A Family Affair: Afshan Azad’s Assault

Afshan Azad. Image via Solarpix / PR Photos.

When I watched Afshan Azad entering the Yule Ball as Padma Patil with Ron Weasley in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I did not even think about whether or not she was a Muslim. Instead, like many Potter fans, I was thinking about Hermione, and how the two of them really just needed to get the Gryffindor together.

According to an article in the Daily Express, Azad was allegedly beaten because she was heard talking on the phone to her Hindu boyfriend. The article refers to her assault as an occurrence during what it calls a “family honor” row. Azad pressed charges against both her father and brother, but has since requested to drop the charges.

If there is one thing that irritates me more than self-righteous domestic abuse, it is the reasoning of “family honor.” The article utilizes the term as a buzzword, but does not really make any attempt to unpack what this term might mean, thus inviting the reader to homogenize Muslims.

Asra Nomani reflects about Azad’s story, and uses it as an opportunity to write about her own hardships choosing a partner outside of Islam, and the resistance she has met from the Muslim community. Why is it always about Asra?

Nomani’s article is problematic because it projects overarching religious friction onto something that occurred within a family unit.  This is not about “us vs. them;” it is about a woman being in danger because of her family—something personal—which cannot simply thrown into a growing collection of examples of why Islam is misogynistic.

Let me reiterate this: domestic abuse is deplorable, and I believe that people should be able to make their own decisions about their partners or the way in which they want to live their lives. But this is something that worries me about coverage of honor killings, as seen in Marie Claire: highlighting the concept of “honor” or “culture” gives those excuses a certain amount of power. I do not know how many times I have heard the excuse of “different culture” or “this is the way it is” as the reasoning for an awful occurrence. This is just another step against reinterpreting what honor or women’s rights in Islam can mean; it’s also a step in making violence and Islam a logical association.

A number of reasons might culminate in someone being abused by her family. Violence against women is something that occurs in a number of places, in attachment to a wide range of cultural and religious values. Violence does not discriminate. What scares me about seeing phrases like “family honor” and other terms combining Islam with a certain sense of tribal element is that it makes it seem as though domestic violence is the problem of a certain uncivilized force, which just pushes the real issues into invisibility.

The real issue at hand is power. There are a myriad of ways in difference countries and cultures that women are kept powerless—economically, institutionally, religiously—through societal structures.

It becomes very easy to simply mutter, “those crazy Muslims” when reading an article such as that covering Azad’s sad story. But violence against women is a problem that belongs to all of us. Something that we all have a responsibility to fight, despite different religions or cultures.

  • Ronak

    This is incredibly lucid, and crucial. I’m studying in Amsterdam, at the moment, and this sort of blanket rhetorical association between Islam and violence is proving deeply problematic. Like here, it just has the effect of homogenizing Islam as a static, fixed entity, and an entity that is somehow inherently at odds with “Western liberal values,” whatever that means. This is clearly a myopic mischaracterization (nor is it the case that “Western liberal values” is any more of a static or fixed entity), but the more that public voices use the rhetoric that they are using, the closer it will effectively become to being true, reified and reified. That silent power is a frightening one.

    You guys might just be the most important feminists around.

  • Person

    Good piece. I was pretty sickened at the comments on the Gawker article, over a week ago I believe, that immediately jumped to the conlusion of “honor violence” b/c Azad’s family is S.A. and Muslim, that was before anything else was even known about the case.

    I wonder if the quickness to label anything having to do with Muslims, or many other non-mainstream Christian denominations and religions, as related to “honor” or “the way those people are” is a means of absolving society of responsibility for perpetuating a culture of violence against women? A way of saying “well, that’s the way a lot of poor/Muslim/fundamentalist are, most people aren’t like that.” I read a great piece how in the U.S. the fight against domestic violence originally focused heavily on fighting a culture of male dominance, but as time progressed it became more singularly focused on helping certain women after the fact. Anytime we can blame DV on something other than society as a whole, we do. Yet, it is especially true that “culture” or “that’s the way they are” is attributed as the cause of non-white DV. For instance, the Mafia, often revered as anti-heroes of sorts, the pirates in the pirates vs. knights hero dichotomy, has been known to have family members killed for breaches of honor. One man shot his siter in the face four times for being pregnant out of wedlock, yet Mafiaso can continue to hold a certain lure and mystique.

