Honor Killings are more common in America than we think
This morning, I received a phone call from a police officer who wished to be unidentified to review a possible case of honor killing. A young Pakistani American girl is on the run from her parents for fear they will kill her for refusing an arranged marriage in Pakistan. Because this is an ongoing case, there are too many questions unanswered. Who is the girl? Why did she call the police? What does she want? Will the family hunt her down? All I have are sketchy details. The girl is barely twenty. The family migrated from Pakistan to America and is naturalized. The father owns a convenient store. The mother insists her daughter marry a foreign man in her home country. And the men are on her side.
“Meet the girl when she calls you again and see the family. You have to know what you’re dealing with,” I told the officer.
I’ve spent years working in intelligence and counter-terrorism cases. I don’t need to know anything more about this family and the girl to understand that honor killing is a real possibility. The United Nations reports 5,000 honor killings a year, a small percentage of which take place in America, though actual numbers are unknown because honor violence is still a new epidemic. Even without data, the threat is real.
For the past five years, there has been at least one case of honor killing each year in a different U.S. city. In 2008, teen sisters in Texas had allegedly been shot dead by their father because they had boyfriends. In Georgia, Sandeela Kanwal was strangled by her father because she wanted to leave an arranged marriage. The pizza-shop-owner father, Chaudry Rashid, told the police, “She [my daughter] wasn’t being true to her religion or to her husband.” She was 25 years old. A year later, twenty-year old Noor Almaleki was run over by her father in Arizona for falling in love with Marwan. In New York, Aasiya Hassan was beheaded by her husband for allegedly seeking a divorce. She was 37. And this past week, Amina Ajmal testified in a New York courtroom against her father for killing her boyfriend’s relatives in Pakistan. The cases involving girls from Pakistan is a chilling reminder of the New York Times front page photograph in May 2014 of a girl brutally beaten outside a courtroom in Lahore (my birth city) for marrying a man of her choice.
What do the honor killings in America have in common? In each case, the victim is accused by a male family member for adopting an “American” lifestyle—sporting sleeveless or wearing jeans, befriending boys, and choosing to be free from family traditions. On the phone with the police, I began to describe honor versus shame in Muslim societies.
“Many Muslim men view their honor through their women,” I explain. “Some Muslim families settled in America still carry this cultural baggage. While they live on American soil, they are loathe to accept American customs and values. They see it as a threat to their culture and creed.”
In this recent case, the run-away girl has already shamed her family for resisting their tradition. From her family’s perspective, the only way to reclaim the father’s honor is for the girl to come home.
“And what happens then?” the officer asked. “Will they kill her?”
While I can’t predict if the girl will be another victim of honor killing, I suspect she will be subjected to more shame and forced to obey her father or in this case, her mother. In traditional family structures, the girl is void of personal choice and freedom. She has no voice. And this is what disturbs me the most. In Islam, a girl has a right to choose her spouse. She has a right to fall in love. And she even has a right to file for divorce. Numerous examples in Islamic history prove women are free agents, not subservient actors. But honor killings discredit Islam and reflect a more powerful cultural value. The men who kill (or dictate in) the name of honor decide the roles of their women and their fate, even in America.
What can we do to stop honor crimes? Most experts insist that community leaders, school counselors and friends have a duty to report ongoing disputes with parents centered on cultural sensitivities. Certain clues could include arguments over insignificant issues such as friendship with American girls and boys outside of their cultural community and religion or wearing Western-style clothing considered immodest by conservative Muslim families. Once a girl begins to rebel, she is sliding down a slippery slope to freedom (as is her right in America) or a form of punishment (which includes death) by the family.
Bear in mind that not all arguments revolving around culture and religion result in honor killings. Growing up in Texas, I witnessed one young Pakistani American girl who allegedly disgraced her family who she became pregnant with her secret boyfriend. The family’s solution was an abortion and a hasty arranged marriage to a man from Pakistan as cover for her alleged crime and a quick way to move the girl out of her father’s home. In doing so, the father and the girl protected their honor. To this day, the girl’s short-lived affair is a family secret.
As I write this, I can only hope that the girl on the run finds a way out of her predicament. If she fears death, then she has other options. She can stay in a women’s shelter. She can move to another city under the witness protection program. She can get a job and study again. Most importantly, she can be safe and start a new life.
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