Ghosts in the honor killing

Time magazine has a feature story on the death of Noor al-Maleki, a young Arizona woman who was killed by her own father. He was convicted this week of her so-called "honor killing," and I write "so-called" because I have trouble putting the word "honor" next to any practice so barbaric as spilling your daughter's blood in order to cleanse your family's reputation. Anyway, reporter Nadya Labi does a good job of tackling the subject by choosing to focus in on this one case. As we discussed just a couple of days ago, the topic is fraught with tension and reporters struggle in covering honor issues. I was thinking back to the story of the Muzzamil "Mo" Hassan and how it would have been covered if he'd been the head of, say, Focus on the Family's broadcasting division instead of the head of a Muslim TV network.

In this story, we learn about Noor and the mother of her boyfriend, Amal Khalaf. Noor was living with Khalaf because things were very rough at her home. She bristled against her parents' strict rules -- and the marriage they arranged for her -- and they didn't appreciate her independence or acceptance of American freedoms. Much of the story goes through the sequence of events that led to her death. Noor and Khalaf were run over by the Dad's car. Khalaf survived her injuries. Noor did not.

For his part, Faleh al-Maleki says he only intended to scare his daughter and to spit on her when he accidentally ran the car over them. He was convicted on Feb. 22 and faces up to 46 years in prison. The story does touch on religion, such as here:

Islam doesn't sanction honor killings, and the practice is not limited to Muslims. The crimes also occur in Christian communities in the Middle East and in non-Muslim communities in India. Last July, for example, after a number of Hindu girls were killed for dating out of caste, the Indian Prime Minister convened a commission to investigate whether harsher laws are needed to curb the crimes.

The majority of crimes, however, do occur in Muslim communities, and some of the perpetrators seem to believe that killing for honor is their religious duty. Strict attitudes toward sexual behavior in Islam -- sexual relations outside marriage are punishable by death in Saudi Arabia and Iran -- don't discourage that mind-set.

I don't know how helpful it is to say that "Islam does this" or "Islam does that." I'd like more specifics about how Islam doesn't sanction honor killings or why most honor crimes occur in Muslim communities. These are very complex issues, and I recognize the difficulty of discussing them, but there has to be a bit more in a nice feature-length piece such as this. I'd love to know more about how religious attitudes can influence not just the practice of honor killing but the treatment of women in general. For instance, one thing that I thought of when reading this story was how a single honor killing can exact a huge cost that extends well beyond the family in question. How many women behave a certain way out of fear of being killed? How does it affect the reporting of rapes?

I thought the story was interesting for how much it tried to explain Faleh's point of view. I'm not saying that you don't come out of it thinking of him as a monster. You will. And at times it seems like he and his supporters speak a foreign language where up is down. But I think the reporter did a good job of letting him explain his actions as well as he could.

I thought the ending was the most provocative. When Faleh talks about his motivation, he focuses a lot on tribalism:

"The whores ... burned us," Faleh said in another jailhouse conversation with his wife. He added, "They destroyed me." Seham responded, "May God seek revenge on them, God willing."

Seham reassured her husband that "the people are not letting you down. They know you are a good-hearted person and have nothing." At a later point, Faleh urged her to round up Iraqis from his tribe to protest his imprisonment at the American consulate. "No one hates his daughter, but honor is precious, and nothing is better than honor, and we are a tribal society that we can't change," Faleh said. "I didn't kill someone off the street; I tried to give her a chance."

Haunting quotes. We learn that Seham, the mother, tried to raise $100,000 in cash for a lawyer. She met with an imam at the al-Rasool Mohammed mosque in Peoria. She stopped going when no money was forthcoming. She also failed to get help from the Iraqi Cultural Association.

But the reporter doesn't just stop there and write that this is evidence that Faleh had no support for his actions. She takes it a bit further to ask some pointed questions:

It is easy for the community to distance itself from Faleh now that he is a convicted murderer. But who spoke up for Noor when she was reportedly being brutalized at home and forced into an arranged marriage? Did any of Faleh's contemporaries defend her right to dress herself how she wished? Why is Khalaf's husband so quick to insist that Noor was a virgin and never involved with his son? Why do the teenage girls at al-Rasool mosque scold Noor for violating the precepts of their religion? ...

Asked whether the community has taken away any lessons from Noor's murder, the owner of an Iraqi grocery store in Peoria nods, explaining, "They don't want their daughters to become like Noor."

Saher Alyasry, a mother in her mid-30s praying at al-Rasool mosque, speaks out firmly, in Arabic, while her teenage daughter, rocking a newborn, translates. "I think what he did was right. It's his daughter, and our religion doesn't allow us to do what she did," she says. "A guy who cares about his reputation, he should do that because people will start talking about him if he doesn't." When asked if honor is more important than love, she responds, "Yes. What's the point of loving her if she's bad?"

Because I have parents who, thank God, love me even when my behavior shames them, these quotes are almost incomprehensible to me. I think the story did a lot to explain how powerful "honor" is in certain cultures, but I sense, in light of that last quote in particular, that a bit more discussion of religious precepts would have taken that understanding much further.

Still, a captivating story about a very sad domestic situation.

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