article

02.22.09

The Debate Over Aasiya's Murder

By arguing over the difference between honor killing and domestic violence, we’re straying from what’s most important: that Aasiya Hassan was senselessly murdered and the laws of our country could not protect her.

By arguing over the difference between honor-killing and domestic violence, we’re straying from what’s most important: that Aasiya Hassan was senselessly murdered and the laws of our country could not protect her.

What will it take for our country to wake up to the national crisis that is violence against women and girls? Perhaps a modern-day heroine executed medieval-style in Buffalo, N.Y.

Aasiya Hassan cannot take the path of “unreported” along with 73 percent of violent acts against women at the hands of intimate partners. Beheadings have a way of drawing attention. She cannot withdraw charges, like the alleged victim of New York State Senator Hiram Monserrate. She cannot contemplate not filing charges and instead accepting her celebrity boyfriend’s apology, while all the young girls look on. No, Aasiya must instead accept the role of modern-day heroine. Beheadings have a way of taking away choices.

Why is it that some of the most brilliant feminist minds of our time view the murder of Aasiya through such different lenses?

Aasiya’s murder could serve to elucidate our country’s gravest societal crisis—violence against women. The problem is, her killing has touched off a debate among feminists on several fronts, including whether hers was an honor-killing or domestic violence; multicultural relativism; Islamic violence on our shores; and whether we should even be speaking out about this particular murder in the first place. Yet in order for our country to start a much-needed national dialogue on violence against women, the feminists of our country need to unite and work together on this most-important takeaway—that a woman was senselessly murdered and the laws of our country could not protect her.

Aasiya was allegedly murdered by her husband, Muzzammil Hassan, on February 12 at his place of business, the Bridges TV station in a Buffalo suburb. Aasiya had filed for divorce and obtained an order of protection on February 6 against her husband. So why the international attention to the murder of Aasiya? After all, sadly, this type of tragedy is hardly unusual in our country, where each and every day three or more women are murdered by their husband or boyfriend. In fact, statistics tell us that in the ten days since Aasiya died, 30 or more women in America have been murdered by their husband or boyfriend. The attention on this case comes as a result of the gruesome way in which Aasiya was murdered— torture and then decapitation—and what a beheading symbolically means.

Why is it that some of the most brilliant feminist minds of our time view the murder of Aasiya through such different lenses? Phyllis Chesler makes detailed comparisons that highlight the differences between honor-killing and domestic violence. Phyllis posits: “If we refuse to understand what an honor-killing is and how it differs from Western-style domestic violence, we will not be able to prosecute honor-killers, grant asylum to those in flight from being honor-murdered, nor will we be able to educate people against honor-killing.”

Meanwhile, the progressive feminists, on the grounds of multicultural relativism, are trying to close down the whole discussion before it begins. The subtext here is that prior to September 11, 2001, it was uncontroversial to subscribe to the notion that many Islamic cultures were misogynistic. But while the right has voraciously spoken out against Islam since then, the progressives have worked just as hard to respect cultural and religious diversity, particularly with regard to Islam. As Violet Socks, co-founder of The New Agenda, wrote earlier this week: “For many commenters on the web, it is apparently impossible to condemn this nightmare without hastening to add that American culture has plenty of its own home-grown brand of misogyny, and it’s therefore ‘intolerant’ to notice the particular lethalness of the honor-shame paradigm in some non-Western cultures.”

To the feminists of the right, this matter is cut and dried. This past week, I was the keynote speaker to a group of politically active women and men called Republican Women Contemporary Federation of Boca Raton. In a question-and-answer session after my speech, the women and men in the room launched into a discussion about Aasiya’s murder. “We have laws here,” one woman exclaimed. “It’s called the US Constitution.” They were downright angry that this type of cultural hit job could take place on our shores. Live here and obey our laws or get the heck out was the general sentiment.

Artemis March, a feminist intellectual and a co-founder of The New Agenda, wants to find the line between respecting cultural and religious diversity and obeying one law. She posits: “We need to draw a line between respect for other cultures and not accepting practices which harm women. We have one set of laws that govern murder. We cannot have a dual legal system. Our laws and the universal standards of human dignity to which we aspire trump cultural diversity when it comes to harming others.”

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.”

Whatever their point of view, feminists of this country of all stripes should rally behind Aasiya Hassan, a heroine. Her senseless murder comes within weeks of two other high-profile cases of violence against women: Rihanna’s alleged beating at the hands of Chris Brown, and the allegations against Senator Monserrate, who was sworn in to office and given a committee chairmanship despite being accused of stabbing his girlfriend in the face with a broken glass.

Our country needs to start a national dialogue on violence against women. One in four women will be the victim of violence at the hand of an intimate partner in her lifetime. One in three female teenagers in a dating relationship has feared for her safety. Domestic violence costs our country $67 billion a year, including property loss, ambulance services, police response, pain and suffering, and the criminal-justice process. As Aasiya’s case shows, the laws in place simply do not work. It is time that feminists of all stripes come together and work to raise public awareness about violence against women. We need to carefully dissect the causes and figure out solutions. And in due course, some savvy politician needs to make this issue her own and help to champion our way forward together.

Amy Siskind is president and co-founder of The New Agenda, a nonpartisan organization devoted to advancing women’s rights.