    A part of us cheers for and admires violent people who will kill those who afront their honor and are very much wrapped up in the idea of dominant masculinity, but only when they are white. If we really took responsibility for a culture of violence against women, it would be necessary to let go of such patriarchial honor obsessed anti-heroes/heroes, but it is easier to have our cake and eat it to by keeping such figures as mafiaso and outlaw coyboys and blaming violence against women on anything but a culture that glorifies patriarchy and violent controlling masculinity.

  • http://www.SabinaEngland.com JihadPunk77

    Sara, I agree with you about Asra Nomani (I can’t stand her) and how they’re always trying to call this a “honor crime.” LOL!!!! Oh PLEASE. I’ve heard stories of white women being assaulted for dating black men or vice versa. This has NOTHING to do with honor or culture. It’s pure power, like you said.

    Asra Nomani’s article was laughable. She didn’t bother to mention how common Hindu-Muslim marriages were in India. Or that major Bollywood Muslim stars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan have Hindu wives.

    Also, she didn’t bother to focus on Indian Muslims. She just cried about Muslims as a whole group being “racist” against Hindus (when in fact, the Hindu-Muslim division is solely focused on South Asians).

  • http://beverlyweber.com Beverly

    Excellent piece. It seems to me that in the Western context this “culture trap” also prevents or at least discourages productive activism against all forms of domestic violence… The point you make about the ways in which forms of “honor” (under other names) are valorized for white heroes in popular culture is so important.

  • http://www.notmyhijab.squarespace.com notmyhijab

    I believe the main problem here is equating Islam with violence against women and the oppression of women’s rights. We need to stop buying into that fallicy. Islam does not oppress women, MEN do. There is nothing in the Qur’an or hadith that promote violence or oppression. The proof is that this goes on in all cultures and the reason it gets conflated with Islam is because we let it.

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    “The real issue at hand is power. There are a myriad of ways in difference countries and cultures that women are kept powerless—economically, institutionally, religiously—through societal structures.”

    Very structuralist of you, Sara, which I used to sympathize with. Except there’s one problem: Afshan was a very materially empowered woman. And she was still attacked. When you imply that ‘powerless’ women (economically, institutionally, religiously) are the ones who become victims of violence, are you not perpetuating the same ‘us/them’ dichotomy by attributing violence to the powerless?

    I feel a real discomfort when people try to separate ‘cultural’ issues from ‘(material) power’ issues. Mostly because it doesn’t really make any sense. On one hand you seem to be arguing that culture is everywhere, that white people have a culture of violence, that no one can escape from culture, etc — and thus we all have cultures of violence. Then you turn around and say that violence has nothing to do with culture at all and are about structural and/or institutional disparities. If this is the case, then certainly some societies can ‘escape’ violence through institutional mechanisms.

    When JihadPunk77 says: “This has NOTHING to do with honor or culture. It’s pure power”, is s/he implying that honor and culture have nothing to do with power, or that power has nothing to do with honor and culture?

    It’s just all very strange. The last blog post on MuslimahMediaWatch about Saudi Arabia was about cultural difference, and how different societies have different norms and social mores, and to assume otherwise was imperialist and/or naive. And then this blog post seems to imply that culture doesn’t matter at all and there’s no such thing as cultural difference and it’s all about ‘power’ (presumably material power).

    Which one is it?

    • Fatemeh

      @ Rochelle: The “power” paragraph was an editorial add-in. Your point about how Azad is materially empowered is a good one–I think I need to clarify that, in Azad’s case, I meant power in the sense that a man feels entitled to exert power (physical or otherwise) over his daughter or his sister in order to control her. Sometimes this can stem from structural inequalities, but obviously in Azad’s case, her father and brother attacked her (allegedly) for a more personal idea of control and power. Perhaps the structural power paragraph isn’t relevant.

