In Jordan, one woman is killed every two weeks in a “family honor crime,” and the killers receive little or no jail time. This is only one of the harsh facts revealed in Shelley Saywell’s chilling documentary “Crimes of Honor.” Well-paced, hard-hitting and informative, this “Cinemax Reel Life” presentation should be considered must-see viewing for anyone concerned about human rights and women’s issues in the Middle East.
The story of Rania Arafat, a 23-year-old Jordanian murdered by her brother for refusing to marry a cousin, serves as an introduction to the plight of low-income women in Jordan, West Bank, Afghanistan and Iran. In many cases, these victims of ancient tribal customs and family pride are murdered by their relatives for leaving an abusive husband, refusing arranged marriages, even for being raped or just being victims of vicious gossip.
Filmmaker Saywell incorporates the reading of Rania Arafat’s letters to her family (voice of Arsinee Khanjian) with on-camera interviews with Jordanian lawyer Asma Khader, who argues the case of these women in courts and arranges operations to “restore” their virginity to protect them against abusive family members.
Also profiled is Jordan Times reporter Rana Husseini, who has won several human rights awards for exposing this brutal practice. Husseini recounts the harrowing story of a 16-year-old who was raped by her older brother and then killed by her younger brother in retaliation.
Even more startling is an interview with a man who strangled his sister after she ran away from home. Although he and his father are both jailed for committing the crime — for seven years only — his proud, unrepentant tone drives home the shocking message of the documentary.
Although “Crimes of Honor” briefly mentions similar trends in Afghanistan and Iran, it fails to clearly differentiate between the cultural and religious climates in various spots in the Middle East. As informative and timely as the piece is, Saywell could have broadened its scope by incorporating more research and footage from countries other than Jordan, and the contrast between westernized communities and fundamentalist branches of these societies.
Nevertheless, “Cinemax Reel Life,” which has showcased the Oscar-winning “Breathing Lesson: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien” and other noteworthy projects in the past, should be commended for taking a chance on such a tough topic.
Viewers should be warned about some very gruesome scenes depicting the stoning of prostitutes by Muslim fanatics, and graphic photos of a murder victim — certainly not your typical channel-surfing material.