Honor killings in the West and the God of poetic justice

"The West has been forced to take honor killings seriously."

burqa afghanistan 311 (photo credit: AP)
burqa afghanistan 311
(photo credit: AP)
On December 18, the FBI offered a new reward of $20,000 dollars for information leading to the capture of alleged honor/horror killing Egyptian-born father, Yaser Said. Two filmmakers, Xoel Pamus and Nenna Nejad, who are working on a documentary about the 2008 honor killing of Sarah and Amina Said in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, uncovered compelling evidence which they turned over to the authorities.
The West has been forced to take honor killings seriously.
Earlier this month, the seventh honor killer involved in British-Kurdish Banaz Mahmud’s 2006 murder was finally caught and jailed in Great Britain. (Honor killings are not like domestic violence in that an entire family of origin conspires to kill a young daughter for real or imagined disobedience.) Also in December, Sarbit Kaur Athwal, who testified against her British-Sikh honor killing family, won a prize for her bravery – “The Ultimate Woman Warrior award.”
This month was also a milestone of sorts for me in this same area. One does not often get to experience redemptive justice on as grand a scale as I just have, but this December, that is precisely what happened.
Once, long ago, I lived in a harem and was kept in purdah in Kabul. I endured the realities of Islamic gender and religious apartheid as the infidel wife of a wealthy and Westernized Afghan man whom I had met at college in the United States. I witnessed how women were treated long before the Taliban came to power. I learned that if a girl was even slightly disobedient she risked severe punishment, even death – and at the hands of her own family.
I nearly died in Kabul, but I got out, became a psychologist, an author and a human and women’s rights activist.
I have recently published three studies about honor killings. Based on my research, I have submitted courtroom affidavits for those in flight from being honor killed. My affidavits have usually turned the tide – or so the lawyers tell me.
Here is how my work helped make a difference in a very high-profile court case in Canada.
On June 30, 2009, Mohammed and Tooba Shafia, a wealthy Afghan-Canadian immigrant couple, honor killed three of their biological daughters: Geeti, Sahar and Zainab, as well as Mohammed’s first wife, Rona, who lived with them. Hamed, the eldest son, participated in this carefully planned but ultimately bungled case of intimate human sacrifice.
On December 4, Canadian Assistant Crown Prosecutor Gerard Laarhuis spoke about this high-profile case at Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Conference on Honor Violence in New York City.
He confirmed that the Shafia daughters, who ranged in age from thirteen to nineteen, were viewed as “whores” by their parents and brother. Why? The girls believed they were living in Canada.
Zainab did not want to marry her first cousin but someone of her own choosing. Their parents and brother believed that Afghans must behave as if they are still living in Afghanistan no matter where they are, geographically.
The teenagers wanted to leave home. They bitterly resented parental punishment and brotherly stalking. They had boyfriends. The older teenage girls took photos of themselves wearing skimpy, sexy clothing – together with boyfriends.
According to Crown Prosecutor Larhuuis, who successfully prosecuted this case: “In this family the concept of dying and death was with them all the time... these children knew they could die. The victim’s crime? They wanted to be free.”
The women were spied on and tightly controlled. Rona, the first wife, was miserable and wanted to leave. Tooba, the second wife, hated her, and held her passport, but would not allow her to leave. Why not? Anyone who asks this question does not understand Afghan customs. Rona is Mohammed’s property. She is his to do with as he likes. No Afghan wife is allowed to divorce her husband, divorce is perceived as a great “dishonor.” (Husbands, not wives, can initiate a divorce).
Afghanistan was – and remains – a country in which polygamy is normalized, co-wives fight bitterly, half-siblings compete for a father’s attention, husbands are often cruel and exceedingly stingy, girls are expected to wear the burqa or serious hijab, mullahs and teachers physically abuse young children, girls are expected to marry their first cousins and many do so when they are only 14 or 15 years old.
The Shafia daughters violated another major taboo: They told other people – infidel outsiders and other family members – about what was happening to them. Prosecutor Laarhuis noted that the children and Rona had cried out for help many times (to teachers, relatives, children’s services) but neither Canadian authorities or sympathetic family members interfered with what was going on.
The Canadian prosecution and detectives did painstaking and brilliant work. Laarhuis believes (but cannot prove) that Tooba, their mother, sat with her daughters and co-wife in a car, and “kept everyone calm,” as each girl, one by one, was taken out and drowned by her father and brother nearby, in a shallow body of water. Then, all four corpses were placed in a car and pushed into the Rideaux Canal; however, the car did not properly sink.
The jury unanimously found all three Shafias guilty. They were each sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 25 years. All three have appealed their sentences.
I was also at the Ayaan Hirsi Ali conference to deliver a lecture of my own. When I identified myself and asked Prosecutor Laarhuis a question he stopped, beamed with delight, and publicly stated – and then repeated in an email exchange with me several days later – that the prosecution had relied heavily on my research in this area.
I am grateful to those who have supported and published my honor killing research, especially the Middle East Forum and Middle East Quarterly, and to the God of poetic justice, that I, who was once held captive in Kabul and who nearly died there, have lived to do this work which helped prosecute the Afghan honor/ horror killers of four Afghan women.The author is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, the author of thousands of articles, and of 15 books, including her just published An American Bride in Kabul. She maintains a website at www.phyllis-chesler.com.