On the Front Lines: Combatting Honor Violence in the U.S.

Detective Chris Boughey serves the Peoria, Arizona Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Section’s Major Crimes Unit and is on the advisory board for the documentary film Honor Diaries, which breaks the silence on honor violence against women.

He has personally investigated incidents of “honor violence” in the U.S., including the 2008 honor killing of a 25-year old woman in Georgia named Sandeela Kawal by her father. Her “crime” was seeking a divorce from her cousin with whom she was forced to marry. The father said “she wasn’t being true to her religion or her husband,” according to another law enforcement officer involved in the case.

The following is Clarion Project National Security Analyst Ryan Mauro’s interview with Detective Chris Boughey:

 

Ryan Mauro: When did you first hear of the problem of “honor violence” in America?

Chris Boughey: I first became aware of the problem of honor violence in America after reading and reviewing the murder of the Said sisters by their father in Texas in 2008.

Initially, law enforcement classified this incident as being honor-related. A short time later, law enforcement announced that the case was not honor-related. I believe the recantation from the original statements was due to pressure from Muslim organizations and law enforcement being fearful of being portrayed as “culturally insensitive.”

Thankfully, the case has now been characterized as an honor killing. It should be noted that the FBI refused to identify this case as an “honor killing” until almost a year after it happened.

My education greatly increased after October 20, 2009, when a 20-year old woman in Arizona named Noor Almaleki was murdered by her father, an Iraqi immigrant who said she had become “too Westernized.” Noor had also refused to enter into an arranged marriage and dated someone that the father did not approve of.

After reviewing the Almaleki case, I went back and reviewed the case of the Said sisters. There were strikingly similar parallels between the two cases, as far as the supposed reasons and motives by both perpetrators.

Both Almaleki’s father and the Said’s father voiced frustrations that their daughters were straying from their “culture” and were becoming too Westernized.

Both fathers took issue with the boys their daughters were dating. Both were subjected to escalating levels of violence from their fathers prior to the murder.

Those are just a few of the similarities. After reviewing the Said case, I firmly believed that the murder of Almaleki was motivated by the notion of “honor.”

During and subsequently to the Almaleki case, I did hours of research on the issue and concluded that it was much more prevalent in North America than first thought.

 

Mauro: What causes honor violence? How do the perpetrators justify it?

Boughey: Honor violence is a form of violence against women committed with the motive of protecting or regaining the “honor” of the perpetrator, family or community.

Victims of honor violence are targeted because their actual or perceived behavior is deemed to be shameful or to violate cultural or religious norms. Conduct such as resisting an arranged marriage, seeking a divorce, adopting a Western lifestyle and wearing Western clothing and having friends of the opposite sex have resulted in honor violence.

Honor violence involves systematic control of the victim that escalates over a period of time and may begin at a young age. Honor violence can be perpetrated by one individual or can be a group campaign of harassment and violence committed by an entire family or community. It can take many forms, including verbal/emotional abuse, threats, stalking, harassment, imprisonment, physical violence, sexual abuse and homicide.

The above information/definition was developed by the AHA Foundation.

The perpetrators justify their acts because they assign more value to regaining or restoring their perceived lost “honor” than the love or the life of their daughters.

The perpetrator believes that the victim’s acts are so egregious and so damaging to their perceived sense of honor that the only way to restore this honor is to hurt or kill the object of that “dishonor.” In sum, no individual is more important than the “tribe.”

What I’ve learned is that the decision to inflict violence is not usually a solitary decision on the part of the perpetrator. In most cases, this is a family or group decision.

This is one aspect of the Almaleki murder that I was not aware of when investigating it. I soon found out that the entire family was complicit. The entire family believes the same way as the perpetrator. This was found out when reviewing the recorded phone calls in jail between Almaleki and family members, specifically his wife.

In one conversation, he said, “for an Iraqi, honor is the most valuable thing.”

“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. I didn’t kill someone off the street, I tried to give her a chance. I tried, what do you call it, but no result,” he said.

His wife then assured him that “all the people say that you are a lion.”

 

Mauro: How big of a problem is this—is it only a rare incident here and there?

Boughey: When we speak of honor violence, we are not just speaking of honor killings. There are three main components to the notion of honor violence.