      In regard to your final question (one that seems to pop up whenever you post here), I get the feeling that you expect MMW to have one consistent message all the time. On certain things, it’s possible for us to all agree (i.e., stoning is not acceptable). On other things, we won’t agree–we’re all Muslim women, but sometimes the similarities end there. MMW does seek to present a more progressive outlook, but that doesn’t meant that we’re always going to have the same viewpoint or approach things from the same location.

  • http://rawi.wordpress.com rawi

    Good points. Unfortunately, often when we bring these up, some people feel that we’re whitewashing the crimes, for the sake of Islam’s reputation or something like that. But of course, the point is precisely the opposite, as you said: to bring the problem itself into relief and actually try to solve it, instead of giving half-baked explanations and superficial connections that make us (ya’ni the civilized West) feel good about ourselves but which can only further reinforce the cycles of violence and its conditioning. “Culture” as a mode of analysis/explanation can be sometimes helpful, but is often not. It is ultimately no more than a concept, a fairly abstract notion that may, and perhaps should, become outmoded pretty soon: many have already begun to abandon it altogether.

    In her recent piece at NYT on the burqa-debates, the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum addresses similar concerns: “Do the arguers really believe that domestic violence is a peculiarly Muslim problem? If they do, they are dead wrong.” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/veiled-threats/

    Re. “Why is it always about Asra?” LOL!

  • Cyberfish

    The western world needs to stop these straw man – type characterizations of Muslims. It is as if by blaming others for the woes of today, it somehow absolves them of the egregious and heinous crimes they have committed against every culture of color on earth.

    Domestic violence is domestic violence. It is not a religious issue. It is a cultural issue. It could be said that eastern patriarchies make this sort of behavior easy and on some level acceptable. But it could also be said that the culture of ignorance and poverty in the west perpetuates this dynamic as well. How many images have we seen in the west of a hair backed, greaseball in a wifebeater….beating his wife?

  • PinkMuslimah

    I also agree about Asra Nomani. She appeared on the Diane Rehm show to discuss the French ban on the burqa and essentially equated all burqa-wearing women with terrorists and blanket-labelled them as oppressed (either we are oppressed, or we are terrorists; when she figures that out, maybe she can talk). That and the way that she tries to “modernify” Islamic law by basically throwing it out with the baby’s bathwater is completely annoying. If you don’t want to practise Islam, great. Just don’t try to pass your secularism off to us as some new and revised version of Islam.

    Keep up your witty assaults on domestic violence. I’m loving it. :)

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    @ Fatemeh:

    Sorry if I made it seem like all MMW contributors are the same. I certainly don’t think this is or should be the case.

    But at the same time, I’ve heard this argument about honor killing a lot. And in fact I used to really subscribe to it, before I spent a lot of time thinking it through. A lot of it is really well-taken and I agree with those parts wholeheartedly. For instance, when we attribute such acts to ‘honor-killing’, we are exoticizing violence and thereby characterizing white mainstream culture as somehow less violent. This is certainly not the case, either discursively nor empirically. And I do get very perturbed when I read articles about honor killings, especially because they tend to demonize Muslims and/or Asian cultures as somehow more violent or barbaric, and at the same time insulates white/mainstream culture as peaceful and egalitarian. That’s bullshit of the highest order.

    However, at the same time, I don’t think that anyone should argue that culture had absolutely nothing to do with this case or that ‘honor killing’ has absolutely no unique cultural attributes whatsoever. This does not make HK inherently ‘worse’ than ‘regular’ domestic violence, but it’s still different.

    And let’s take it one step further: If honor killing has no cultural substance, than should a ‘cultural defense’ be illegitimate when these guys go to court? That’s certainly unfair to them, as contextual circumstances always play out in criminal cases regardless of race or religion. Motivates, worldviews, socio-economic status, context — they all need to be taken into consideration when trying an accused criminal. If culture had nothing to do with this case, does that mean that south asians or Muslims should divorce themselves from context when they go to court? How is this fair to them?

