John Walsh’s “The Hunt” missed a golden opportunity this week to educate millions of Americans about a particularly insidious crime happening in the U.S. that the Justice Department and three Congresswomen have recently highlighted for the very first time. Walsh’s show that aired this week, “The Hunt for Yaser Abdel Said”, about the 2008 murders of teen sisters Amina and Sarah Said, allegedly by their father Yaser, flagrantly failed to call these homicides what they were: “honor killings”.
Amina and Sarah
Why is that so crucial? By his not naming this type of violence, Walsh squanders his mega-powerful crime-fighting platform where he could teach the masses about the special characteristics of this heinous crime that, if understood more widely, might be prevented.
“Honor killing”, which victimizes more than 20,000 women and girls every year worldwide, is the act in which usually a female is murdered typically by a close male relative in an attempt to salvage the family honor that is perceived to have been disgraced by her disobedience, promiscuity, “western” attire or behavior, victimization by rape or other transgression of gender norms in the traditional societies of the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and North Africa. If a male can’t control his female relative, he and his whole family loses face in the community which may intensely pressure the family to kill her to regain their honor.
What’s more, honor violence amongst some immigrant communities in the U.S., Europe and Canada are rising, say advocacy groups. While The AHA Foundation, the leading non-profit working to end honor violence in the U.S., reports there are only about 25 honor killings recorded in the US annually, the Department of Justice in their first-ever study on the topic released last month, admits no one really knows how bad the problem is because it hasn’t been officially tracked.
AHA and other experts believe there are likely untold thousands of incidents of the larger continuum of “honor violence” that can lead up to homicide which can include threats, stalking, harassment, physical/sexual/emotional/verbal abuse, false imprisonment, forced and child marriage and female genital mutilation. At least 3,000 forced marriages in the US were recently recorded by the Tahirih Justice Center in a two-year period. Incredibly, there is no federal law against forced marriage in the US. and only nine states protect against it.
In the show last night, John Walsh comes close when he asks: “How could you possibly kill your own children?” Incredibly, he never answers this critical – and easily answerable – question, which would at minimum require calling out the murders as “honor killings”. He even backs down by dubbing Yaser’s abuse and assault of his Texas-born wife Patricia Owen, as “the classic control freak domestic abuse scenario”. No.
Yaser, an Egyptian-born immigrant, was possessed by the classic honor-based cultural belief that women are the property of male relatives for whom they can dictate virtually everything – where they go, what they do, whom they socialize with, who and when they marry and/or have sex with, if they work, etc. Yaser’s extended cultural community, including his three Egyptian brothers who are living in the U.S., expected him to control his wife and daughters and his failing to do so was seen as a blight on his character (and the extended family’s honor) that he couldn’t bear. The murders occurred soon after Yaser discovered the girls had boyfriends. When he allegedly threatened them with a gun, they briefly ran away but returned when their mother, Patricia, convinced them to. Yaser allegedly shot them both to death in his taxi (according to Sarah’s 911 call recording), and has been at large ever since.
Yaser, Amina and Islam
Emails and letters Amina left behind and close friends’ testimony also indicate classic “honor violence” – Yaser, now a FBI Top 10 Most Wanted fugitive, frequently stalked the girls with a video camera, bugged their car, threatened and harassed them daily, sexually abused them as young children, assaulted them physically, tried to control who they socialized with and was trying to arrange forced marriages for them in Egypt to strangers for large dowries.
That explains why the murders were “honor killings” but the deeper why of how a person could kill their own children was the burning question that galvanized me through a decade’s worth of research on the origins of honor killing until I formed a theory: “Honor killing” appears to be one of the lingering legacies of a pivotal time of transformation in human history that has largely been swept under the rug. In roughly 200,000 years of homo sapiens, only the last 5,000-7,000 years have been dominated by patriarchal religions and power. Archaeology reveals that during the previous 193,000 years, worship of the Divine Feminine was the primary and first religion almost everywhere. As a result, human women enjoyed power, respect, safety and rights that most of us today cannot fathom.
