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U.S. Beheading Is a Crime, Not an Honor Killing

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A prominent Buffalo businessman's beheading of his wife last week is being discussed as an honor crime. Soheila Vahdati says that's the wrong term for a domestic homicide that occurs inside the United States.

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A prominent Buffalo businessman's beheading of his wife last week is being discussed as an honor crime. Soheila Vahdati says that's the wrong term for a domestic homicide that occurs inside the United States.
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Soheila Vahdati

(WOMENSENEWS)--The killing of a woman by her husband is hardly news. Sadly it is the ugly and familiar face of domestic violence.

That is, unless the man is a proud prominent Muslim who made countering Muslim stereotypes his business.

Muzzammil Hassan came to the United States from Pakistan 25 years ago. He became a successful banker in Buffalo, N.Y., and later a model Muslim in America when he, encouraged by his wife, founded Bridges TV to improve the image of Muslim Americans after Sept. 11. That was in 2004.

Last week, five years later, his beheading of his wife, Aasiya Hassan, was breaking news and is still being discussed as a case of "honor killing."

Aasiya Hassan had recently obtained a restraining order against her husband, indicating that she had been a victim of domestic violence or had fears of becoming one.

In the United States, over 1,000 women and over 300 men are killed annually by such violence, according to "Death by Domestic Violence: Preventing the Murders and the Murder-Suicides," a new book by Katherine van Wormer and Albert A. Roberts.

But in this case, the slaying is being discussed as a case of honor killing, rather than domestic violence or homicide.

Creating Inner Distance

Does that help any of us to better understand what happened? Will it help us prevent similar crimes in the future? Or is the terminology a euphemism that lets most of us off the hook, allowing the majority to push it away, as though such a thing wouldn't happen inside their particular communities?

Honor, in some Eastern societies, is defined by the modesty and proper sexual conduct of female family members. In these places honor killing can be an opportunity taken by male family members to save face among peers. The elimination of the source of sexual misconduct supposedly restores the family honor. Religious states often grant impunity to perpetrators who commit honor crimes.

When perpetrators get away with the grotesque murder of close relatives, it is vital to recognize their acts of "honor" as crimes. Rather than concealing this type of violence beneath "honor," it is essential that community leaders identify it as a criminal act and make it punishable by law.

Lobbying Against 'Honor'

Leyla Pervizat, a woman from Turkey, lobbied the United Nations for over a decade to extract the paragon of honor and reveal the nature of crime in cases of domestic violence in Muslim societies. She understood that a global definition of crime, recognized by U.N. member states, was needed to attack culturally sanctioned violent acts against women and girls. As a result, a U.N. General Assembly resolution in 2005 identified the practical measures states should take working toward the elimination of crimes against women committed in the name of honor.

Pervizat did not necessarily want us to avoid the "honor killing" term, but wanted to recognize it as a crime.

I, for my part, think the term is acceptable for Eastern societies, where the term honor killing is educational, but not in the West, where it conceals the crime's connection to the local society.

While the phrase "crime of honor" is read with the emphasis on "crime" in a Muslim society, it is read differently in a Western society such as the United States. Here "honor killing" or "crime of honor" alludes to the misconceived value of "honor" in a seemingly strange and backward culture.

For that reason it's inappropriate inside the United States, where domestic violence is well recognized and cannot hide beneath any cultural values. By applying the term to a U.S. crime we actually subvert legal and other conventions against all acts of violence and the principle that no religious or cultural values can be used to justify a crime.

Taking False Comfort

When the term "honor killing" is applied to what happened to Aasiya it serves to separate us and our laws from the gruesome violence that led to her death.

It limits the discussion, as well as the blame. It protects our innocence and keeps our distance from the crime.

It is comforting for us to realize that they were a Muslim family, and what happened to them was a result of their culture or religion. We comfortably sever any ties with the reality of their life in the United States and blame them, and "their" culture, for what happened.

Were Aasiya and Muzzammil Hassan living in a strange society? Was she not an American? She was a Pakistani-American, but still an American all the same. Is the murderer not an American, one of us? Is a Pakistani-American family who has resided in America for 25 years an exception to U.S. society? How is an average American family defined?

By emphasizing the crime as an honor killing--and therefore exotic--we disguise the fact that this was another instance of domestic violence.

That helps fuel the misconception that no average American citizen could commit such a heinous act.

This is a wake-up call, not only for the American Muslim community, but for all Americans, that this crime, under any motive, happened in our society and demands our responsibility to prevent similar crimes from happening in the future.

The rate of domestic violence is a measurement of a society's failure to follow the U.N. resolution to "promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to life, liberty and security of person."

That is true wherever and however the crime occurs. It is not a measure of the inferiority of any specific ethnicity or religion.

Soheila Vahdati is an Iranian-American human rights activist and a freelancer based in California who writes about the death penalty, Iranian women's human rights and gender issues.