    The problem with separating what is ‘personal’ and what is ‘cultural’ or ‘religious’ is that what constitutes the personal is very often constructed via cultural or religious norms. To take Sara’s argument to heart would be to say that domestic violence in Western societies has nothing to do with Western culture. But violence is always emblematic of particular cultural positions. We really need to question what brought this case into existence — both the material/institutional background AND the cultural factors.

    Hope that makes sense. :)

  • henna

    I read Asra Nomani’s article and didn’t feel it that wrong. It started with Sattire, perhaps as a part of community on which she passed satire it did hurt. but then many things she wrote are true.

    As an Indian, I can see honour attached to marriages, not just Muslim. all the major religions in India. Let it be Hinduism, Islam or Christianity.

    Check the news regarding so many newly weds being killed in India recently, most of them are from Hinduism and marry in so called same family(Khap). so they are treated as sinners and are being killed.

    Again there are caste marriage and many newly weds are killed because higher caste feels loss of honour. Or lower caste feels it as a shame to marry someone from higher caste who used to exploit them for years.

    In India Muslims have so many levels(won’t call castes as Islam doesn’t accept acstes), Person from lower level cant marry from higher levels. And ya levels are not just defined by profession of ancestors, it is defined by complete ancestral chain. like Saudi is better than afghan(muslims who came and settled in india during Mughal period). There is always honour attached to them.

    I do not have so many christian friends so not sure about them but I guess it would be there also.
    I can’t deny that when it comes to choosing partner, East is more strict, attaches honour and is more violent with women than men.

  • http://durkadurkistan.wordpress.com/ Durkadurkistan

    Asra Nomani… *sigh*

    Her style is so appealing to people unfamiliar with Islam, yet her substance is usually completely outrageous. That’s what makes her writing or radio/tv appearances so frustrating to read/watch.. bleh

    Her entire premise in the article is that Azad’s family incident was caused by religion.

    An analogy: If I’m a Celtics fan, and my daughter ‘comes out’ as a Laker’s fan (audhubillah..), and I then decide she must die because I can’t take the unbearable humiliation of her prancing around the neighborhood, defiantly shaming my manhood with her bright yellow Kobe Bryant jersey, would Nomani be writing an article about how the NBA needs to reform itself?

    Just askin..

  • http://disorderedcosmos.com Chanda

    For UK press on these sorts of things, the London Review of Books had a more nuanced piece on “honor killings” last November that could be worth reading: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n21/jacqueline-rose/a-piece-of-white-silk

    But in general, I agree as a former victim of (Protestant?) domestic violence that homogenizing Muslims in this way is incorrect. Moreover, it completely ignores the very real experiences of non-Muslim women with violence as well as the experiences of Muslim women with violence from non-Muslim perpetrators.

  • Sara

    @Rochelle:
    1) first of all, her being an actress and making money doesn’t mean that she is spending it. This is a form of secondary poverty–when there is enough money in the household, but the distribution might be unequal.

    2) I never said that culture is NOT a part of the problem, I think we actually need to problematize how we define culture–maybe I didn’t make that clear enough. There is this misconception that “white people don’t have culture”, and sometimes it is just used as an overarching excuse. What I meant in this article is that we need to look further than simply saying that someone is doing something because of culture…and that it being a “part of someone’s culture” doesn’t mean that it isn’t applicable to all of us. I mean the way that we discuss this has a lot of power, and I understand what you have to say, but I still think that power is a big part of what “cultural notions” are in place—as someone with domineering Muslim parents, I know that my parents use the excuse of “this is our culture” to enforce a rule or something of that nature. It is, for them, a way to maintain control over me, but this is specifically in my own situation, something I can’t say about anyone else.

  • http://beverlyweber.com Beverly

    power/culture

    We can never separate power, religion, culture… Religion is a form of culture, power operates through religion and power, religion and culture are used to legitimate power differences, etc.

