City of Brass

City of Brass

an honor killing or “only” domestic violence?

The horrific decapitation murder of Aasiya Zubair by her husband Muzzammil Hassan last week – which spurred nationwide sermons in US mosques about domestic violence – was a wake-up call to the muslim-American community about the taboo subject of spousal abuse. There were dozens of khutbas in mosques all across America that same Friday – I’ve posted the text of one such khutba in Chicago and video of another in San Francisco but that barely scratches the surface. On the whole, the way in which the muslim-American community came together around this tragedy and sought to make Aasiya’s death actually count for something, was both inspiring and humbling.


Unfortunately, the way the murder was reported as a “beheading” (instead of the term “decapitation” which was used to describe the murder of a Chinese student at Virginia Tech last Wednesday) has fed a perception that Aasiya’s murder was related to Islam rather than an act of domestic violence – specifically, that it was somehow an “honor killing”. These are harmful notions because they place Aasiya’s murder into the realm of exotic, terrorist violence rather than within the context of a serious problem affecting millions of women in the United States, of all ethnic and religious backgrounds.


The simple truth is that Aasiya’s murder was an act of domestic violence taken to an extreme. The rationale for this assessment is somewhat ironically explained best in an article by Phyllis Chesler for the Middle East Quarterly, in which Chesler purports to argue the opposite. Chesler provides a handy table that describes the differences between honor killings and domestic violence and in nearly every particular,  Aasiya’s murder fits the domestic violence category:

Honor Killings


Domestic Violence

Committed mainly by Muslims against Muslim girls/young adult women.

Committed by men of all faiths usually against adult women.

Committed mainly by fathers against their teenage daughters and daughters in their early twenties. Wives and older-age daughters may also be victims, but to a lesser extent.

Committed by an adult male spouse against an adult female spouse or intimate partner.

Carefully planned. Death threats are often used as a means of control.

The murder is often unplanned and spontaneous.


planning and execution involve multiple family members and can include
mothers, sisters, brothers, male cousins, uncles, grandfathers, etc. If
the girl escapes, the extended family will continue to search for her
to kill her.

The murder is carried out by one man with no family complicity.

The reason given for the honor killing is that the girl or young woman has “dishonored” the family.

batterer-murderer does not claim any family concept of “honor.” The
reasons may range from a poorly cooked meal to suspected infidelity to
the woman’s trying to protect the children from his abuse or turning to
the authorities for help.


least half the time, the killings are carried out with barbaric
ferocity. The female victim  is often raped, burned alive, stoned or
beaten to death, cut at the throat, decapitated, stabbed numerous
times, suffocated slowly, etc.

While some men do beat a spouse to death, they often simply shoot or stab them.

extended family and community valorize the honor killing. They do not
condemn the perpetrators in the name of Islam. Mainly, honor killings
are seen as normative.

batterer-murderer is seen as a criminal; no one defends him as a hero.
Such men are often viewed as sociopaths, mentally ill, or evil.


murderer(s) do not show remorse. Instead, they experience themselves as
“victims,” defending themselves from the girl’s actions and trying to
restore their lost family honor.

Sometimes, remorse or regret is exhibited.

In addition, in this case Aasiya Zubair was Muzzammil Hassan’s 3rd wife, and the previous wives also had reported a pattern of domestic abuse. It is the shame of the Pakistani American community that this abuse, which was known in the community, went unreported and Muzzammil was not prevented from remarrying twice. Zerqa Abid, the cousin to one of Hassan’s previous wives, took the community to task for its failure, and addressing this cultural reluctance to talk openly about domestic violence was the rationale for the nationwide khutba project last week, which inshallah will now be an anual event.


So, it is clear that Hassan was a serial domestic abuser. Furthermore, both his previous wives filed for divorce on those grounds. Both wives were not attacked for “dishonoring” Hassan, however, so the argument that Hassan engaged in an honor killing of Aasiya because she filed for divorce makes no sense.

Finally, the victim’s sister (who resides abroad) revealed that Aasiya had been a victim of Hassan’s violence from the start of their marriage, and had $3000 in medical bills from last year alone. It is clear from this that Aasiya’s murder was the violent climax of an abusive relationship from the very beginning.