 

Honor killings and/or acts of honor assault: Acts of violence, intimidation and threats usually are a precursor to the actual murder. The violence is based on the perpetrators’ belief that the victim is not adhering to traditional cultural values, has become too Westernized, is engaged in a relationship that is not approved of by the perpetrator, etc.

Forced marriage: The simple act of forcing an unwilling young woman into a marriage with someone not of their choosing is a form of honor violence by itself. Research has found that many victims of honor assaults or killings have refused to enter into a forced marriage.

Refusing a marriage is often a “trigger” for escalating violence and/or murder. Research has shown that in several U.S. communities, girls between the ages of 13 and 16 are taken out of school by their families and sent to their countries of origin where they are forced into marriage. Some of these girls return to the United States, and some of them do not.

In any event, these young women are subjected to a sub-servant role and most of them are not allowed to pursue their education.

Female Genital Mutilation: Thousands of girls from all over the world, and many from the United States, are subjected to this brutal procedure. FGM occurs in the U.S. on a regular basis. Additionally, many young girls are sent back to their country of origin and have the procedure performed there. Sadly, there are only 13 states that have passed legislation outlawing this brutal act.

I think the problem of honor violence is much more widespread than first believed. If we compile statistics not just on honor killings, but add instances of forced marriage and FGM, I believe the overall numbers would be much higher.

I think a vast majority of honor-related violence goes underreported or not reported at all. Honor violence is where domestic violence was 25 years ago. Currently, we don’t have a system in place to track these issues.

The AHA Foundation is currently working in conjunction with John Jay School of Criminal Justice to start compiling statistics.

 

Mauro: What is the reaction of the surrounding community when an act of honor violence is perpetrated? Are they immediately cooperative?

Boughey: I think the answer to this question is multi-layered. One being the community at-large or general public and two being the Muslim community and immediate family members and friends of the perpetrator.

By and large, I believe the general public—mainstream Americans—have little or no knowledge on the topic of honor violence. However, awareness is increasing.

Most Americans have a difficult time wrapping their heads around the concept of “honor.” The thought that a parent would murder their child because they somehow dishonored them is a difficult concept for most Americans or Western cultures to grasp.

There is a percentage of people that believe the issue is cultural or religious in nature and don’t believe we should be “meddling” in such affairs. Some people don’t want to be portrayed as “culturally insensitive.”

Some of these feelings and lack of education permeated the jury at the Almaleki trial, in my opinion. I firmly believe that this is the reason that they came back with a conviction for Second Degree Murder and not First Degree Murder. I think there were members of the jury that would not, or could not, believe that a father would kill his own daughter for some messed-up notion of “honor.”

Now, when dealing with the Muslim community, specifically the perpetrator and his immediate family, I tell investigators to expect little or no help. In the Almaleki case, I learned very quickly that we would receive no assistance from the family. In fact, we received out-and-out defiance and resistance.

After the Almaleki trial, a writer for Time Magazine went to a local Phoenix mosque and asked members if they agreed with what the perpetrator had done. The article was disturbing.

“The attitudes that fueled Faleh's rage are widespread in his community. It is no coincidence that [the perpetrator] believes that Iraqis in the U.S. and abroad will judge him more kindly if they think it's an honor killing,” the author wrote.

The author interviewed Saher Alyasry, a mother at the Al-Rasool mosque.

“I think what he did was right. It’s his daughter, and our religion doesn’t allow us to do what she did,” Alyasry said.

The author asked her if honor is more important than love. Her startling reply was, “Yes. What’s the point of loving her if she’s bad?”

 

Mauro: Is there a lack of awareness among law enforcement?

Boughey: I think historic cases of honor violence have been largely misclassified by law enforcement, by no fault of their own. They simply don’t know the signs and symptoms of honor-related violence and have blanketed it under the umbrella of domestic violence.

I think there have been countless victims that have been subjected to some form of honor violence but have never come forward to report it. These victims know that making a report could result in their death. We have seen several of these types of cases in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

When these young women come forward and alert authorities of their situations, they must be believed. We have to understand that the mere fact that they have spoken up takes a tremendous amount of courage. Most of these young women know that by doing so, they are placing themselves in a huge amount of danger.