    But questioning how “culture” is used in discourse, in media, is actually really different than using a “culture defense” in a legal context. How they work together, however, is this: if a “culture defense” is permitted, it inappropriately assumes that the individual from a particular culture is somehow incapable of participating in the civic society in which s/he resides. It also actually distracts our attention from the material inequalities at hand – problems around immigration in Western societies, for example, can be deflected to culture in order to obscure economic inequalities and lack of access to jobs and education.

    On the other hand, since domestic violence occurs across economic groups, we need to address this particular kind of power dynamic … differently. This is so difficult, I think – how do we talk about domestic violence in a way that fights against it, works against culturalist discourses, moves outside of victim discourses as well…

  • henna

    Continuing with my earlier comment I want to quote one example.
    When it comes at choosing the “partner”, domestic violence is led because of honour attached to whole “Marriage ” thing.

    Jammu & Kashmir ia one state in India and it’s current CM’s sister married a Hindu. This led to huge protests in Kashmir and even current CM’s father had to publicly say that he has no relation with his daughter.

    Same CM(man) married a Hindu woman few years back(before his sister’s marriage) there were no protests, nothing.

    Here I do not want someone to emphasise on “Hindu” partner, let that be “X” religion. Here we need to look at the reaction when a woman does something. both brother and sister married out of their religion, brother’s marriage led to indifference while as sister’s marriage led to protests.

    Though Honour was attached with both siblings, sister damaged honour more, that is what looked from the protests.

    This incident makes me feel that “Women uphold honour” whatever that honour means to family.

    In this episode there was no physical violence but a lot of emotional and psychological violence against CM’s sister. Is that justified? What would we call that? It was societies reaction, (I do not know how family reacted), if whole society thinks so what should we name it. Honour or violence?

    There are many countless examples in India where “Marriage/selecting partner” is seen as requiring honour. It cuts across religions, regions. and I am very sure same mentality is there in gulf, south asia.

    Does West not attach “Honour” to marriages? I guess I need to read more about it, personally I feel the rise of “individualism” above the “community” is responsible for the indifference in west to “honour with partner” thing. But is that because parents feel helpless in front of “individualism” or it is their own choice is something we need to research.

    Again, if we want to put such kind of violence under blanket”Domestic Violence” I guess as a society it would be hard to fight stereotypes.

    Stereotypes like:

    Wear Hijab rather than asking daughters to wear it and leaving decision on them.
    Choose partner within same religion, region, race etc. yes parents may guide us where to marry and make transition smoothest but do not force.

    If we need to fight stereotype we need to understand that there are many people in world who feel dishonoured if their daughter wears “mini skirt” and they can thrash her.

  • http://rawi.wordpress.com rawi

    @Rochelle: I think your perplexity re. this ‘kind’ of violence is one that I share, as I’ve also often asked myself if there really isn’t something (‘culturally’) distinct about it compared to, say, domestic violence in a white American family. But I’ve then also realized that it would be more productive to wonder what use does this question in itself serve? Is it useful to make these distinctions? Or rather, how and for what purposes are they useful? Often, when the media relies on these notions in order to explain/understand such crimes the implicit assumption is that these problems can be solved if these people exit their culture and become like us in the (civilized) West. But if culture is inherent, can one simply shed it?

    I therefore raise the question: what, really, do we mean by ‘culture’? It has become far too much of a catch-all term for its meaning to be clear at all — and here I fully agree with Sara that we need to problematize how we define it. When some people attribute such crimes to, say, brown culture, they seem to be using culture more in the sense of cultural difference, i.e. the things that make Americans different from Indians. On the other hand, if we say, as you do, that “what constitutes the personal is very often constructed via cultural or religious norms,” we’re basically referring to the discursive constitution of the subject, such that every person is in/formed by a ‘culture’. These two notions of ‘culture’ are related insofar as they both refer to something beyond the individual. But for me the problem of ambiguity remains: what exactly do we mean? Of course, this problem is not surprising since I suspect that ontologically, culture is simply non-existent: it just remains for us to identify epistemologically helpful concepts.

