Countering Abuse and “Honor” Killings in Immigrant/Muslim Families

Below is the paper presented by the International Civil Liberties Alliance in association with Pax Europa, Mission Europa, and Wiener Akademikerbund at today’s OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting in Vienna. The meeting’s theme is “Gender equality, with a special focus on combating violence against women”.

Countering abuse and ‘honor’ killings in immigrant/Muslim families

Distinguished delegates,

It is a key aim of the OSCE that men and women in OSCE participating states enjoy equal opportunities in society. This includes various forms of self-determination, including the right to choose an education, the right to choose partners in marriage, and the right to change faith. These rights are taken for granted in Western societies, which has led to great freedom and mutual respect between the sexes. Equal opportunities bring out the best in everyone, and are a laudable goal.

Violence against women takes various forms and can occur in the private sphere (i.e., intimate partner abuse, family violence, underage and forced marriage, dowry-related violence and the murder of women in the name of family honor).

Unfortunately, immigration has brought with it notions of honor that are opposed to Western legal principles and ideals, in particular the notion that one can uphold family ‘honor’ by killing female members of the family for not behaving as the family desires. This is a particular problem for teenagers in immigrant families, where their families may try to force them into an undesired marriage, while the society they live in permits women to choose their partners freely.

A high profile case of this kind was the killing of 18-year Ghazala Khan in Slagelse, Denmark. As a reaction to her freely chosen marriage to Emal Khan, her family plotted for her assassination, which was executed on September 23rd 2005 by her older brother. Setting a good example, the Danish authorities persecuted her family to the full extent possible under the law, and convicted nine family members a total of 120 years in prison for this first degree murder of their family member.

A current case involves the 17-year old Rifqa Bary, currently a dependent of the state in Ohio, USA. Her family wants her to return to their guardianship. Bary’s lawyers instead are arguing that she must be declared a dependent of the state, in need of services and protection by the state — APART from her parents. She has experienced a long history of systematic violence by her father, violence that was accepted as Shariah-compliant and legitimate within her orthodox Islamic community, with the result that no one within that community protected her or helped her escape a life-threatening situation. She did manage to escape — with her life — by leaving for Florida on her own, after her parents’ mosque, the Noor Islamic Cultural Center, had notified her father that she had become an apostate from Islam, an act that by way of Islamic tradition is punishable by death. She went to live with Christian foster parents in Florida. Recently, the court in Orlando, Florida, ordered that she should be returned to Ohio custody — currently with the state — in spite of the track record of violence and risk for her life. The November 16 hearing will hear arguments from her lawyers for continuing having the state be her guardian, so she can remain in secured foster care until she turns 18. If we are to protect women from this kind of repression, courts need to understand the threat of authoritative Shariah much better as a criminal system, and in particular the use of capital punishment for apostasy.

Domestic violence represents the same problem on a lesser scale. The frequency of domestic violence in immigrant families appears to be alarmingly high, though most cases are not reported to relevant authorities. This was recently discovered in a Danish school Rådmandsgades Skole, where most of the children reported that violence was the norm in their families, and is reflected at women’s shelters, where very disproportionate numbers of immigrant/Muslim women seek refuge, seeking a life free of domestic violence. More research is needed in this area to develop better laws and institutions to protect Muslim women and children, and also protect non-Muslims who provide them sanctuary.

The use of ‘honour’ killings (which should really be termed ‘family execution’) against female family member is a tool of fear and intimidation with the purpose of keeping other women under the control of family tradition. The message of such a killing is clear: “Obey the will of the family, or risk being killed by your family.” This tradition of repression needs to be broken.

Family executions take place most frequently, though not exclusively, in Muslim families. Thus, it has been debated if this is an Islamic custom or not. While Islamic scripture at places endorse beating or starving disobedient wives, no direct endorsement of killing is found. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that the custom is not Islamic in itself, and that Islamic scholars thus are free to speak out against the custom. Ideally, the tradition should be declared downright anti-Islamic, and that anybody participating in planning or executing such killings are to be considered apostates. Alternatively, Islamic leaders have the option of accepting these killings as a true Islamic custom. That would, however, set them in direct conflict with Western legal systems, as the judicial systems, not religious leaders, are the proper authorities for convicting and meting out punishments.

