A beheading; not an “honor killing”

dis-honor-killing1The first time I read this Los Angeles Times feature story, I had some questions. However, since my questions were linked to THE major theme of the story, I kept trying to forget about them.

I couldn’t do that. I still have the same questions. But first, you need to see the top of the story:

The mourners carried her severed body inside the white brick mosque on a frosty morning before the sun rose, before the children arrived for school.

Removing their shoes, wives and mothers shrouded in black passed through the women’s prayer area, cordoned off from the men’s with white drapes, and made their way to the washing room. Once inside, they slipped into sandals and, in observance of Islamic tradition, gently bathed her body on a bone-colored tile table the size of a casket to prepare it for burial.

From a distance, a woman named Samia, round-cheeked with thick eyebrows, who cooked meals at the mosque, watched the procession with horror in her heart.

Samia could not bring herself to enter the washing room or look at the victim, Aasiya Zubair Hassan, a woman she had known informally in life. She was too shaken to attend the funeral.

The two wives were connected by the close-knit Muslim community in western New York, including Buffalo, about 400 miles from New York City. But unbeknownst to each other, both shared a secret — marriages stained by abuse.

Samia got help. Aasiya died before help came.

She was stabbed several times before being beheaded Feb. 12, inside a dull yellow warehouse that served as headquarters for the Muslim television station she founded with her husband, Muzzammil Hassan.

Now, the key to this story is that early mainstream news coverage connected the murder to an explosive term — “honor killing” — with clear religious overtones. Muslims protested, saying that it was merely a case of fatal domestic violence, a problem that is not linked to Islam, alone.

This is where my questions come in.

First of all, the story never defines the term “honor killing,” as it would be defined in the Muslim cultures in which it is used. Thus, I was left with this question: What were the characteristics of this crime that made people think that it was an “honor killing” in the first place, other than the fact that this tragedy took place in the context of a Muslim marriage? If it wasn’t an “honor killing,” why not? I wanted to know some facts about this term and this case.

My other question is quite blunt and this was the one that, frankly, I have been afraid to ask: If Muzzammil Hassan stabbed his wife to death, why did he then behead her? What did that action mean to him?

Late in the story, there is a hint of a motive for the killing. Was this the source of shame for the husband (who appears to have been quite secular)?

On Feb. 6, she filed for divorce and obtained an order barring him from their Orchard Park home. Six days later, Hassan reported his wife’s death to police.

A month later, wet rose petals wilted in the bushes in front of the television station, which was lined with gray satellite dishes. An ink-smeared note plucked from the prickles of the shrub read: “Aasiya … May Allah be with you.”

You see, it was the wife who was both a modern woman and, from all reports, a devout Muslim.

Tragic. Agonizing. And for me, the story is frustrating, even infuriating. It raises gigantic questions and then seems determined not to answer them. It appears that the journalists involved in this project thought it was important not to try to seek answers. Why?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ben

    I had a different question when I first read this piece — why is there an assumption here that honor killings are rooted in Islam as opposed to cultural practices in south and west Asia? Scholars of Islam dispute that honor killings arise out of the teachings of the religion.

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  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    We have different questions, but they could be answered by addressing the same set of issues. If there is a dispute among Islamic scholars on that point, cover the dispute.

  • http://bullmoosegal.blogspot.com bullmoosegal

    “… it was important not to try to seek answers. Why?”

    Two possibilities come to mind: either the journalists don’t want to raise the specter of ‘bad’ Muslims, or they’re just so lazy they don’t want to do the work of investigating. That would never happen – right?

  • http://www.redroom.com/author/ellen-r-sheeley ERS

    Tmatt, you raise some excellent questions.

    “Honor” killing is the intrafamilial murder of a person for actual or perceived immoral sexual behavior in a misguided attempt to restore family honor. There is no codification of or even general agreement as to actions that constitute immoral sexual behavior. They can include acts as violent as rape (in which case it is the victim who is murdered), as common as extramarital and premarital intercourse, and as benign as alleged flirtation.

    “Honor” killing is believed to have its origins in misinterpretations of pre-Islamic Arab tribal codes. Thus, these crimes pre-date Islam by centuries and are, in fact, un-Islamic.

    Although reliable statistics are not available, in September 2000, the United Nations Population Fund estimated that globally there are 5,000 cases per annum, the vast majority of them committed against women, overwhelmingly in Islamic cultures (but mainly for cultural, rather than religious, reasons).

    Some of the features of Aasiya’s murder that point to it being an “honor” killing are that it was an intrafamilial murder. The couple were of Pakistani descent and Muslim (Pakistan is believed to have the highest number of these crimes), so there are cultural antecedents. The crime occurred shortly after she tried to exert some independence from her violent husband (this and other ways of “acting Western” are often triggers). The level of brutality is also a clue, since these crimes are usually of more horrific proportions than most of us can imagine. As you point out, if Muzzammil just wanted her dead, the stabbing would’ve been sufficient. But he went on to decapitate her. Also, after he committed his atrocity, he turned himself in. This is common in cultures where these crimes prevail, for the police and the perpetrator’s peers often view him as a hero. If there are any laws on the books to punish the killers, enforcement is weak. In Jordan, for example, the laws favor the killer, the crime is considered a misdemeanor, and the average sentence is just six months. So what’s the harm in turning oneself in if you believe you will become a hero and receive, most of the time, just a slight tap on the wrists?

    I think one of the reasons these crimes aren’t covered sufficiently by the media is the fear of being labeled racist or provoking people from the cultures where these crimes are rooted. But because so many are afraid to take on this issue, the problem isn’t being properly addressed. As a result, more victims will have to suffer such a horrid fate.

    I hope you find this information helpful. If not, you might want to have a look at my blog or my book.

    Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
    Reclaiming Honor in Jordan
    My Redroom Blog

  • http://www.perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com Perpetua

    My memory from reading the early news articles was that when he called the police he was suggesting she was killed by fanatical Islamists. It was my impression he had beheaded her to further the claim that she was killed by Muslim radicals.

  • http://asmatniazi.wordpress.com AsmatullahNiazi

    the phrase honour killing is absolutly wrong as it provide some kind of sypathy to culprit. please always use phrase of so called honour killing. i did many stories on so called honour kiling and know people and families who take pride in saying that ” we killed her as she betraid or set aside our family tradition” is person living in an open society like US and he kills her wife just to take revange, how could he take pride for his brotality.