Talking About 'Honor Killing' With RPCV Ellen R. Sheeley

Ellen R. Sheeley was an early business PCV in Western Samoa from 1983 to 1985. Finishing her tour, she traveled home very slowly, circling the globe. Years later as a successful businesswoman, she happened to watch a television newscast that impassioned her. Ellen was kind enough to grant an electronic reclaiming-honorinterview about her book Reclaiming Honor in Jordan: A National Public Opinion Survey On “Honor” Killings. She was interviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975-77) a  city planner who publishes books (travel & poetry)  as a hobby.

[Larry:] What is an honor killing?

[Ellen:] “Honor” killing is the murder of family for actual or perceived immoral sexual behavior. It is a misguided attempt to restore family honor. Immoral behavior could be rape (in which case the rape victim is murdered), extramarital or premarital intercourse, or even flirtation. “Honor” killing is believed to have its origins in misinterpretations of pre-Islamic Arab tribal codes. In September of 2000, the United Nations Population Fund estimated 5,000 cases per year, mostly against women in Islamic nations.

[Larry:] How did you become interested in this topic?

[Ellen:] I threw open the door of my apartment after coming home from work, was taking off my uncomfortable business suit and shoes and reaching for some yogurt with the telly on. Sheila Mac Vicar was reporting from Jweideh Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre (a prison) outside of Amman, Jordan. Suddenly I was drawn in. How unjust that at-risk women, including rape victims, are warehoused in protective custody while the people who pose the hazard to them are free. How can people be summarily executed for honor? Where is the honor in that?

Three years later, in the summer of 2003, I traveled to Jordan to speak with experts and learn more. Honor killers serve an average six month sentence. When I asked why those articles of Jordan’s penal code which provided for leniency to the perpetrators had not been overturned, Jordanians told me that there is a lack of political will, the people don’t want it, the people aren’t ready for it, the timing isn’t right, or there are too many cultural, religious, or social barriers. I wanted to see hard data to support this but found none.

[Larry:] So you wrote a book?

[Ellen:] It seemed as though the reasons provided were simply the conventional wisdom. A quarter century of professional life has taught me that the accepted view is often unsupported by empirical evidence.

[Larry:] Tell us about your book.

[Ellen:] It’s about the findings of my nationwide Jordanian attitude survey concerning “honor” killings. I write about the background of these crimes but focus on reporting Jordanian public opinion.

[Larry:] How long did it take you to research and write your book?

[Ellen:] Just shy of seven years, on and off. Once I was on the ground in Jordan, it took me less than two months to conduct field research and enter it into my database, a month to analyze the data and write almost 300 pages of technical report. It took less than a week to write the first draft of the (133 page) book.

[Larry:]Who edited the book for you?

[Ellen:] Out of sheer necessity, I did all but the cover design myself.

[Larry:]Did you submit the manuscript to any university presses and/or commercial publishing houses?

[Ellen:] I didn’t. Time, resources, and geographic considerations were driving constraints. I was just striving to get my research results into the hands of Jordanian decision makers in a timely manner (because like bread, data gets stale) in a form that they would find inviting. Jordanians told me that a small easy-to-read book would stand a better chance of being read than a large, complicated technical report.

[Larry:] You printed the book in Jordan. Why?

[Ellen:] I wrote my book in Jordan primarily for a Jordanian audience. It just made sense to me to write, print, distribute, and sell there. A book like this is really a niche product. It was fairly easy to identify the most likely buyers. So prior to printing, I sat down and listed my primary markets, estimated for each how many people, and estimated how many they were likely to buy. I added in a fudge factor and that’s how I determined how many copies to print. As it turned out, my estimate was good. I still have some stock but not so much that I’m worried about being stuck with excess. When the current stock runs out, if people are still interested, I will make it available in an electronic format.

[Larry:] Tell us about the Jordan printing experience. Would you do it again?

[Ellen:] I would do it again and I think it would be easier the second time. Because of the small market for books in Jordan, there isn’t really much of a publishing industry. What exists mostly caters to books in Arabic whose print is reversed from English language books. The script runs from right to left in Arabic and the front cover in English is the back cover for Arabic. So I had to be mindful that my way was counterintuitive to the Jordanians helping me.

Also, there is no free press in Jordan. The government must approve all publications and the process can be a little daunting. There are forms in Arabic, multiple steps, various signatures required, and lots of running hither and yon. The most worrisome aspect was the topic itself which is sensitive. I didn’t know whether they would allow me to publish a book about these crimes. Fortunately, they did. Booksellers in Jordan told me that I’m the first person to publish a book about “honor” killings in Jordan.

A third challenge was finding someone to design the cover. Through a Jordanian, I stumbled upon a recent graphic design graduate who was both talented and cared deeply about these crimes. She designed the cover in exchange for a cover credit and a copy of the book.

[Larry:] How are you marketing the book?

[Ellen:] In Jordan, I placed it in bookstores that carried English language books, notified individuals, organizations, and ministries on my target market list. There were book signings, presentations, and free copies for those who helped me. I also spoke privately with members of the royal family and an employee of the royal court. My opinion pieces were printed in the local English language newspaper and regional publications. I sat for interviews and always carried copies so that I could sell them directly. I even partnered with a sharifa who wanted to raise funds for one of her charities. I was the guest speaker. She sold tickets and the proceeds went to her charity.

