December 2009

Truly ‘domestic’ terrorism

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

Tina. Sarah. Amina. Noor.

All died young, violently, at the hands of their own fathers, over perceived sexual misconduct — and in the United States of America.

They have more than that in common. Like thousands of women the world over, they were victims of “domestic” terrorism in its most literal sense: so-called “honor killings.”

In 1989, Tina Isa's father stabbed her to death in St. Louis while her mother held her down. Tina's sin? She had a boyfriend and she did what most parents would like to see their teens do: she got a job. The shocking murder was recorded; the FBI had tapped the phone because the father was a suspected terrorist.

On New Year's Day 2008, Texas sisters Sarah and Amina Said were shot to death in the taxicab belonging to their father, Egyptian-born Yaser Abdel Said. The FBI suspects him of shooting the girls for “acting Western” and dating non-Muslims. He has not been captured.

In October, the hit-and-run that ultimately claimed the life of Noor Almaleki shocked the state of Arizona. Her father, Iraqi-born Faleh Almaleki, stands accused of running down his 20-year-old daughter, and the mother of her boyfriend, in a Peoria parking lot. Noor lingered in a coma for a few weeks before dying. The other woman, Amal Edan Kahlaf, was recovering at last report. Noor's father was captured in Atlanta, after first attempting to flee to Britain, but the U.K. denied him entry.

Noor, as you probably realized, was also “too Western” to suit her father. She had been forced to marry a man in Iraq, but when she returned to Arizona — where she was considered a person in her own right — she made her own choices and moved in with another man. A logical person would conclude the remedy in this case was divorce, not murder. A logical person would say that while Faleh Almaleki can be disappointed or angry, he cannot be permitted to kill, in the name of “culture,” or anything else.

But logic is critically absent among men who kill female family members for stepping out of (often imaginary) bounds that the women had no say in setting. It is not enough to say that “honor killings” are inexcusable crimes. Most people know that. Many wonder why these crimes happen. The answer is as simple as it is chilling.

In an “honor killing,” women are murdered to send a message to other women. That is the critical point and that — after the loss of innocent life — is the problem. Honor killings are not about the woman's behavior, but about the man's power and control, or the control of the hyper-masculinized society in which he might live.

Americans might be too bewildered by the sheer evil of honor killings to realize the control component in such murders is at least equal to the “punishment” factor, but in other parts of the world, where an honor killing is nothing out of the ordinary, this is implicitly understood. Indeed, there are places where honor killings are planned by entire families, witnessed by neighbors and applauded.

In Ayse Onal's book, “Honour Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed,” we learn that in Turkey, younger men are often forced to strike the fatal blow, because the law deals more leniently with them. They go to prison, where some live in deep regret, while others say bluntly they would do it again.

One father saw his favorite daughter shot, from behind, by his sexually predacious son-in-law, who'd claimed the child was “soiled.” Another man murdered his sister because neighborhood women said she was a prostitute. A post-mortem revealed she was a virgin. Fourteen-year-old Nuran's father strangled her with a cord in his sister's house. Nuran, tired of his constant beatings, ran away from home, and had the misfortune to be raped at the bus station.

Many people featured in the book (though, encouragingly, not all of them) see nothing wrong with killing women to protect their family's reputation, which apparently counts for more than the life of a mere female. A murderer named Mehmet Sait even said those who stand up for the women are trying to make them “modern.” In a novel defense, he claimed “modernists” cause the murders by teaching women “to break from our ways.”

The issue, of course, is not about being “modern,” but about being human and gifted with basic freedom — the same kind of freedom Mehmet Sait no doubt feels entitled to.

People (not just men) who support honor killings are heavily invested in the idea that a woman's only honor is sexual, because her only worth is sexual and her only purpose is sexual. At the same time, she cannot be trusted and, conversely, despite her “weakness” and “inferiority,” she is responsible for how men react to her, as well as responsible for their choices, no matter the situation, and despite the fact that the men hold the power.

To say honor killings are about terrorizing an entire group — in this case, women — is not far-fetched feminism. Another young man in Turkey, Bahri, shot his sister in the street after the girl was impregnated by their aunt's husband. (Uncle Scoundrel, with the aunt, was “at the head of the approving mob.”) Bahri freely admitted to Onal that he was using terror to control women.

“Our society expects morality from women, and dignity from men,” he said. “The authority of our family over the girls would have been shaken if I hadn't shot Naile.” (Emphasis mine).

“Can you control the other girls if you don't shoot the one who has proved herself immoral? And if you don't shoot the immoral one, you jeopardize the morality of the others. All the girls in your family will be soiled.”

Missing from Bahri's defense, of course, is a credible explanation as to how murder is either dignified or moral. Implicit, though, is that girls cannot control themselves unless they are terrorized into submission. (“All the girls in your family will be soiled.”)

Though the direct victims pay the highest price for male (or societal) insecurity, honor kilºlings threaten all women — and that is by design, not accident. It is why the murders of Tina, Sarah, Amina and Noor enrage me. It is why I do, in fact, give a damn about what happens to women in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, etc.

Though I've named predominantly Muslim countries, do not mistake honor killings as being unique to Islam. Plenty of Christian sects place high value on female submission and chastity, some to the degree of preaching that a woman's total submission to her earthly “master” is necessary for her salvation. Finally, do not make the mistake of believing that the mindset underlying honor killings does not exist right here, in the United States of America, among some native-born citizens.

It is here where women are routinely murdered by intimate partners because the partner can't stand the thought of the victim leaving, working, driving, visiting her own family, choosing her own clothing, etc. It is in this country, too, that the first thing some people say after learning about a rape is: “What did she do (to stop it/encourage it)?”

Disturbingly, our own thought patterns are not always so different from those of Bahri and Mehmet Sait, even when the result is not murder. It's past time that the world realizes the obvious:

The type of “honor” that depends on controlling a captive, passive and ultimately sexual servant who does not even aspire to think for hersel, is too cheap and too weak a thing to even qualify as honor. The cowards' rationale has worn thin.

Katharhynn Heidelberg writes from Montrose, Colo.