It really was two crimes in one. When Aasiya Hassan was allegedly beheaded by her husband in upstate New York, the response by many Muslim groups was to make sure that no one connected the murder to Islam, rather than to be concerned that a man may have brutally murdered his wife in the name of Islam. Unfortunately, none of this came as any surprise to feminist Phyllis Chesler. Chesler shines a light on this dishonorable outrage, most recently, in a study for The Middle East Quarterly calling out the differences between “honor killing” and domestic violence. She blogs regularly about Islamic gender and religious apartheid, including honor killing, here and recently took questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What exactly is an honor killing? And is it odd for there to be one in, say, New York State?
Phyllis Chesler: The beheading in Buffalo, N.Y., is a hybrid case which involves some features of Western-style domestic violence and a Pakistani-Islamic method of murder. However, in 2004, in Scottsville, N.Y., a Turkish-Muslim woman was honor-murdered, and in 2008, in Henrietta, N.Y., a serious honor murder was attempted by an Afghan Muslim. However, honor killings usually take place in shame-and-honor societies, mainly in the Third World. In the West, such murders are mainly done by Muslims (it is a Muslim-on-Muslim crime), and to a much lesser extent, by Sikhs. Strangers are not usually honor-murdered; only daughters, wives, or sisters are. It is an intimate family crime, a premeditated one, with many warnings given. It is also a family collaboration.
A traditional Muslim family’s “honor” is based on how strictly it can control its female members. If a daughter, sister, or wife, even one who is living in the West, refuses to “cover,” wears makeup, has non-Muslim friends, insists on going to college, wants to choose her own husband or leave an abusive husband, wants to live on her own, or dares to have an affair — she is seen as having “dishonored” her family. This is a capital crime. She is not merely admonished or shunned as other traditional religions in the West might do. She is killed. The murder is typically carried out by multiple family members, not just by one loner. A grandfather, male cousin, mother, and sister may all collaborate on this.
In my study, I spell out some of the major distinctions between Western-style domestic violence, which of course I deplore, but which does not always or even often end in femicide. Honor murders are femicide; they may involve battering but are also a highly ritual form of religious/cultural murder.
Although most Muslim organizations claim that such honor killings have absolutely nothing to do with Islam, many scholars and critics of Islam strongly disagree. Muslim countries do not often prosecute honor killings. More progressive countries, like Jordan, deal with the intractable problem of honor-related violence against women and honor killing by locking up the potential victims, often for as long as a decade. Sharia law believes in fathers’ and husbands’ physically punishing disobedient women. It does not clearly admonish its followers not to kill women who are viewed as “dishonoring” their families. The Islamic state will not prosecute honor killers, or will do so reluctantly, slowly, inexpertly, etc.
Unlike traditional Western-style non-fatal domestic violence, or Western-style femicide, both of which are considered and prosecuted as crimes, honor killings are traditionally not frowned upon, and the men who restore their family’s honor are valorized.
In at least half the cases I studied, the actual murder itself was very brutal. The female victim was stabbed 8-23 times, set on fire, stoned, beaten to death, decapitated, or suffocated slowly. The beheading in Buffalo is more indicative of a Pakistani and Muslim mind-set which normalizes the tremendously brutal treatment of women and which resembles that of a Western-style serial killer of prostitutes, that of a sexual slaver/pimp, or that of an Islamist terrorist.
Lopez: Regarding your study on honor killings: Did anything surprise you in your findings?
Chesler: Yes, I was surprised that the average age of an honor-murder victim in the West was rather young — 20 years old — and that many victims are daughters. Also surprising was the ferocity of half the murders. Of course, wives, cousins, and sisters are also honor-murdered, but not as often as younger-age daughters.
Lopez: The imam of the Islamic Society of the Niagara Frontier immediately expressed his concern that the murder of Aasiya Hassan is a debate about Islam. What would have been a better response?
Chesler: First, he should admit that Pakistan, where Muzzamil Hassan is from, is a country which always was — and is now even more — savage towards its own women. According to one recent study, 90 percent of all women in Pakistan are routinely beaten all their lives; another study documents that one million Pakistani women are beaten each year while they are pregnant. Many immigrants may live in the West, even in Buffalo, but their minds and hearts may remain in the old country. This is true even if they are modern and assimilated and hold themselves out as a positive Muslim role model, which Hassan did. Many Western immigrants are rendered reactionary by hate-filled sermons and demonstrations.
Second, this imam should admit that the issue of honor killing/femicide (not domestic violence, which is another issue), must be dealt with differently. Those who commit honor killings — like Yaser Said, who murdered his two daughters in Dallas — must not be sheltered or supported by their families or communities or helped to escape.
Third, he and other Muslim religious leaders should pledge to found shelters for battered Muslim women who are in danger of being honor-murdered. They must understand that the attempts to honor-kill a “disobedient” or “runaway” daughter or wife will never end until she is dead. Most will require the equivalent of a federal witness-protection program. What may work for non-immigrant and non-Muslim victims of domestic violence (not honor killing/femicide), may not necessarily work for Muslim girls and women.
Fourth, the good Muslim leaders might start instructing youngsters against the tight control of girls and women and start shaming and shunning such behaviors in their midst.