Back in the states, I’ve established a blog, made the book available through Amazon, spoken before groups, written oodles of letters to editors and opinion pieces to publications around the world, contributed to an anthology about “honor” killings, sat for interviews, been the featured guest on radio programs, been quoted as an expert by the media, posted on other people’s blogs and Web sites and tried to make myself accessible to researchers, scholars, and anyone who contacted me. There is a small network of people who care about this issue and we do our best to support and promote each others’ work.

The book: Reclaiming Honor in Jordan: A National Public Opinion Survey On “Honor” Killings, Ellen R. Sheeley, Black Iris Publ., 2007, p 133, Trade paperback, $19.99 plus shipping. Available on Amazon.com. The author may be contacted at Redroom- http://.redroom.com/author/ellen-r-sheeley.

11 Comments

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  • Hi Ellen.
    this is a great interview, even after knowing you since fair time I wasn’t aware of the facts you have given here. Bravo.I sense danger. I wonder how and why you are doing this?
    jitu

  • Hi Ellen:

    Let me be honest. The first thought that comes to mind when a westerner writes about such issues is, ‘Oh, daim…” Perhaps because one has been a ‘victim’ (hate the word in this context, but will go with it) of stereotyping, there is a tendency to react in this way. Sometimes, the defensiveness is not unwarranted…Pardon my mentioning it here, but what do people mean when they sense danger in what you have done and its probable consequences?

    Now regarding the book, from what I read in this interview, I am truly glad you wrote it for a Jordan market. It made me take back the “daim..” It is rare, and you will agree with me to an extent.It is better to talk to the people who one is writing about directly. It has a greater impact and there is a real possibility for change.

    Honour killings are despicable anywhere in the world, and they exist in several societies, including India, my country, although our media has smartly avoided using this tag.

    Such murderous acts by any name ought to be questioned and exposed.

    Best wishes to you…
    Farzana

  • Dr. Jitu, I suppose the answer to how is that I just used my decades of educational and professional experience in marketing to do what I do all the time in my work in the States and elsewhere I’ve worked. Although the subject was different from the usual, the techniques involved are not. So it wasn’t a large stretch for me; just a different environment with limited access to resources I would normally have.

    As for the answer to why. . .not to sound all righteous and pure or anything, but once I learned of the issue and the need for someone with my skills to look at the social marketing campaign aspects of it, I felt a moral imperative. People are dying. It’s no joke. I just did what you would probably do if you came upon someone ill on the street. I can’t imagine you passing them by. You would use your medical skills and compassion as a human being to try to help.

  • Farzana, thanks for your comments. I totally get what you’re saying, and I agree with you. It’s not comfortable or easy being a Westerner writing about this subject and having the knowledge I’ve acquired about it.

    My intended audience for the book was Jordanians. I didn’t go into this even remotely thinking about writing a book about it. But so many people in Jordan asked for it. They didn’t want me to leave the country without leaving a record of what I’d done. So I documented it, but not in a way that would be entirely clear to Westerners (e.g., I didn’t delve much into the origins and the history of these crimes or their most common triggers because most Jordanians don’t need that explained to them. . .they already know). Jordanians did buy the book, but so did a lot of expats, diplomats, Arabic language students, and people passing through.

    When I got home, I kept getting requests for the book. I was trying to handle them myself, but it became too much, so I made the book available on Amazon. But that was never my plan. . .just an organic result of the process.

    I guess you could say that I’m an accidental writer. 😀

  • Yes Ellen I would use my professional skill in such situation. But it will not bring any threat or rage from fanatic unknowns in my life.I am not sure I can do like you at out of my homeland. Don’t be modest to underestimate your work. Any way I feel proud being one of your friends.
    jitu

  • You were a spontaneous writer not an accidental writer. You wrote it because it troubled you not recording what you got to know, and you did the right thing. I am looking forward to read your book one day soon. Through your article I got to know you better, brave woman. I can understand the trouble you might have gone through to put the matter in print form. Honoured to know you!

    Sumathi

  • Hi Ellen, I came in late. Even so I´d like to say two things:

    1. In the past I met some former Peace Corps volunteers and all of them were great people. I don´t think it was a coincidence. I think there are some people who are made for this. They´re brave, smart, compassionate and, most importantly, they understand they´re part of a global village. Like you.

    2. I think it´s amazing what you do regarding the “dishonor” killings. I think you´re changing other women´s lives for the better, and that is remarkable.

    Wish you all the best!

    Luciana

  • Luciana, thanks for your kind comments.

    John F. Kennedy and his brother in law, Sargent Shriver, get credit for birthing the Peace Corps in the early 1960s. They had three aims:

    1. skills transfer from the volunteers to the host country;
    2. intercultural exchange (both directions) between the Americans and the citizens of the host country; and
    3. upon ending the term of service, knowledge transfer from the volunteers to their fellow Americans back home.

    Not everyone who signs up to volunteer is invited to join. At the time I was signing up, I think only about one in seven applicants was admitted. And then only about half of the people I joined with lasted the full two years. So it’s definitely not for everyone, though most of the volunteers I know shared a sincere desire to level the global playing field, narrow the gap between rich and poor, and do their bit.

    In the end, though, most of us say we got far more out of the experience than we put in. It’s life changing. . .one of those formative experiences.

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