The horrific decapitation murder of Aasiya Zubair by her husband Muzzammil Hassan last week – which spurred nationwide sermons in US mosques about domestic violence – was a wake-up call to the muslim-American community about the taboo subject of spousal abuse. There were dozens of khutbas in mosques all across America that same Friday – I’ve posted the text of one such khutba in Chicago and video of another in San Francisco but that barely scratches the surface. On the whole, the way in which the muslim-American community came together around this tragedy and sought to make Aasiya’s death actually count for something, was both inspiring and humbling.
Unfortunately, the way the murder was reported as a “beheading” (instead of the term “decapitation” which was used to describe the murder of a Chinese student at Virginia Tech last Wednesday) has fed a perception that Aasiya’s murder was related to Islam rather than an act of domestic violence – specifically, that it was somehow an “honor killing”. These are harmful notions because they place Aasiya’s murder into the realm of exotic, terrorist violence rather than within the context of a serious problem affecting millions of women in the United States, of all ethnic and religious backgrounds.
The simple truth is that Aasiya’s murder was an act of domestic violence taken to an extreme. The rationale for this assessment is somewhat ironically explained best in an article by Phyllis Chesler for the Middle East Quarterly, in which Chesler purports to argue the opposite. Chesler provides a handy table that describes the differences between honor killings and domestic violence and in nearly every particular, Aasiya’s murder fits the domestic violence category:
|Honor Killings||Domestic Violence|
|Committed mainly by Muslims against Muslim girls/young adult women.||Committed by men of all faiths usually against adult women.|
|Committed mainly by fathers against their teenage daughters and daughters in their early twenties. Wives and older-age daughters may also be victims, but to a lesser extent.||Committed by an adult male spouse against an adult female spouse or intimate partner.|
|Carefully planned. Death threats are often used as a means of control.||The murder is often unplanned and spontaneous.|
|The planning and execution involve multiple family members and can include mothers, sisters, brothers, male cousins, uncles, grandfathers, etc. If the girl escapes, the extended family will continue to search for her to kill her.||The murder is carried out by one man with no family complicity.|
|The reason given for the honor killing is that the girl or young woman has “dishonored” the family.||The batterer-murderer does not claim any family concept of “honor.” The reasons may range from a poorly cooked meal to suspected infidelity to the woman’s trying to protect the children from his abuse or turning to the authorities for help.|
|At least half the time, the killings are carried out with barbaric ferocity. The female victim is often raped, burned alive, stoned or beaten to death, cut at the throat, decapitated, stabbed numerous times, suffocated slowly, etc.||While some men do beat a spouse to death, they often simply shoot or stab them.|
|The extended family and community valorize the honor killing. They do not condemn the perpetrators in the name of Islam. Mainly, honor killings are seen as normative.||The batterer-murderer is seen as a criminal; no one defends him as a hero. Such men are often viewed as sociopaths, mentally ill, or evil.|
|The murderer(s) do not show remorse. Instead, they experience themselves as “victims,” defending themselves from the girl’s actions and trying to restore their lost family honor.||Sometimes, remorse or regret is exhibited.|
In addition, in this case Aasiya Zubair was Muzzammil Hassan’s 3rd wife, and the previous wives also had reported a pattern of domestic abuse. It is the shame of the Pakistani American community that this abuse, which was known in the community, went unreported and Muzzammil was not prevented from remarrying twice. Zerqa Abid, the cousin to one of Hassan’s previous wives, took the community to task for its failure, and addressing this cultural reluctance to talk openly about domestic violence was the rationale for the nationwide khutba project last week, which inshallah will now be an anual event.
So, it is clear that Hassan was a serial domestic abuser. Furthermore, both his previous wives filed for divorce on those grounds. Both wives were not attacked for “dishonoring” Hassan, however, so the argument that Hassan engaged in an honor killing of Aasiya because she filed for divorce makes no sense.
Finally, the victim’s sister (who resides abroad) revealed that Aasiya had been a victim of Hassan’s violence from the start of their marriage, and had $3000 in medical bills from last year alone. It is clear from this that Aasiya’s murder was the violent climax of an abusive relationship from the very beginning.
It is worth noting that Daniel Pipes, who is hardly sympathetic to the muslim-American community’s attempts to distinguish themselves from extremism, is not prepared to unequivocally call Aasiya’s murder an honor killing based on the classifications above.
Still, there are some who insist against all the evidence that Aasiya was indeed a victim of honor killing. The president of the New York chapter of NOW, Marcia Pappas, referred to the murder as “a terroristic version of honor killing“. In response, a whole bevy of New York women’s and domestic violence organizations addressed an open letter to Pappas making the case that this was indeed domestic violence. Professional reformer Irshad Manji also jumped into the fray, quoting Pappas’ mention of honor killing and demanding outrage. A story on NPR’s All Things Considered gave the honor killing angle some play, but this was followed by a segment on Talk of the Nation a few days later which gave a much more balanced discussion (featuring Asra Nomani and Imam Mohamed Majid, vice-president of ISNA. Of course, the Islamophobic right has also taken the honor-killing ball and run with it gleefully, but these sources are beyond reason, using Aasiya’s murder as a foil to further their alarmist agenda against Islam and their fellow muslim citizens.
The question is, why does it matter whether we call this an honor killing or domestic violence? Simply put, because it is a form of denial, ascribing the violence suffered by women to an unknowable Other rather than something that has to be dealt with right here at home, from wothin our communities rather than some alien export. As Amy Siskind says in her column on Aasiya’s murder at The Daily Beast,