Wall of Silence

12.05.135:45 AM ET

America’s Honor Killing Epidemic

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s foundation is teaching educators and law enforcement how to recognize warning signs of ‘honor violence’ in U.S. immigrant communities.

Iraqi-born Noor Almaleki was 20 years old when her father killed her, running her over in his car—a fatal punishment for dishonoring her family by attempting to assimilate to Western culture.

Almaleki was raised in the United States, but her parents expected her to adhere to her native country’s cultural standards. Almaleki’s inevitable adoption of American values—from her interest in boys, makeup, and rock music to her quest for financial independence—ultimately led to her demise at the hands of her own father, who was eventually convicted of second-degree murder in the case.

Local law enforcement officers concluded that Almaleki’s death was an “honor killing,” an act of violence against women committed to protect the honor of their families and communities. While seemingly an antiquated custom, honor violence is a very real issue throughout the Western world among immigrant families from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Bangladesh and India.

“Shame to a family is like an infectious disease," women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali explained at her eponymous AHA Foundation’s annual conference in New York City on Tuesday. “Once a family is shamed, they are quarantined from the community—not just the immediate family but the entire bloodline.”

The United Nations estimates that 5,000 women die from honor killings every year. The number of annual deaths in the U.S are unknown simply because there has been no national effort to gather these statistics. “How many girls need to die before we establish data-collecting mechanisms?” asked Ali.

Indeed, these crimes are conceptually foreign in the Western world, their prevalence long overlooked in the United States’ Middle Eastern communities. For Arizona detectives Christopher Boughey and Jeff Balson, the Almaleki case was their first encounter with an honor killing—but certainly not their last. The two have since paired up with AHA to rally other law enforcement officials, social service providers, health care workers and educators around recognizing and responding to this particular type of violence against women.

“Honor violence is where domestic violence was 25 years ago,” said Boughey. “Back in the day we looked at domestic violence as a family problem, and that’s what we’re doing now with honor violence. We know it’s bad but we don’t want to mess with it because we don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable.”

“A crime is a crime, regardless the victim’s background and family dynamics,” said Boughey.

Honor violence can be sparked by a variety of actions, be it resistance to a forced marriage, socializing with male friends or wearing modern, and therefore inappropriate, clothing. Regardless of the specific trigger, all honor violence—which ranges from physical and emotional abuse, harassment, stalking, imprisonment, sexual abuse and physical violence to murder—is carried out as an attempt to control or punish a young woman who acts in a way that violates her family’s religious or cultural norms.

At Tuesday’s conference, Ali, Boughey and Balson discussed the best practices for recognizing the signs of honor violence and how to work with victims and the obstacles involved. In addition to getting over the fear of cultural insensitivity, educators and law enforcement should always take seriously reports by potential honor violence victims of disputes with parents—often over seemingly insignificant things like clothing or friends. Family members and even non-relatives within the same cultural community must be approached with caution, as anyone who shares the same beliefs as the abuser may sympathize with them and put the victim in further danger. This often also means avoiding social workers or translators who had the same upbringing as the victim and may side with the parents. Victims tend to be inconsistent, going back on their claims out of fear of retribution. They must be followed up on constantly, even if they insist things are okay, and provided with a code word to use in case of imminent danger.

The Almaleki case was not an isolated incident, but just one of many that occur throughout the U.S., where, Hirsi said, the justice system—along with administrators and educators—are ill-equipped to handle these criminal acts. “Honor violence isn’t a cultural issue or a race issue,” said Boughey. “It’s a human rights issue.”