Of all the horrific practices engaged in by some members of Muslim sects around the world, none is so brutal as the tradition known as honor killing. An honor killing, according to some sects of Islam, is a lawful punishment for women who bring shame to their families through sins such as adultery or sex outside of marriage.
In a sick twist, the victim is nearly always killed by a member of her own family — it could be at the hands of one of her brothers, sisters, her father or even her mother. Typically practiced within smaller or more remote communities and sanctioned by local religious leaders, it’s a long-established custom that, although uncommon, still claims thousands of women’s lives globally every year.
Along with child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), wife beating and forced wearing of garments such as the burqa, it is reviled in Western nations, which treat it as one of the worst abuses of women’s rights that’s committed with regularity in some Muslim societies.
It would be naive to think that all of the above-listed practices are strictly limited to remote or rural regions of generally Muslim-majority countries in which they’re found; as tragic as it is, many of these awful abuses are imported to Western nations along with refugees from many of these nations when they immigrate under the shield of political asylum.
It’s an absolute fact that honor killings, child marriage, FGM, wife beating and forced wearing of veiled outer garments take place on American soil as well as in other Western countries such as Britain (where 11,000 separate incidents of honor violence were recorded in the last five years), France, Belgium, etc.
Although relatively rare in the West, numerous cases go unreported as they’re kept within the closed communities of the refugees who practice them. Those who inform the police or other authorities can find themselves threatened by these same members of their communities, or they may be totally ostracized by them.
Until recently, some local authorities often turned a blind eye to the more minor offenses of these abuses, believing that to interfere in such cases was to intrude upon a community at large. In other cases, the crimes were not ascribed to religious practices and may have been classified within normal domestic violence categories.
But murder is still murder, and alibis that might be legitimized under some religious codes in, say, Pakistan, are unacceptable in the United States by any means. It’s currently estimated that approximately 27 women per year on average are murdered in honor killings in the U.S. every year.
Wishing to underscore this fact, President Donald Trump’s recent executive order banning refugees from six Muslim-majority countries will require the government to track and release information every six months about all “gender-based violence against women” — which definitely includes honor killings — committed by any foreign nationals admitted to the United States.
“Cases of honor killings and/or violence in the U.S. are often unreported because of the shame it can cause to the victim and the victim’s family. Also, because victims are often young women, they may feel that reporting the crime to authorities will draw too much attention to the family committing the crime,” said former government analyst Farhana Qazi, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism.
Stephanie Baric, the executive director of the AHA Foundation (named after anti-FGM activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali) notes that “Typically seen in the form of physical or emotional abuse, rape or kidnapping, honor violence also includes harmful practices such as FGM and forced marriage. In extreme cases, [it includes] murder. In sharp contrast with other domestic violence, families and communities often condone honor violence, which makes it more difficult to identify and stop.”
Baric says that police need better methods to track such cases — particularly in communities of refugees from South Asian and Middle Eastern countries where these abominable practices are common.
A study by research organization Westat commissioned by the Department of Justice found that honor violence can usually be broken down into four categories: FGM, honor-based domestic violence, forced marriage and honor killing.
The study found that 91 percent of North American victims were murdered for becoming too assimilated in some way into Western culture. In incidents involving women 18 years of age or younger, the father was nearly always involved.
One such incident occurred in Peoria, Arizona on October 20, 2009. Detective Chris Boughey of the city’s police force says that on that day, Iraqi immigrant Noor Almaleki was run over by a vehicle driven by her father for becoming “too Westernized.”
As Boughey relates, “In the Almaleki case, I learned very quickly that we would receive no assistance from the family. In fact, we received out-and-out defiance and resistance. Although we know they are involved, it can be very hard to prove in a court of law.”
Boughey has since dedicated himself to educating others about honor violence and has investigated specific cases in Pennsylvania, New York, Washington, California and Alaska. “Honor violence has been largely misclassified by law enforcement, by no fault of their own,” Boughey says.
“They simply didn’t know the signs and symptoms of honor-related violence. They do not have the training on how to effectively identify and investigate these cases.”
Boughey says that police face enormous pressure to not be “culturally insensitive.” This can sometimes prevent social services agencies from taking appropriate steps when these types of cases cross their radar. “Some agencies won’t intervene even after these young women have come forward,” he says. “I am not quite sure when we as a country decided that it was more important to be politically correct than doing the right thing.”
Other incidents of honor violence include a 2012 case in Phoenix, Arizona in which 19-year-old Iraqi-American Aiya Altameemi was beaten, restrained and burned by her sister, mother and father for declining an arranged marriage with a much older man and for talking to an unrelated boy without permission.
In 2009, in Atlanta, Georgia, 25-year-old Pakistani-American Sandeela Kanwal was strangled to death by her father for desiring to leave an arranged marriage with her cousin.
The same year, in Buffalo, New York, a woman named Aasiya Hassan was gruesomely beheaded by her husband for simply requesting a divorce. Her spouse, Muzzamil Hassan, a Pakistani immigrant, was well-known in his community for starting the first English-language cable television channel aimed at U.S. Muslims.
Oddly enough, Mr. Hassan claimed that one of the reasons he wanted to start his TV channel was to counter Muslim stereotypes in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He did not deny his guilt in the crime and was convicted of murder in 2011.
According to Paula Kweskin, a human rights lawyer and the producer of the documentary “Honor Diaries,” the best way to combat honor violence is to discuss it loudly and publicly. “Honor violence can result in murder,” Kweskin says.
“FGM permanently disfigures a woman. Honor violence can shatter communities, causing suffering for generations to come. Culture is no excuse for abuse. We cannot let women suffer in silence any longer.”
Hopefully, the language in Trump’s recent executive order regarding honor violence will raise awareness of this issue and increase support for fighting these types of crimes and for the order itself.