In addition, what must really happen is that the moderate, peaceful, and “good” Muslims need to really wrestle with the Koran and the Hadith. They must help bring 7th- and 8th-century holy documents into the 21st century as other religions have done, namely Judaism and Christianity. Denying that the Koran is barbaric, that it views infidels (Jews and Christians) as subhuman, and that it commands jihad and death to infidels will not help matters. Idealizing the Prophet Mohammad, who was himself polygamous and who consummated his marriage to a six-year-old when she was nine years old, is also a major problem.
The Koran is an open book. The behavior of Muslim leaders and governments (in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Gaza, and the West Bank) is now known to us, as is the behavior of Muslim terrorists. Allowing mobs to attack anyone who says this is so, censoring someone, or worse, issuing death decrees against Muslim and ex-Muslim truth-tellers will not help. Nor will pontificating gravely about domestic violence after each honor killing takes place in the West. Domestic violence is not the same as femicide, which is what an honor killing is. Clearly, both phenomena are reprehensible, but they are not exactly the same.
Muslim religious and civil-rights leaders all insisted that the classical honor murders of teenagers Aqsa Parvez in Toronto (2007), Amina Said in Dallas (2008), Sarah Said in Dallas (2008), and of Sandeela Kanwal, who was in her mid-twenties, in Atlanta (2008), were not honor murders; that honor murders have nothing to do with Islam; that each femicide was a case of “domestic violence.” Now, in the wake of the alleged Hassan honor murder, Muslim leaders are insisting that the Hassan case cannot be an honor killing because it does not fit the description of a classical honor killing as per above. It does not, but it is similar to some other cases of Muslim wives in the West. But, in the past, these same leaders characterized the classical honor murders as “only domestic violence,” or as “teenager problems,” or as “immigrant problems.”
Lopez: What would you beg that Buffalo imam and others to do right now in the wake of Hassan’s killing?
Chesler: They should stop “protesting” so much. Perhaps Hassan was a serial wife abuser. Perhaps this last failed marriage and this last wife who walked out on him was too much shame for him to bear and he reverted to his empowered, barbaric Pakistani ways. There should be some communal humility. Some sorrow. (I believe there is some, by the way.) And some acceptance of responsibility for having looked the other way and rewarded a monster with so much funding and honor. What I am seeing instead, is an attempt to cut him loose, to say that Hassan is not really one of us, that he is not a “good” Muslim.
Lopez: Honor killings aren’t always by Muslims, are they?
Chesler: In my study, 90 percent of the honor killings in the West were done by Muslims. Around the world, although some Sikhs do sometimes do this, it is mainly a Muslim phenomenon. In Pakistan, in the Swat Valley, the Taliban were burying girls and women alive, beheading them, throwing acid on them, gang-raping them, because they were not “Islamist” enough. (They are, of course, also terrorizing male civilians, especially Christians.) The government of Pakistan has just agreed to allow the entire region to be governed by stringent Sharia law in the hope that the women and male civilians of the region might be safer.
Lopez: Can one highlight honor killings without indicting a whole religion?
Chesler: No. While American-Muslim groups argue, after the fact, that honor killings are pre-Islamic cultural relics, I say: A religion which boasts so many economically wealthy leaders and 1.5-plus billion followers should, by now, have been able to stamp out such pre-Islamic cultural behaviors. Yes? No? Look: The Saudi princes have been funding the terrorization and murder of Shia Muslims. The Shia Khomeini-ites in Iran have been funding the terrorization of Israeli Jews, Lebanese Christians, and Sunni Muslims. Both groups have accomplished the utter subordination of vibrant feminist and intellectual populations. And they can’t stamp out honor-killing collaborations within families?
Lopez: Where are feminists on honor killings?
Chesler: The good news: I have been working with a number of people who oppose and expose honor killings: Nonie Darwish, Nancy Kobrin, Maryam Namazie, and Douglas Murray in the U.K., Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq, Andy Bostom, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Robert Spencer, and others in the U.S.
But what you are really asking me is whether any of the academic, post-colonialist, postmodern feminists have come aboard, or whether public, Democratic-party feminists have done so. Well, I finally have one NOW feminist ally. Marcia Pappas, the president of NOW-NYS, has been speaking out about the beheading in Buffalo without fearing that what she says will lead to charges of “racism.” We will work together on this issue. I have gradual, increasing support behind the scenes from second-wave feminists, but they are fearful about their funding, careers, even their lives. They also don’t want to hurt or upend their longtime political and personal friendships. And, to be fair: Non-femicidal domestic violence is such a plague, even in the West, that I can appreciate how disheartening it is when the media focus only on the more sensational, and most extreme cases, or how dangerous it must seem to most liberals to focus on the batterer’s, or murderer’s, or terrorist’s color, religion, or culture. I say: Not all Muslims are terrorists; but lately, all terrorists seem to be Muslims. Shall we not note that, not take reasonable precautions?
Lopez: What do you want to see happen as a result of your study? In the wake of this latest murder? Ideally? Realistically?
Chesler: I urgently need funding to continue this work. Many femicides in the West have, in reality, been honor killings, but they have flown right under the radar. Police records, court records, and interviews with family members will all have to take place before we really understand to what extent Islamic gender apartheid has penetrated the West. With all due respect to the Obama administration, we may not be able to abolish odious practices in Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, or in Gaza and the West Bank — but we ought to be able to keep them from happening here.