Honor killings: When the ancient and the modern collide
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe, young Muslim women are being targeted for violence. Lest it be thought hate crimes are to blame, it is, in fact, their own relatives who are the perpetrators. So-called honor killings, whereby a Muslim male family member, typically the father, murders his daughter in order to defend the family's honor, is a growing problem.
While statistics are notoriously hard to come by due to the private nature of such crimes and the fact that very few are reported, the United Nations Population Fund approximates that as many as 5,000 women are murdered in this manner each year worldwide. Undoubtedly that's a low estimate, as reports from Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories, among other locales, are filtering in at an alarming rate. Add to the list Germany, Sweden, other parts of Europe, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, and it's clear that young Muslim women in the West are becoming increasingly vulnerable.
While fathers are commonly responsible for honor killings, they often act in concert with their daughters' brothers, uncles, and even female relatives. For infringements upon a Muslim daughter's "honor" constitute the greatest humiliation possible to the religious and tribal tradition from which many such immigrant families emerged. Acts that demand "punishment" include refusing to wear a hijab (or headscarf), having non-Muslim boyfriends or male friends of any origin, being sexually active, rejecting arranged marriages, aggressively seeking employment and education, and, more than anything else, attempting to assimilate into Western culture.
Trying to balance a tightrope between the demands of competing and in some cases incompatible cultures, young Muslim women in the West are caught between two worlds. And all too often they pay the ultimate price. Indeed, two such cases have rocked the United States and Canada in recent months, bringing the specter of honor killings much closer to home.
On New Year's Day, residents of Lewisville, Texas were shocked to hear about the brutal murder of teenage sisters Sarah and Amina Said. The two were found shot to death in a taxi after having made a last phone call to a police dispatcher asking for help. The police immediately issued an arrest warrant for the girls' father, Egyptian-born cab driver Yaser Abdel Said, who remains at large to this day.
A Muslim married to a Christian woman, the elder Said had a history of physical and sexual abuse toward his daughters. This past Christmas, his wife, Patricia, finally fled the state with the girls and set up residence in Tulsa, Okla., under an assumed name. Said's violent and domineering behavior was apparently motivated by his concern that, as the Dallas Morning News describes it, "Western culture was corrupting the chastity of his daughters." Honor students and athletes at Lewisville High School, Sarah and Amina were the quintessential American teenagers. Amina had been awarded a $20,000 college scholarship and Sarah planned to study medicine. Photos of the two young women demonstrate a vibrancy and attractiveness that undoubtedly induced fear in their controlling father. The emergence of non-Muslim boyfriends was the final straw.
Although the girls' mother denied that Said was motivated by religion or culture and their brother, Islam, claimed it was not an honor killing, all evidence points to the contrary. While, reportedly, the family was not terribly observant, Said, as described by the Dallas Morning News, "often espoused his version of traditional Middle Eastern values," including marrying his then 15-year-old wife when he was 30, threatening to take one of his daughters "back to Egypt and have her killed," where, as he put it, "it's OK to do that ... if you dishonor your family," trying to break up one of his daughters and her non-Muslim boyfriend, and threatening to kill both his daughters on multiple occasions over disputes surrounding their social lives. Summing it all up, the sisters' great-aunt Gail Gartrell stated unequivocally, "This was an honor killing."
The slayings of Sarah and Amina Said came on the heels of another apparent honor killing, that of 16-year-old Aqsa Parvez in Mississauga, Ontario, last December. Aqsa was a vivacious and popular young woman whose attempts at a normal, Western teenage social life angered her Pakistani father, Muhammad Parvez. Aqsa, who was opposed to wearing a hijab and sometimes changed her outfit once she got to school, often clashed with her father and had left the family home a week before the attack out of fear. But she eventually returned, only to be met with strangulation at the hands of her own father. She died later in the hospital and the elder Parvez, who initially called the police, was charged with her murder. Aqsa's 26-year-old brother, Waqas, was charged with obstructing police.
Like the Said sisters, Aqsa had long suffered abuse at the hands of her father, reports of which were never adequately pursued by Canadian authorities. But Aqsa's friends saw trouble brewing and, according to the National Post, noted that "she had been threatened by her strictly religious family before." According to one of them, Ebonie Mitchell, Aqsa held conflicting opinions with her family on wearing a hijab. As she put it, Aqsa "just wanted to dress like we do. Last year, she wore like the Islamic stuff and everything, the hijab, and this year she's all western. She just wanted to look like everyone else." As another friend, Krista Garbhet, noted, "She just wanted to be herself; honestly, she just wanted to show her beauty." However, as Aqsa was to discover, the latter desire can have dangerous consequences for young Muslim women in the West.
