Unfortunately, day after day the Syrian government continues to demonstrate its deeply entrenched hostility toward Syrian women's citizenship. It doesn't even pretend to guarantee her basic right, the right to life, never mind all of the other rights that make human beings citizens, whether they are male or female.

The government makes pretenses of commitment to women's citizenship, human rights, equality and achievements, but it is all simply rhetoric. Its latest maneuver was to amend the Syrian penal code, supposedly raising the minimum punishment mandated for those who commit “honor killings.” It was a move that initially garnered support and praise from many Syrian rights activists. However, we should not deceive ourselves. In fact, the amendment actually rewards those who murder Syrian women, capping the maximum punishment they can receive for their heinous, shameful crime.

This latest penal code amendment comes as a surprise, since the entire law was long ago exposed as violent and discriminatory. In essence, the law abdicates the government’s right to punish its citizens for their crimes. Instead, it hands this right off to the Syrian male, who  is entitled to only a light punishment for killing any woman in his “tribe” if the murder occurs under the pretext of defending his “sexual honor.”

Before 2009, the penal code mandated a minimum sentence of no less than two years in prison for those who commit such crimes. This amendment raises the minimum sentence to between five and seven years in prison. However, its phrasing is key: “imprisonment punishment is to be between five and seven years in the case of murder.” In effect, it is an acknowledgment that the punishment is not to exceed seven years under any circumstances.

The amendment is therefore a rude and clear violation to the Syrian Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and all international agreements ratified by Syria, as well as to all noble and humane norms. It contradicts the demands of the National Campaign Against Honor Crimes, launched by the Syrian Women's Observatory in September 2005, which has shown for six years that hundreds of women are killed annually nationwide. The amendment also contradicts the recommendation of the National Forum on Honor Crimes (Oct 2010), which has requested clearly the cancellation of Article 548 of the Penal Code.

The government seems to be saying it is not responsible for the lives of its citizens! Instead, it says to those who murder Syrian women: “You, champions. We feel ourselves obliged to punish you to save face, since our reputation is tarnished when we permit violence and murder. However, we promise you that you will not be imprisoned for more than 7 years, regardless of the amount of blood you have spilled.” The law is tantamount to a rubber stamp for murder.           

It is worth noting that not a single well-known religious figure has come out in support of Article 548, despite the government's insistence that it must keep the law discriminatory in order to appease them. Do they, like their counterparts in government, also have two faces?  If it is really the case that their religion aims to kill women under the pretext of honor, why not simply say so? Do they only push for such legislation behind the scenes, then turn around and lie to the public in claiming that they are against killing? Or perhaps the Syrian government, which is no stranger to chauvinism, is only using “society”, “traditions” and “religious figures” to justify its hostility to the citizenship of Syrian women.

We at the Syrian Women's Observatory reject Article 548, both in its old versions and its new amendment. No amendment to the law would be acceptable, since any version would still inevitably give men the right to kill “their” women. The only solution is to eliminate this shameful article from the penal code altogether. The equation is simple: either Syrian women are citizens, which means that killing them necessitates the maximum murder penalty of no less than 15 years, or they are the private property of Syrian males, undeserving of human compassion.

Eliminating this article would hardly be enough, since the spirit of Article 548 can be found elsewhere within the same law. In fact, it is Article 192 that is most commonly invoked to allow women's murderers to assume their role as champions.   

Article 192 makes the concept of an “honor motive” mean something honorless: murder. It states: “The murderer is entitled to benefit from the extenuating excuse if he committed his crime in a state of rage and was motivated by any illegal, and possibly dangerous, act on the part of the victim.”Killing one’s mother, sister or daughter is an utter degradation of the human soul. He who is willing to kill his mother, sister or daughter must also be willing to sell his honor, homeland and religion for a small amount of money. Those who promise rewards to murderers are in fact legislating murder, nourishing and unleashing a culture of violence.

But Article 192 has been ignored completely in the latest amendment. This defeats the entire purpose of the Syrian government—namely, to protect the sacred right to life for each of its citizens. In ignoring this article altogether, the government reinforces a social order that allows would-be sheikhs to condone the slaughter of hundreds of Syrian women. Perhaps they would change their minds on the matter if their daughters were the ones to be killed, or if women were authorized to kill men in the same situations. Come to think of it, that second scenario could work out quite well indeed, since it would rid us of many of the advocates of violence, who are, after all, simply using religion as a cloak.        