It is worth noting that Daniel Pipes, who is hardly sympathetic to the muslim-American community’s attempts to distinguish themselves from extremism, is not prepared to unequivocally call Aasiya’s murder an honor killing based on the classifications above.


Still, there are some who insist against all the evidence that Aasiya was indeed a victim of honor killing. The president of the New York chapter of NOW, Marcia Pappas, referred to the murder as “a terroristic version of honor killing“. In response, a whole bevy of New York women’s and domestic violence organizations addressed an open letter to Pappas making the case that this was indeed domestic violence. Professional reformer Irshad Manji also jumped into the fray, quoting Pappas’ mention of honor killing and demanding outrage. A story on NPR’s All Things Considered gave the honor killing angle some play, but this was followed by a segment on Talk of the Nation a few days later which gave a much more balanced discussion (featuring Asra Nomani and Imam Mohamed Majid, vice-president of ISNA.  Of course, the Islamophobic right has also taken the honor-killing ball and run with it gleefully, but these sources are beyond reason, using Aasiya’s murder as a foil to further their alarmist agenda against Islam and their fellow muslim citizens.


The question is, why does it matter whether we call this an honor killing or domestic violence? Simply put, because it is a form of denial, ascribing the violence suffered by women to an unknowable Other rather than something that has to be dealt with right here at home, from wothin our communities rather than some alien export. As Amy Siskind says in her column on Aasiya’s murder at The Daily Beast,

But do these discussions about honor-killings and multicultural relativism instead distract from the most important point? By elevating Aasiya’s beheading here, are we unwittingly ascribing a “violence against women-lite” to the 2 million victims of intimate-partner violence in our country each year? Or as Nina Miller, co-founder of The New Agenda, puts it: “I fear that in emphasizing the honor-crime aspect of this case, it could create the appearance that we think this form of violence is worse than ‘garden variety’ domestic violence. I think the real danger to us, in terms of advocacy, is making it sound like honor-crimes are worse than crimes committed by non-Muslim men.”

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Dean Esmay

posted February 25, 2009 at 10:07 am

I cringed a little at the assertion that domestic violence is committed “by men.” Statistically, that’s simply not true. Women are quite a bit more likely to commit it than most people realize.
I would also note that it’s been documented that honor killings are ordered by women–specifically, that wives and mothers often DEMAND that a man kill his wife or daughter. It’s not a joke. Moral culpability isn’t merely male-only in nations where honor killings happen.
But anyway, I do appreciate and see the double standard you’re presenting here.

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posted February 25, 2009 at 4:08 pm

I was nodding my head in agreement through most of your post. I’m quite prepared to be skeptical of Muslim moderates’ ability & willingness to combat extremism, but its important to be rational and true to facts. The honor-killing vs. domestic-violence descriptive table you copy here seems to be a good one, and by that standard this case is clearly domestic violence.
Then you go and highlight the phrase “making it sound like honor-crimes are worse than crimes committed by non-Muslim men,” and the up-down motion of my head stopped fast enough to almost give me neck strain. I’d re-phrase it to say: “making it sound like honor-crimes are worse than domestic violence,” because its not just Muslims that commit honor-crimes. But my main point is that honor-crimes are worse than regular domestic violence because it includes complicity by the significant portions of the community, making it extremely difficult for the woman to find refuge. One can, in general, far more easily escape domestic violence than one can escape honor-crime retribution. The murderer in the case of domestic violence is generally shamed by both self and the community, and usually punished by authorities. The murderer in the case of honor-crimes is generally not ashamed of themselves and the community respects what they do. The community will often protect the honor-killer. In some places they will face no criminal prosecution at all.
Honor killing is clearly worse than domestic violence.
In all ways the US Muslim community has responded to this event with an admirable, and unfortunately unusual, amount of self-criticism.

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Aziz Poonawalla

posted February 25, 2009 at 6:43 pm

One can, in general, far more easily escape domestic violence than one can escape honor-crime retribution.
this is, in fact, almost exactly wrong. if you knew people who were victims of DV, you’d realize this.