In the wake of Parvez's murder, one would hope for moral clarity from the Canadian Muslim community. But with a few exceptions, the usual suspects issued the usual apologetics.
Following Parvez's funeral, an anti-violence vigil was held at the Mississauga Civic Centre and organized by the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations. Unfortunately, CAIR-CAN, like its American counterpart, is part of the problem, not the solution. Working to further acceptance of Sharia (or Islamic) law in the United States and Canada and trying to silence — either through accusations of "Islamophobia," libel lawsuits or boycotts — voices of criticism and reform, CAIR's agenda would seem to be working against the advancement of Muslim women's rights.
Accordingly, representatives of other allegedly mainstream Muslim groups, instead of taking the opportunity to address the scourge of honor killings, downplayed the religious and cultural angle. Shahina Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Social Services Association, claimed that "The strangulation death of Ms. Parvez was the result of domestic violence, a problem that cuts across Canadian society and is blind to color or creed," while Sheikh Alaa El-Sayyed, imam of the Islamic Society of North America in Mississauga, came to the following conclusion: "The bottom line is, it's a domestic violence issue."
In contrast, Canadian Muslim reformer Irshad Manji, in addressing Aqsa Parvez's murder, put it like so:
Moderate Muslims have warned that we shouldn't leap to conclusions. Who knows what other dynamics infected her family, spout hijab-hooded mouthpieces on Canadian TV. Not once have I heard these upstanding Muslims say that whatever the 'family dynamics,' killing is not a solution. Ever. How's that for basic morality?
Similarly, Tarek Fatah, founder of the Canadian Muslim Congress, labeled Parvez's murder "a blight on Islam." "In my mind," he added, "this was an honor killing."
Until this kind of self-reflection and self-criticism become the norm in the Muslim community, much-needed reform will remain elusive. This includes addressing the root causes of honor killings and sanctioned violence against Muslim women. Although the Koran does not authorize honor killings, Quran 4:34 instructs men to beat disobedient wives and send them to sleep in separate beds. Then there are tribal leaders such as Jordanian Tarrad Fayiz, who tells followers that "A woman is like an olive tree. When its branch catches woodworm, it has to be chopped off so that society stays clean and pure." Op-eds such as the one in the Yemen Times earlier this month recommending violence against women and clerics delivering sermons and speeches doing the same further muddy the waters.
Also at question are the vagaries of the Arab honor/shame culture, in which men's "shame" (or that of the family or tribe) at the prospect of women's sullied "honor" (or chastity) must be avoided at all costs. Honor killings are not, as the apologists would have us believe, simple acts of domestic violence akin to those that take place in all communities. They are specific to Muslim religion and culture and must be addressed as such if ever honest debate about the matter is to ensue.
Regrettably, silence is the more typical reaction to these crimes. Fearful of giving offense or being branded with the ubiquitous "Islamophobia" label, law enforcement, journalists, social workers, government officials and, most of all, Western feminists are allowing a grave threat to women's rights go unaddressed. The "HTTP: story.php?storyId='17847605"' story templates www.npr.orgmisguided purveyors of multiculturalism — an ideology that holds that all cultures or religions are equivalent and none (save for the dominant, or Western, culture) worthy of condemnation — have rendered the West incapable of addressing evils where Third World cultures are to blame. But the truth is Western culture offers the greatest boon to women's rights and must therefore be vigorously defended, even if that means stepping into the realm of the politically incorrect.
Feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women, which put out an occasional press release decrying honor killings, need to make combating this practice as high a priority as defending choice and railing against "glass ceilings." Instead, it is a precious few who are telling it like it is when it comes to the oppression of women in Muslim culture. Ironically, many of them are on the right side of the political spectrum or, like author, blogger and activist Phyllis Chesler, have been cast out of the leftist-dominated feminist movement for speaking the uncomfortable truth.
As I have noted previously, the challenges posed by the Muslim world are the next frontier for women's rights and all those interested in advancing such goals will have the occasion. It is up to every one of us to speak out where, not only women's, but human rights are in question. Young women's lives are at stake.
Cinnamon Stillwell is a San Francisco writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She also writes for the blog at campus-watch.org.
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