The Dishonor of Honor Killings
On Jan. 1, 2008, teenage sisters Amina and Sarah Said were shot to death by their father in their hometown of Lewisville, Texas. It later came to light that the murders were a premeditated “honor killing,” as retribution for the eldest, Amina, rejecting an arranged marriage to a much-older man in Egypt, and for both the girls, honor students and athletes at their high school, having American boyfriends.
In the new documentary “The Price of Honor,” directors Neena Najad and Xoel Pamos examine the murders, the alleged complicity of the girls’ mother, the culture of honor violence, and the fact that the killer, Yaser Said, is still at large seven years later. Co-director and producer Pamos, who will appear at Women in the World Texas Oct. 22 in San Antonio to talk about the issue, spoke to The Daily Beast about, among other things, how he hopes this film will change that.
How did you become interested in telling Amina and Sarah’s story?
Xoel Pamos: Initially, we were going to do a more general project about honor violence around the globe, and look at a few different cases. But then we found Amina and Sarah and we thought, wow, this is a story all its own.
Are people surprised that honor violence is something that happens in the U.S.?
Definitely. I have several friends who went to the screening in L.A. and they were shocked. It’s something that doesn’t normally affect this country, and we tend to only pay attention to things that affect us directly.
I got the feeling Amina would have become one of the people fighting against honor violence in this country if she’d lived.
That’s something I always said. If Amina was alive today she’d be fighting for all those people. She was so strong, and that’s why she died. Because she had enough, and she wasn’t going to take it anymore. She was 18, it was about time for her to make a huge change. Unfortunately she was too late.
Was it challenging to film these interviews and scenes and maintain some kind of directorial objectivity?
It was definitely hard. Some days all of us on set would be crying. I remember very clearly the scene at the cemetery, it was very emotional. [The mother of Amina’s boyfriend, Joseph] was there for an hour and a half, and it was really heartbreaking.
In the film, you were threatened by the girls’ uncle. Did more threats follow after the film came out?
No, and I hope it doesn’t happen again. But I’m not scared of the family. I was before, but not anymore. They can say whatever they want. I hope the film pushes them to finally come forward and talk. My opinion is they know a lot more than they’re saying.
Do you have numbers on how many honor killings take place in the U.S. and internationally?
The AHA Foundation [created by Ayaan Hirsi Ali], which focuses on honor violence here, did a study where they found 26 honor killings in the past year. But when you look into honor violence, as opposed to killing, you can’t really get an accurate number. It goes into the thousands. The signs are very similar to domestic abuse. There is another prevalent practice in which family members push the victim to the limit until she kills herself. Obviously that doesn’t count as an honor killing, it counts as suicide. So there’s a lot more than the numbers show.
How is honor violence different from domestic abuse?
Some people think it’s the same thing, but it’s really not. Because in domestic abuse the abuser is a coward. It’s more about controlling women in private. In honor violence, it’s a person who has the support of his own family to not only abuse but kill a woman. Every single honor killing, you’ll find it was never one person. Usually the mother is involved. Someone like Amina, she knew she was going to die. She knew it was a matter of time. Even if she’d called a domestic abuse hotline, they wouldn’t have understood. This is something in the U.S. that we have to work on understanding.
Did you have misgivings about showing the clips from two brutal executions of other women?
We wanted to keep it graphic. We had a chance to blur it, but you really need to feel the pain. When we watched the movie, I heard a lot of people gasp. That was the whole point. That’s the only way you can really make people go home and Google, do some research. There are so many ways people can help- you can get involved as a volunteer, you can donate a small amount to an organization every month. Go home and use that hashtag to let people know about the story.
Do you think the film will galvanize enough interest to re-open the search for Yaser?
One of our goals was to bring Amina and Sarah into the public eye again, to put pressure on the detective who’s doing nothing on the investigation. I hope the hashtag #catchyasernow will help raise money to add to the current reward of $30,000. We know there are people who know where he is. We think if we can raise enough money, someone will give him up. We believe very strongly that the police department should get involved again. And the only way they’re going to do it is if there’s pressure on them.