New information in the Shaima Alawadi murder case in El Cajon, Calif., suggests that the family was cracking over a forced marriage for daughter Fatima, 17, and that Alawadi herself was preparing to divorce her husband. If female freedom turns out to be at the heart of the murder, it will highlight not so much the intolerance of Muslim immigrants by Americans, but the cultural restrictions on women in those communities and what happens when those restrictions clash with the relatively permissive rules of Western society.
Alawadi was beaten to death with a tire iron inside her home in El Cajon (home to 40,000 Iraqis) last month. For weeks the case has been regarded as a possible hate crime because someone left a note beside her unconscious body that read, “Go back to your own country. You’re a terrorist.” But Alawadi, 32, belonged to a culture in which families choose husbands for their daughters at a young age, and the daughters have no say in it. She was married by the age of 15. She had produced five children with her husband Kassim Alhimidi, who moved his family to the U.S. 17 years ago. Police executing search warrants on the family’s house, cars and phones found documents in Alawadi’s car indicating she was planning to get divorced. According to the New York Times, a family friend told police that Alawadi wanted to leave her husband and move to Texas. Her sister, however, denied that.
Iraqi women can divorce more easily than women in other predominantly Muslim countries, thanks to laws that predated the new Islamic government. But the process can take years and leave them socially shunned and destitute. What’s more, Alawadi’s 17-year-old daughter seems to have been rebelling against her own forced marriage. According to court documents revealed in the New York Times, Alawadi’s eldest daughter, Fatima, was found in a car with a 21-year-old man. After her mother picked her up, Fatima said “I love you, Mom” and jumped out of the car going 35 m.p.h., sustaining injuries. While recovering in the hospital, Fatima told authorities that she was being forced to marry a cousin in Iraq — not the man with whom she’d been in the car. Alhimidi, Alawadi’s husband, is in Iraq with his two eldest children (Fatima and her brother) for her funeral. They are expected to return the U.S. later this month.
We don’t yet know who killed Alawadi, but we do know that issues of female freedom have led to a long list of ugly crimes. Female immigrants from so-called culturally conservative countries like Iraq often start taking advantage of the freedoms available to women in the U.S.: the right to travel alone and work outside the home, to choose whom to date and marry, the relatively easier legal path to divorce. Their men, on the other hand, have been taught to regard such behavior as “dishonoring” the family. Sadly, in countries like Iraq, men can murder women over “honor” and are rarely prosecuted.
A year ago in Phoenix, an Iraqi immigrant father was sentenced to 34 years in prison for running his car over his 19-year-old daughter for “dishonoring” her family by moving into her own apartment and choosing her own boyfriend. In January, a jury in Canada found three members of an Afghan family guilty of killing three teenage sisters and another woman, in what prosecutors called murder instigated by a “twisted concept of honor.”
Domestic violence against women is a plague on all nations and cultures. It is certainly not limited to Islamic-refugee communities. But American authorities need to pay closer attention to the plight of women in these communities. In the U.K., forced marriage is illegal, and the government even has a special unit that rescues young girls who have been sent to undergo forced marriages in their parents’ home countries, often Pakistan or Bangladesh. Crimes committed with the aim of controlling women are also hate crimes, even if that hatred is directed within the community.
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