    The specific legal questions you raise are certainly intriguing. Unfortunately, my analysis is limited to the theoretical. Suffice it to say though that I’m not entirely comfortable with ‘cultural defense’ arguments. BTW, I think I share your critique of the structuralist notion of power, but that maybe just coz I’m a sucker for Foucault…

  • Mary Alice

    one thing I do have to add here is that I notice a lot of media coverage of women that are victims of violence is almost like you’re a spectator “oh how awful what a monster…amazing what can happen in (x) country or the person who did it was from (y) culture or from (z) neighborhood” It doesn’t even have to me Muslim related, like here in the US when an American woman is attacked in a foreign country for example, or the person who did the violent act had certain family problems or lived in a poor neighborhood, it makes it so easy for the media to sensationalize it. I do think people have a way of talking about domestic violence like it’s not in their own communities, when the truth is that it happens everywhere. One thing I CAN agree with this article about is that focusing on the aspects that much of western media tends to sensationalize (such as the fact that they were muslim) actually takes away focus from the real issue. You’re talking about “oh they have a problem there” and “there” becomes the focus rather than the problem. When you actually DO look at the problem without sensationalism you realize it’s EVERYONE’s problem.

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    @rawi:

    I think about culture mostly in terms of subject formation, as I too am a sucker for Foucault but also like to think about particular institutions and ‘coagulations of power’ like the State. So in that sense I think everyone ‘has’ culture, including Westerns, but that those cultural formations are heavily influenced by interests and can sometimes contain elements of intentionality and directional power, which is somewhat different from Foucault.

    But I’m trying to get better at being less theoretical about shit and think about the ‘everyday’ consequences. And in terms of policy, I think its crucial that we talk about what makes honor killings different than other forms of DV.

    For instance, let’s say you’re law enforcement trying to protect a woman from domestic violence. It really depends on the context of the threat what course of action you take. A lot of times social services will suggest that a woman at risk go stay with her family members — a brother, a father, a sister. But if you’re dealing with a case of potential honor killing, then obviously that’s not the right course of action to take because oftentimes there’s a conspiracy component to it.

    That’s why I think collapsing honor-based violence into all other forms of DV is unhelpful. And in fact a lot of immigrant women’s groups — Southall Black Sisters in London comes to mind — argue along similar lines. The groups that work with honor violence victims know its not helpful to collapse all vocabulary into DV just to prove a theoretical point that ‘we all have culture.’

    That’s not to say that the media uses the term correctly though, and certainly they do not.

  • Anonymouus

    Reading the whole Azad story it seems to me that it is about a father who loves his daughter too much.He cherished and supported her, he nurtured her and encouraged her to do what she wants eg acting. Many parents donot realise that all of a sudden their child is now 20 or 21 and makes own life choices not asking parents approval. Thats a stage or feeling all of us who are parents have to face. I am a mother and my son is now 24 and makes all responsible decision on his own. He has the decency to duscuss with me. I am now getting used to it but for the last 2 yrs I had this pain in my heart that this lil boy – every step of life I walked with him taking him through school and University and now he is a big boy making life decisions without me.
    I am sure thats what happened in the Azad case – a father who cares for his daughter was discussing her choice of a life partner. A simple thing which happens in many families which the media just blew out of control. Nothing to do with religion or culture. I know that in Islam a a woman must freely agree to marry her husband, even if it is arranged by seniors.

    • Fatemeh

      @ Anonymous: Love does not equal assault. Ever.

  • Sara

    @Anonymous:

    I would have to agree with Fatemeh. I am sick and tired of parents saying that “love” is what motivated them. I respect you for being a parent, and going through those struggles–I just think that sometimes Muslim parents don’t realize how much they put their kids through by raising them in a non-Muslim country. Life is confusing, and if our parents love us, they’d take a step back and let us make our own decisions.

    I have absolutely no sympathy for her father. Anything that would motivate someone to take care of things in a physical manner needs to be taken up with a mental institute, not excused.


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