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Your Name

posted February 26, 2009 at 1:17 pm

I completely disagree with the association of honor killing with Al-Islam?? So called ‘honor killing’ is not honorable at all! Since I cannot find it in Al Quran, it appears to be a cultural/ethnic solution to embarrassment that should have been discarded years ago. Unfortunately, ‘honor killings’ based on the above analysis, appear to be much less humane than DV. I think we should emphasize Al Rahman, Al Rahim (forgiveness) and eliminate ‘hk’. If Allah (SWT) were to punish all creatures for the wrongs they committed, it is said that none would be left living, and Prophet Jesus (PBUH) said, let him who is without sin cast the first stone against the prostitute.

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Prof Ethan

posted February 28, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Paagle has it exactly right, and Aziz Poonawalla should accept certain facts.
That is, the difference between honor killings and ordinary domestic violence is that honor killers are generally not ashamed of what they have done and generally receive understanding (even support) from the community. This is not limited to Muslim communities but Muslim communities are prominent in such reactions:
Example: the murder of Hatin Surucu in Germany in March 2005, and the reaction of public justification it evoked especially among young Muslim men…at university. This was only one of four cases that spring of 2005 in Germany in which young Muslim women were murdered with the approval of family members. Another example: the case of Fadime Sahindal in Sweden in 2003 (her murder approved by her family because she wouldn’t wed and was dating Swedes) Or Ruyaha Qaoud in east Jerusalem in 2003 (murder approved by her own family because she’d been raped). Or Seyran Ates in Berlin who had to give up her legal practice protecting Muslim women because of death-threats. And a BBC poll of young Asians (read: Muslims) in Britain in 2006 revealed that 10% would support the murder of women in order to maintain family honor. In late 2005 in the UK as well, Nazir Afzal, Director, West London, of Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service, stated that the United Kingdom has seen “at least a dozen honour killings” in the past year.
If the Muslim community in North America is fervently not suporting or expressing any “understanding” of this particular criminal Muzzamil Hassan, then there is indeed a strong argument that this particular case is merely domestic violence. That does not affect the general problem, however.

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Prof Ethan

posted February 28, 2009 at 6:22 pm

As I’ve just written, the crime of Muzzamil Hassan, since he evidently is not receiving support or “understanding” from the Muslim community in North America, may not be a good example of honor killing.
But regarding honor killing in general, I would say to Aziz that we are not dealing here with a western stereotype of Muslims, but with a reality.
To wit: Approximately sixty honor killings–-homicides in which young women are killed by male members of their family for allegedly tainting the honor of the clan–are known to have occurred in Germany over the last twenty years. In almost all cases, the defendants-–mostly Turkish, Kurdish, and Afghani Muslims–-have offered a cultural defense, claiming that killing the woman who has dishonored the family was an obligation imposed by morality, culture and tradition. Surprisingly, German judges have accepted this cultural defense in numerous cases and imposed only reduced sentences, most often for manslaughter instead of premeditated murder. One of the latest was the murder of Morsai Obeidi (aged 16) by her brother, in spring 2008. “The whore wanted to live like a German”, he said. He stabbed her more than 20 times.
Aziz, see the recent paper by Sylvia Maier, which is available on the net: “”Honor Killings” and the Cultural Defense in Germany and the United States” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association. 2009-02-04
Aziz, it seems to me that one cannot consistently use “the cultural defense” of woman-beating and woman-killing with good success in German courts and then go on to deny that what is occurring is specific to a specific culture.
Aziz, perhaps you are also familiar with the 2007 Frankfurt Germany case where a German judge, Christa Datz-Winter, accepted the argument of a Muslim man that he had a right to beat his wife under Sharia, and that this did not entitle her to a quick divorce. Datz-Winter cited the Koran in support. The husband was Moroccan, the wife a German citizen of Moroccan descent.. That is, this judge ruled that in Germany it is legal to beat your wife if you are a Muslim. This man also threatened his wife with death. But this was not “domestic violence” if you are a Muslim, ruled the judge.
This particular judgment was overthrown almost immediately, but the point remains the kind of defense that was offered by the accused, and which was even (momentarily) successful. See NY Times, March 22, 2007.

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