ICLA therefore recommends:

  • That the frequency of domestic violence in immigrant/Muslim families be researched to ascertain the extent of the problem, and what measures can be taken to counter it.
  • That ‘honor’ killings be treated as the message crimes they are, and that all participating in planning and executing such crimes be persecuted to the full extent possible under the law.
  • That authorities in OSCE participating states take threats from family members seriously and act decisively to protect family members from abuse and the risk of ‘honor’ killings.
  • That greater efforts be taken to protect immigrant women from abuse, including allocating adequate resources to women’s shelters, as well as safe houses at undisclosed locations.
  • That family members at risk be given the benefit of doubt, in order that the tradition of repression within families be broken, and equal rights for women become an effective fact for all, also in immigrant/Muslim families.

Atlas Shrugs on Rifqa Bary

Additional information on this case
By Robert Spencer

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Rifqa Bary is a 17-year-old girl who was raised a Muslim in Sri Lanka and then in Ohio after her parents immigrated to the United States. By Rifqa’s account, her father and mother are “radical Muslims,” and this is borne out by the fact that they bypassed several mosques closer to their home in Columbus, Ohio, in order to join the farther-away Noor Islamic Center, a mosque with anti-Semitic associations and links to the internationally renowned Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has endorsed the death penalty for apostates from Islam, suicide bombings, and called for genocide against Jews.

Rifqa became a Christian around 2005, but kept that fact concealed from her parents out of fear for how they might react. However, she was relatively open about her faith on a Facebook that was discovered by members of the Noor Islamic Center in 2009 and reported to her parents. Rifqa says that she then had a confrontation with her father: “In a fit of anger that I had never seen before in my life, he picked up my lap top, waved it over my head as if to strike me with it and said, ‘If you have this Jesus in your heart, you are dead to me! You are no longer my daughter.’ I continued to remain silent and then he said to me, even more angry then before, ‘I will kill you! Tell me the truth!” Then later “my mother confronted me about another Christian book she discovered that I hid in my bedroom. She had just spoken with my father was on the phone who was out of town. She was very upset, in tears, and almost grieving and told me I was going to have to be sent back to Sri Lanka to be dealt with.”

In Sri Lanka, Rifqa said, she feared she would be killed or institutionalized by Muslims carrying out the traditional death penalty for apostasy, or taking it as far as they believed they could go. So she fled. She made her way from Ohio to Florida, where she took refuge at the home of a Christian pastor and his wife, and was ultimately placed in foster care.

After that Rifqa Bary became the center of a custody battle, as her Muslim parents took their case to the Council on American-Islamic Relations and to the media in a bid to get their daughter back home. Mohamed Bary denied ever threatening his daughter, and the lack of a threat was borne out by investigators from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. However, there was a good deal of question about the reliability and lack of bias of this investigation, particularly since the FDLE’s interview with Mohamed Bary and his wife had been supervised by a representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group that has been named an unindicted co-conspirator in a Hamas terror funding case, and which has had several of its officials arrested and convicted on various terror-related charges.

Now Rifqa has been sent back to Ohio. She is in foster care, but is in imminent danger of being returned to her family. Judge Daniel Dawson in Florida had said that he would not send Rifqa back to Ohio until he received her family’s immigration documents. Mohamed Bary was in danger of being held in contempt of court for failing to produce these documents. Eventually his attorney made an agreement with Rifqa’s guardian ad litem, offering to keep Rifqa in foster care until she was 18 — which would mean she was free from the father she fears so much — in exchange for dropping questions about the immigration status. But once the contempt of court charge over the immigration issue was dropped, Mohamed Bary’s attorney reneged, leaving Rifqa back in Ohio and in imminent danger of being sent home to her family.

From there, of course, once media attention died down, it would not be difficult to have her sent back to Sri Lanka to be killed or institutionalized — and even in Ohio she would be subjected to relentless, unstinting pressure to renounce Christianity and proclaim Islam publicly.

What’s more, Rifqa, unlike thousands of children in foster care in the U.S., has been forbidden to use the phone or Internet. She has been effectively isolated from the outside world.

This is a human rights issue that should interest everyone who believes in the freedom of conscience and the freedom of religion. Although the American media has glided over the fact or denied it outright. Will this girl be exposed to mortal danger or allowed to exercise her freedom of conscience in the United States of America? Will Sharia provisions — calling for the indefinite imprisonment and isolation of the female apostate — be allowed to prevail in this country? Why is Rifqa, alone among the thousands of minors in foster care, be cut off from the outside world entirely, deprived of phone and Internet use? The phone or Internet could save her life. And saving her life seems to be what malevolent forces in the U.S. are doing their best to make impossible.