When patriarchy began to take over about 5000 BC, it took about 5,000 years of violent aggression to oust the Goddess and was so thorough, the past was almost erased from history. I believe that it was in this time of transition from Goddess worship to God worship, when women became property of men for the first time, that “honor killing” was born. To this day, the one characteristic that all cultures that commit honor violence have in common are that female relatives are considered property of the males. Each act of honor killing terrorizes all the females nearby to tow the line and maintain the system of male power and privilege.
The short answer is that intense social coercion within a historic cultural context, fear of community abandonment and deep conviction that one’s self-worth hinges on the absolute control of one’s female blood-related family members drives men to kill for “honor”.
So “honor killing” is not Islamic in origin as many mistakenly believe. In fact, nothing in Islam sanctions “honor killing” per se; however, aspects of Islamic law can make women more vulnerable to “honor violence”, like controlling their sexuality, compelling wives’ obedience to husbands and requiring all women to have male legal guardians in the strictest interpretations.
Even Walsh passive-aggressively hints at a connection to Islam in the trailer for his Yaser show by saying Yaser was from a “strict Muslim sect” – which, ironically, there is zero evidence of; in fact, more to the contrary.
Walsh is not alone in his reticence to directly address “honor killing” in the U.S. The FBI used the term briefly, then removed it from Yaser’s most wanted poster. In general, our nation is behind Canada and Europe in dealing with its immigrants’ “honor violence”, but we’re starting to get our act together. Last month, I co-organized the first event about “honor violence” in the U.S. inside the U.S. Capitol which was hosted by Congresswomen Donna F. Edwards (D-MD), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and 17 non-profit organizations.
We screened the 2014 documentary on the Said case, “The Price of Honor”, directed by Neena Nejad and Xoel Pamos, for which I’m the consulting producer, and the Department of Justice released their first-ever study on honor violence in America (upshot of the study: it’s going to be hard and expensive to find out how pervasive the problem is). A panel of experts, activists, witnesses and a survivor of forced marriage, spoke at an historic panel after the film.
We have a big job ahead of us to effectively address American “honor violence” – and Walsh really could have helped with this. Part of the problem is that most victims don’t report these crimes because it’s coming from their own families who will escalate violence if it’s reported. The victims are often underage, believe they have nowhere to turn and often don’t know their victimization is even a crime because it’s so normalized in their community. To make matters worse, we have 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the US the DOJ needs to coordinate on this, most of which don’t even know what honor violence is yet, so it could be happening off their radar. Either it’s well hidden or, if they do see it, they’re not tagging it as honor-related. The AHA Foundation and associates of the documentary “Honor Diaries” have started to train interested law enforcement agencies about recognizing “honor violence”. Meanwhile, the DOJ continues to work towards defining a method to accurately quantify the problem which will help to allocate funds to address the issue.
I’m grateful John Walsh put Yaser Said’s face out there for more people to see and hopefully recognize. With luck, he will be caught and convicted. And I hope, henceforth, whenever anyone with a powerful megaphone like Walsh’s talks about an honor crime, they will take the longer, courageous view and name it as such and educate others about the issue so we can try to prevent more unnecessary murders like those of Amina and Sarah Said. The silence around "honor killing" has helped perpetuate this crime against women for thousands of years and it's time to put an end to that.
How you can make a difference for this issue: 15 Ways to Transform the Crisis of Honor Violence. Please use #CatchYaserNow. Find a screening of “The Price of Honor” near you or host one.
Amy Logan is featured in and the consulting producer of “The Price of Honor”, the 2014 award-winning documentary on the Said honor killing case, and the author of the novel about the origins of honor killing, The Seven Perfumes of Sacrifice. She is a global women’s human rights activist, TEDx speaker on honor violence, and Co-President of the US National Committee for UN Women in San Francisco.