There are historical cases of these young women coming forward to law enforcement to report abuses or have been reported as runaways by their families. Western law enforcement is trained that the best place for runaway kids is back in the home. This is because we are applying our Western belief system to these situations. These young women have been returned to their families, only to be further subjected to acts of violence and in some cases, murdered.

Conversely, members of law enforcement do not have the training or awareness in how to effectively identify and investigate these cases. Additionally, some law enforcement agencies and social service agencies are afraid of being portrayed as “culturally insensitive” and dismiss these young women’s allegations as being a “cultural thing.” These decisions are getting young women victimized further.

I ran into this very issue while assisting on a case in Pennsylvania in 2012. Thankfully, we were able to get the young woman to safety, but not after a spirited debate with some department heads.

I am not quite sure when we, as a country, decided that it was more important to be politically correct than to do the right thing. This is why, in conjunction with the AHA Foundation, we have developed a curriculum to train law enforcement and members of social service organizations to identify and investigate such cases. They are unique and pose some significant challenges.

In 2012, the AHA brought my partner Jeff Balson and I on to act as Law Enforcement Liaisons. In that short period of time, we have received almost a dozen requests from law enforcement and social service organizations for assistance in dealing with cases of honor violence.

Detective Balson and I have been working with a young lady for the last year who came to us looking for help. Initially, we got her out of her situation to a safe location. Her parents and other family members continued to look for her and harass other family members and friends in an attempt to find her.

After several months, the pull of her family was too much and she returned home. This is common in these cases. What you have to remember is that most of these young women are 16 to 18 years of age. In most cases, they are not equipped to live on their own. They know they want to get out of the situation, but just don’t know how. Most of these young women still love their families and are torn.

Because we don’t yet have resources in place to effectively deal with these situations, coupled with the torn feelings of these young women, they return home, only to be subjected to further abuse.

In the case we are working on, the young woman did just that. Things were O.K. at home for awhile. Her parents were even nice to her. This is a common ploy used by the parents. Awhile later, the young woman was tricked into going back to her country of origin for a “vacation.”

Upon arriving, her mother stripped her of all identification and her passport and told her she would never return to the United States. She was able to obtain an application that allowed her to text via a Wi-Fi connection and reached out to Jeff and meI.

After several calls to the AHA Foundation and the State Department, we were able to engineer her escape. We were able to get back to the U.S. It is quite a story.

 

Mauro: Why are there increasing numbers of reports of honor violence in the U.S.?

Boughey: I think there are several reasons:

Awareness and attention is being brought to the surface by organizations such as the AHA Foundation, the Tahirh Justice Center and your organization, the Clarion Project. The AHA Foundation hosts an annual conference on honor violence at John Jay College in New York City.

Screenings of Honor Diaries is calling attention to the issue. I was proud and humbled to be a contributor to this project.

Increased coverage by media outlets has cultivated public interest in the issue. The Almaleki case received extensive media coverage from outlets like FOX News, CBS’ 48 Hours Mystery and TIME Magazine.

Curriculum developed by the AHA Foundation is helping to identify and investigate cases of honor violence. We are actively seeking out venues to present this information. In February 2014, we hosted a one-day seminar for the Arizona Homicide Investigators Association. The seminar was attended by almost 100 detectives from all over Arizona and was met with very positive reviews.

On a more clinical level, I think one of the most important reasons is that we have seen a tremendous influx of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. Some of these immigrants want to enjoy all of the freedoms that our great country provides and to take full advantage of our public assistance, but are unwilling to leave some of the fundamental views in their country of origin.

Many of the young women victimized in the U.S. are first-generation Americans. These young women have spent all or the majority of their lives in the U.S. and have been exposed to Western culture. These young women see the opportunities that the U.S. offers—education, careers, religious freedom, equality, etc. They receive great resistance from their families who cling to “traditional values” and some react violently.

It would be irresponsible to say that all Muslim families engage in honor violence. That is simply not the case. There are countless Muslim families that have struck a balance between accepting aspects of American life and values while still remaining true to their religion.

Recently, we have seen some leaders in the Muslim community speak out against honor violence. This is a very encouraging sign.

Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.