria, Report for the European Union, 2009.

4 Anand Gopal, “Welcome to Free Syria. Meeting the rebel government of an embattled country,” Harper’s Magazine, 325 (1947), August 2012, 35–42.

5 Deposition to the police by the accused, the night of the murder, June 13, 1995.

6 Chapter 7.

7 Mamdūḥ ʿUṭrī, Qānūn al‑ʿUqūbāt (Damascus: Muʾassasat al‑Nūrī, 1993), 197 for article 533 and 75 for article 192.

8 In most instances it is indeed a male; women, even though have the right to “wash their honor” too, seldom commit such crimes and are rather their object.

9 Not all of them, of course: in the second case below, the crime was committed with a gun.

10 Report (asās) 285/3/1996, decision (qarār) 49/3/1996, dated February 25, 1996.

11 Handwritten report by the fourth examining magistrate (qāḍī al‑ XE "judges:q<0101><1E0D><012B> al-ta<1E25>q<012B>q" taḥqīq, investigating magistrate, juge d’instruction) in Aleppo, number 1101, decision 65, dated February 10, 1996.

12 Report prepared and signed the day of the crime, June 13, 1995.

13 For a study of the complex relationships between shame, honor, and status, see, Michael Gilsenan, Lords of the Lebanese Marches: Violence and Narrative in an Arab Society, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

14 According to the autopsy report, only two bullets were found on the victim’s head.

15 Which constitutes the quintessential act of surrender for an honor killing.

16 Which used to be an Armenian neighborhood, now predominantly Kurdish.

17 Deposition to the police on April 21, 1994; the memo which contains several depositions was dated May 2, 1994, and was addressed to the juge de paix, qāḍī al‑ṣulḥ, in Jabal Samʿān.

18 Interrogation memo (maḥḍar istijwāb) of the defendant, 72/1994, April 21, 1994.

19 See infra, Chapter 7.

20 Interrogation of Zaynab Ouso by a judge and in the presence of a Kurdish translator, 1187/1994, dated July 11, 1994.

21 Jināyāt final ruling (second court), 168/2/74, dated March 21, 1995.

22 Qānūn al‑ XE "Index:Q<0101>n<016B>n al-<02BF>Uq<016B>b<0101>t" ʿUqūbāt, op. cit., 178.

23 Qānūn al‑ XE "Index:Q<0101>n<016B>n al-<02BF>Uq<016B>b<0101>t" ʿUqūbāt, op. cit., 177, note 2.

24 In the U.S. there are 22 states where adultery remains a criminal act, a vestige of the way American law has anchored legitimate sexual activity within marriage. In most of those states, including New York, adultery is a misdemeanor. But in others it is felony, though rarely prosecuted. The U.S., however, remains exceptional among the liberal industrial nations, where for the most part adultery is not covered by the criminal code. Most U.S. states have purged their codes of law regulating cohabitation, homosexual sodomy, and fornication—sex between unmarried adults—especially after a 2003 Supreme Court decision in Lawrence vs. Texas, which made sexual activity by consenting adults in private legal across the country. But the question of how that ruling affects adultery remains unanswered because others may be harmed by adultery—a spouse and children. Several courts have alluded to the constitutionality of adultery laws since the Lawrence decision: The New York Times, 15 November 2012.

25 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho‑Analysis, New York: Norton, 1981, Chapter 3: “Of the Subject of Certainty.”

26 As is well known, psychoanalysis operates a split between the subjective eye that sees (le voir) and the objective gaze that is not tied to a subject (le regard), see, Lacan, op. cit., Chapter 6: “The Split between the Eye and the Gaze.”

27 Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, New York: Norton, 1967.

28 Jean‑François Lyotard, “Peinture et désir,” in Textes dispersés I: Esthétique et théorie de l’art, Leuven: Presses Universitaires de Louvain, 2012, 52–75.

29 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London: Routledge, 1990; and Copjec’s critique, “Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason,” in Read My Desire: XE "Index:Lacan, Jacques" Lacan Against the Historicists, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1994, 201–236.

30 . Joan Copjec, “The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the Reception of Lacan,” in Read My Desire: XE "Index:Lacan, Jacques" Lacan Against the Historicists, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1994, 15–38.

31 Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, Livre X: L’angoisse, Paris: Seuil, 2004, 38: “Je te désire, même si je ne le sais pas.”

32 Lacan, L’angoisse, 36.

33 Lacan, L’angoisse, 38: “Je te prends pour l’objet à moi‑même inconnu de mon désir”; “Je t’identifie, toi à qui je parle, à l’objet qui te manque à toi‑même.”

34 Copjec, “The Orthopsychic Subject,” 24.

35 American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition.

36 Idlib Jināyāt 6/1998; crime occurred on July 1988; defendant (b. 1951) arrested on September 1, 1988; Jināyāt ruling on 17 June 1998; Naqḍ ruling on 5 April 1999 revoked Jināyāt sentencing; case renumbered 370/1999 amid Naqḍ ruling summoning the Idlib Jināyāt “to search for the defendant’s motive in committing the crime which is the subject of the suit,” al‑baḥth ʿan dāfiʿ al‑muttaham li‑irtikāb al‑jurm mawḍūʿ al‑daʿwa.

37 The term taqaddumi is quite common in politics, designating all those on the “left,” in particular Baathists, Nasserites, communists, and Palestinian revolutionaries, which stand for “secular” “socialist” values, and which come opposite to the mutakhallif, the “conservatives” whose political programs support family and clan values, traditional norms and religion, and peasant and rural life; besides the Muslim Brothers XE "Index:Muslim Brothers" , anything remotely linked to “tradition” would stand as mutakhallif, a term that became in vogue in the 1960s amid the Baathist takeover of politics and the military.

38 Aleppo criminal courts, case 288/1996.

39 “Definition of Rape Is Shifting Rapidly,” The New York Times, August 24, 2012.

40 DNA testing is not common in Syrian courts.

41 It remains unclear whether the “before” here means before the current incident or including the alleged rape.

42 Obviously DNA testing could have determined the sperm’s origin, but that kind of testing has still not been routinized in the Syrian forensic labs.

43 Idlib Jināyāt 357/1998.

44 Those were the two left out suspects of the many sons of Fawwaz Sultan.

45 Incest is obviously much less reported than honor killings and other sexual crimes; its criminal representation, however, should be far below its social existence.

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