Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, gets it. “I don’t see,” he told me this week, “how anyone who believes in the rule of law and the rights of women could do anything other than support efforts to end female-genital mutilation, forced marriage and honor-killings—practices that have no place in the 21st century.”
These things do happen. Two teenage sisters are shot, point blank, in the back of their father’s taxi, apparently for the shame they brought the family by having boyfriends. A young woman is run down and left to die in a parking lot by her father for refusing a forced marriage. A woman lives in fear that every time she goes to work, her family may decide to cut her young daughter’s clitoris or sew up her labia to ensure her virginity before marriage.
But what most Americans just don’t get is that such horrors happen here in the United States of America—and not just in faraway countries like Afghanistan or Somalia.
Take the case of twenty-year-old Noor al-Maleki from Phoenix, Arizona. In October 2009, she was killed when her father ran her over with his Jeep in a parking lot, crushing her body beneath its wheels. Police alleged that her father believed she had become “too westernized”; he was tried and convicted of second-degree murder. She liked makeup, boys, and Western music, and hoped to be able to support herself. She also refused to submit to the marriage her father had arranged for her to an Iraqi man who was in need of a green card. Noor wanted to choose her own fate. Instead, her father chose it for her.
Or consider the case of the Egyptian-born taxi driver in Dallas, Texas, who reportedly shot his seventeen-and eighteen-year- old daughters, Sarah and Amina, a total of eleven times for dating American boys. At a vigil commemorating the two girls, their brother took the microphone and said: “They pulled the trigger, not my dad.” Or Fauzia Mohammad, who was stabbed eleven times by her brother in upstate New York because she wore “immodest clothing.” Or Aiya Altameemi, whose Iraqi-born father held a knife to her throat and whose mother and younger sister tied her to a bed and beat her because she was seen talking to a boy near their home in Arizona. Several months before, Aiya’s mother had burned her face with a hot spoon because she refused to be married off to a man twice her age. Her mother, father, and sister were later sentenced to two years of probation. Fauzia and Aiya survived, but they are scarred for life.
In the United States, honor killings and serious assaults are usually prosecuted, and the perpetrators held to account. That is important, but it is not sufficient. Addressing pervasive low-level violence and intimidation can help prevent more serious crimes from occurring in the first place.
Let’s leave aside the question of whether or not such violence is more common in some immigrant communities than in others. Let’s leave aside the whole vexed question of religion or culture. For now, let’s just get straight what is happening to girls in America. And let’s do something to stop it.
The first step is to understand the phenomenon. Honor violence is rooted in the perception that the behavior of a woman or girl, betraying her chastity, is an affront to the honor of her family and community. Examples of such dishonorable behavior include premarital relationships, dating someone not accepted by the family, or simply wearing clothing considered to be immodest or “too American.”
At first, relatives attempting to control a girl’s sexuality may simply impose non-violent restrictions on her social life, access to education, health care, employment opportunities, and civic participation. But if such forms of pressure do not suffice, a girl may be subjected to threats, harassment, assault, rape, kidnapping, torture, and even murder.
I founded the AHA Foundation as a survivor of honor violence, including female genital mutilation and an “arranged” marriage. My motive for doing so was simple: to help girls in similar situations in the country where I have made my home. I quickly came to see that the biggest obstacle to providing effective assistance was the refusal of most Americans simply to accept that honor violence happens here at all.
I know it does because the AHA Foundation regularly receives requests for assistance from women and girls in crisis. There is the young woman, an American citizen, who was taken to her family’s native country in the Middle East to marry a complete stranger against her will because her parents feared she was becoming too “Americanized.” There is the college student who fears for her life should her father discover that she is dating someone outside her family’s faith. There is the teenage girl who discovers she is pregnant and is threatened with murder by her family for bringing shame upon them.
Even when a woman or girl finds the courage to reach out for help, often our public services are unresponsive because service providers, law enforcement officers, teachers and health care professionals simply do not understand the distinctive nature of honor violence. Honor violence is communally sanctioned and often involves multiple perpetrators within the household or members of the community. Most Americans struggle to understand why a woman or girl exhibiting typical American behavior should be subjected to violence and abuse. Some Americans feel nervous about distinguishing between honor violence and other forms of domestic abuse for fear of giving offense. Some apply different standards to immigrant communities, as if harming a daughter or sister can ever be condoned as part of a cultural tradition.
Partly because the authorities don’t distinguish honor violence in their records, we do not know exactly how many women and girls are victims of honor violence in the United States. In 2000 the United Nations Population Fund estimated that the annual worldwide number of honor killings as high as 5,000, an estimate that is likely too conservative. In the United States, there were at least 10 victims of honor-related violence (most of whom died as a result of the inflicted violence) between 2000 and 2008, though there were almost certainly other cases that were not identified. In 2011, a study by the Tahirih Justice Center found 3,000 known or suspected cases of forced marriage in the United States in the prior two years.
Moreover, the numbers seem very likely to rise in the years to come. Immigration trends over the last ten years, show a significant increase in the number of people moving to the United States from countries with high-honor violence rates—notably Somalia, where I was born, as well as Iraq.
The United Nations estimates that, around the world, 130 million girls and women have experienced genital mutilation, and that each year three million girls are at risk of being “cut.” In the United States, more than half a million women are estimated either to have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) or to be at risk of it. This number marks a sharp rise in the prevalence of FGM in the U.S. compared to just over just a decade ago. The reason for the increase, according to the Population Reference Bureau, is the rise in the number of immigrants from countries where FGM is common. Those trends show no trends of abating.
Americans regard their rights as citizens as sacrosanct. Honor violence, including female genital mutilation and forced marriage, violates a woman’s most basic rights. Such practices simply cannot be tolerated – and ignoring them is a form of tacit toleration. Many people in the United States today seem more worried about being labeled “bigoted” or “racist” for speaking out against harmful traditional practices such as honor violence than about the practices themselves. In my view, that is downright immoral. Simply stated, there is no honor in honor violence. It is criminal.
Addressing honor violence means confronting uncomfortable issues. It means discussing female genital mutilation, a subject that still remains off-limits in some social settings. It means insisting that immigrants abandon traditional practices that are incompatible with the American rule of law. It means admitting that some communities are more likely to engage in honor violence than others–an admission that runs counter to the relativist mantra that all religions and traditions are equally compatible with American values.
There is no reason to tolerate human-rights violations in the United States. No religion, culture, or tradition that can be invoked to justify violence against woman and girls. You do not need to agree with me about the origins of this problem to recognize its urgency. You just need to agree with me that harming girls is wrong, regardless of faith and tradition.
This op-ed first appeared in The Atlantic.