Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Book chronicles one woman's survival of 'honor killing'

By Chelsea J. Carter
The Associated Press

By any standard, Burned Alive: A Victim of the Law of Men is a horrifying story of cruelty.

Billed as the first published account by a survivor of an honor killing - the murder of a woman by relatives for allegedly disgracing the family - the book chronicles the life of Souad and the effort of an aid worker to save her.

But it is Souad's survival, and the courage to tell her story, that gives the work its redemptive value.

Written in simple prose, Souad tells the story of her life growing up in a West Bank village. She describes it as one of obedience, hard labor and fear; she cannot read or write, a privilege reserved only for her brother.

With her lack of education, the book reads as though the author spoke into a tape recorder, someone transcribed it and then cleaned up the grammar. It's this style that causes a bit of confusion for a reader, who is forced in the opening chapters to jump back and forth through Souad's childhood memories.

Despite the book's simple writing style, her tale is gripping. It also is a reminder that despite advances in women's rights, there are still those suffering great inequality in the world.

At 17, the third of four daughters, Souad was considered old to be unmarried. While waiting for her father to arrange a marriage for her, she fell in love with a man and became pregnant - a grave dishonor punishable by death in some Muslim cultures in India, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Yemen, Morocco and other Mediterranean and Gulf countries.

Honor killings are not condoned but are often overlooked in some countries by local law enforcement officials, who consider such slayings a family matter.

The United Nations reported in 1999 that more than two-thirds of all murders in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were most likely honor killings. In Jordan, there are an average of 23 honor killings a year, the U.N. said; in India, it is estimated that more than 5,000 women are killed each year because their in-laws consider their dowries inadequate.

Souad's brother-in-law, the author writes, carried out the family's wishes, pouring gasoline over her head and setting her on fire. Her description of the actual burning is brief, running only a few pages. But it is the aftermath - as told by Souad and then the aid worker, identified only as Jacqueline - that is the most difficult part of the book to digest.

Souad was taken to a hospital but received little care because her family wanted her to die. She gave birth to a son in her near comatose state. He was taken from her and put in an orphanage.

Her recovery from the burns, which covered 90 percent of her body is excruciating in its detail.

But it is her determination to not only survive but to live that offers hope.

The identities of Souad and Jacqueline were withheld in the book. So was the actual location of Souad's village.

"She is genuinely frightened. That's as simple as it is. She still feels she's in danger," says Warner Books Publisher Jamie Raab, who bought the American translation rights. Published first in France, it was a bestseller. Translation rights have been sold worldwide.

Souad and Jacqueline's story has been verified by SURGIR, a Swiss foundation that works with women who are subjected to honor crimes, as well as Souad's testimony before various human rights agencies.

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