SURIF, West Bank — A 20-year-old Palestinian woman who was thrown into a well and left to die in the name of "family honor" has not become just another statistic in one of the Middle East's most shameful practices.
The killing of Aya Baradiya — by an uncle who didn't like a potential suitor — sparked such outrage that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas scrapped laws this week that guaranteed sentences of six months or less for such killings.
And in another sign of changing attitudes, the young college student is being mourned as a "martyr" and her grieving parents are being embraced, not shunned, by neighbors.
So-called "honor killings" are committed regularly in traditional Arab societies that enforce strict separation between the sexes and view an unmarried woman's unsupervised contact with a man, even by telephone, as a stain on the family's reputation. There were nine such killings in the West Bank last year, and Jordan reports about 20 every year.
Women's activists hailed Abbas' decision as a milestone in what they say is still a long road toward protecting women from such abuse.
"Such a tragic event managed to send a message that change is needed," said rights campaigner Hanan Ashrawi. "We have traction and we are going to move."
Suha Arafat, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's widow, emerged from self-imposed seclusion to praise Abbas. Speaking in an interview with The Associated Press, she said she tried to persuade her husband many times to take such a step, but was told the Palestinian people faced other pressing problems that needed to be dealt with first.
One of 13 siblings, Baradiya lived in the West Bank town of Surif near the city of Hebron, where she majored in English literature at Hebron University. She wore the traditional Muslim headscarf and classmates described her as chaste and noble-minded.
"She was lovely. She was intelligent. She had a big heart," said the woman's mother, Fatma, calling her daughter "the dynamo of the household."
Uncle confesses to crime
She disappeared on April 20, 2010, and was killed that same day, though her body was not discovered until 13 months later, on May 6, after her 37-year-old uncle, Iqab Baradiya, confessed to the crime.
On the day of the killing, the uncle and two accomplices snatched the woman and tied her hands and feet, Hebron police chief Ramadan Awad said. The suspects told interrogators she screamed and demanded to know why they wanted to kill her, but the uncle said only that she deserved to die, he said.
She told them she had done nothing wrong, then her attackers dumped her into the well.
The water would have reached to her neck, Awad said, adding: "We can't be sure ... if she died immediately or it took her a long time to die."
Aya Baradiya's parents, Ibrahim and Fatma, said they reported their daughter missing within hours after she failed to come home from university but did not learn her fate until this month.
Fatma Baradiya said she barely left the house during her daughter's unexplained absence because she sensed her neighbors' disapproval. In Arab society, women live with their parents until they marry, and a sudden absence from home quickly causes gossip.
The police chief said suspects in honor killings often come forward immediately because they don't face serious punishment and a confession is part of the "cleansing" of family honor. However, Aya Baradiya's uncle remained silent, even saying at one point that his niece had called him and told him she just decided to go away.
Palestinian media say the uncle disapproved of the woman's suitor, who had approached the family through traditional channels, asking for her hand in marriage. One accomplice said the men talked about the alleged relationship as they planned the killing.
The woman's father, Ibrahim, said he had given his blessing to the union but wanted her to wait until she finished university.
Iqab Baradiya, who has been in custody since his confession, showed remorse in a television interview, saying he was influenced by town gossip about his niece, though he did not elaborate on what drove him to kill her. "I feel like a criminal," he said. "I wasn't thinking."
As the horrific details emerged, Surif residents and students at Hebron University staged rallies, demanding the death penalty for the killers. They held up signs calling Aya Baradiya a "martyr," the ultimate badge of honor in Palestinian society.
Palestine TV dedicated a program to her last weekend, and a senior Abbas aide, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, called in, saying the Palestinian president was watching and was saddened by the case. He said Abbas planned to scrap the laws guaranteeing leniency for such slayings.
Ashrawi, a former legislator, said Abbas had promised women's groups several years ago to scrap the laws, but put the issue on ice until the most recent killing.
Abbas delivered on the promise Sunday, signing a decree that scraps provisions that make killing for family honor a mitigating circumstance, Abdel Rahim told AP. Suspects could now even face the death penalty, he said.
Leniency for honor killings dates back to a 1960 Jordanian legal codex, parts of which are still in effect in the West Bank; the area was under Jordanian rule until it was captured by Israel in 1967. Awad, the Hebron police chief, said that under the old system, someone who killed for family honor would get a maximum of six months in prison.
In 2010, there were nine family honor killings in the West Bank, Awad said. In most cases, "family honor" was just a pretext, he added: Men would kill to clear the path for remarriage, get their wives' gold or because of problems in the family. The tougher new laws will likely reduce the number of such killings, he said.
An uphill battle
In Hamas-ruled Gaza, at least 10 women were killed by male relatives over the past three years, according to a local activist, Majda Ibrahim. She said punishment is generally light, though in one case, a man was sentenced to death for killing his cousin after she rejected his marriage proposal. The man is on death row.
Jordan's King Abdullah II and his wife Queen Rania, a women's rights activist, have faced an uphill battle with the country's conservative tribal parliament to impose stricter penalties for honor killings. Even though perpetrators now face up to 15 years in prison, judges still hand out lenient sentences.
Arafat's widow, Suha, said that when she lived in the Gaza Strip with her husband in the 1990s, she used to hide women feeling threatened by male relatives and would help smuggle them to safer areas.
She said she and the wives of other leaders in the region, including Jordan's then-Queen Noor, tried in vain to persuade their husbands to do more to protect women. "I said, 'Yasser, we have to do something'," Arafat recalled in a telephone interview from the Mediterranean island of Malta.
Jordanian activist Rana Husseini said change is coming, even if slowly. "I am really happy to see governments are moving," she said. "It's not the movement we are expecting, but better than nothing."
In Surif, Aya Baradiya's family wants the death penalty for her killers.
Her 29-year-old brother, Rami, welcomed the promise of tougher punishment, saying he hoped it would serve as a deterrent. "This is a victory for all of us," he said.
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