We have insisted that the bloodshed of hundreds of souls can only be stopped by amending Article 192 in a way that guarantees it could not be used in honor crime cases. The National Forum on Honor Crimes stressed that clause 3 of the Article should state that the punishment should not be less than 15 years.

The government, however, has tried to mislead the public by introducing meaningless amendments to related clauses. While the punishment for the murderer has been raised a little bit in the cases of extenuating circumstances (Articles 244, 243), the Decree ignored totally Articles 240, 241 and Article 242, which are written in the same spirit as Article 192. As a result, committing an act of murder in a “state of rage” or with a “savage instinct” remains above the Syrian law. One could easily interpret the law to mean that a customer who kills a store clerk might see a reduced sentence if, say, the clerk had been rude to him on a daily basis. By extension, perhaps those farmers who have fled their lands in the Syrian desert for economic reasons should likewise benefit from reduced sentences if they were to kill the government economists responsible for their ordeal.

The new amendment also ignores the penal code's articles on birth control and abortion, two issues that affect nearly every family in Syria. Tens of thousands of doctors deal with this reality. Still, the Syrian government has surrendered once again to backward perspectives on abortion and contraception, even as it continues to claim that it is actively fighting population explosion. As it stands, the law strictly prohibits abortion and both the use and promotion of contraceptive methods, even though all are widely used. 

The only amendment that could be considered partially positive comes in Article 508, which concerns the marriage of the rapist to his victim. This amendment now mandates that a man convicted of rape should be sentenced to no less than two years behind bars, whether he is to marry her or not. 

While this is a small step forward, it does not represent a fundamental change. The government continues to view Syrian women as somehow less than fully-fledged citizens. Rather, they are treated as mere sexual subjects for male rapists. Allowing convicted rapists to marry their victims should be, by itself, a crime; those who allow such an act should be punished, too. Despite the amendment, the message of this article is still clear: “rape any woman you like, then if you marry her, you will be imprisoned for not more than two easy years, piece of cake.”

Moreover, the recent amendment fails to address marital rape, which is still legally authorized in Article 489. The rape law is phrased to convict anyone "who forced a non-wife…" into a sexual act, even though the government knows quite well that tens of thousands of Syrian women are raped daily by their husbands, with destructive consequences for the entire family. 

These are but a few of the problems that remain in the penal code, despite this latest round of amendments. Syrian civil society has long argued for the sanctity of citizenship, which should insure equal rights regardless of religion, gender, race, and so on. With so much discrimination still rampant in the penal code, however, it is clear that the government considers the notion of citizenship unimportant. Instead, it does its best to drag the society towards more violence and discrimination.   

In truth, all Syrian laws deserve an overhaul from what had been written 40 years ago. Since the day the Constitution was endorsed, any articles contradicting it should have automatically been considered null and void. They should have been voided too on the day Syria ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), again when Syria ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children, and yet again when Syria ratified The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the government is instead heading in the opposite direction, legislating more rights for those who commit violence and discriminate against women. Improving legislation at a snail's pace should by itself be considered an active entrenching of violence and discrimination.   

For after all, any talk of “gradual change” is really just an excuse to do nothing. Gradual change might have been a good idea back in the 1960s. But it is unacceptable in the second decade of the third millennium, after lawmakers have spent half a century approving and re-approving this legislation.

Our only recourse is to reject these new amendments in full. We need authentic and substantial change, not deceptive tweaks to an already bad law. We need to throw to the ash heap of history all laws that discriminate against and condone violence toward women and children, along with all those that discriminate on the basis of religion, sect, and race. In their place, we must enact completely new laws based on one simple principle: equal citizenship. It is a notion even a child can grasp now: no citizenship with violence and no citizenship with discrimination.

Until that happens, we will continue our daily struggle towards a society void of all manifestations of violence and discrimination, no matter how long it takes.

Bassam Al-Kadi, (The new Penal Code amendment is just more evidence of men’s right to kill Syrian women)

Translated by Basel Jbaily

Source By SWO (Syrian WOmen Observatory)