An uncharacteristic apathy washed over me when I heard the news of an American Muslim woman murdered in El Cajon, California last month. Thirty two year old Shaima AlAwadi was found bludgeoned to death in her home as a note calling her a terrorist lay next to her. Recently discovered court documents indicating that AlAwadi was filing for divorce are now leading the media to suggest that her assailant may have been a family member thus rendering her another casualty in a phenomenon that is on the rise in North America called "honor killings" that supposedly emanates from the higher numbers of immigrant Muslim communities into the continent.
I'm not an apathetic person. To the contrary, I often find myself in the embarrassing situation of explaining why I've suddenly become passionate, angry, or upset about issues that affect "other" communities besides my own. Shaima AlAwadi was an immigrant from a Muslim nation, and my parents immigrated from a Muslim Republic. I'm a wife and mother living in America in my thirties, and Alawadi was also a thirty something mother and wife living in America. AlAwadi was a woman who because of her head scarf was visibly Muslim, and I, too, am visibly Muslim in the same way.
Despite our many intersections, however, I find myself in new territory, engaged in an awkward, guilt ridden internal struggle that of which the major undercurrent suggests that I'm not angry or upset enough about this event. Fundamentally, my guilt lies in rejecting an idea that most people seem to take for granted: I should be very, very upset because AlAwadi was a Muslim woman and somehow this death should matter more to me because of that. It does not. In fact, the continuous focus on her Muslim status detracts from the broader, more universal context of her murder. It also seems to confuse people when they try to extract actionable meaning from the tragedy.
In an age where news stories are broken in seconds not minutes, it's easy to fall into the trap of having the wrong conversations about important events. Opinions and scholarship are no longer methodically laid out for careful consideration but are quickly packaged and produced for immediate consumption by an audience that's time constrained and seems more concerned with quantity of information rather than quality. The rhetoric surrounding Al Awadi's murder is no exception.
At the peril of being misinterpreted as being opposed to hate crime legislation, I will express that I find the hate crime paradigm of understanding AlAwadi's murder both divisive and distracting. Hate crime legislation exists to protect those that would be victimized by violence that is rooted in a political or social cause. The problem with this terminology seeping into public discourse is that it automatically pits communities unfamiliar with the nuance of defining hate crimes against one another. Conversation then ultimately moves away from the central issue, that of one individual being murdered by another individual mercilessly, and then becomes a conversation about whether bias is real, whether the minority in question is being oversensitive or not and most unfortunately whether or not the victim's inability to be perceived as a member of the broader society at large is not at the heart of their demise.
Calling AlAwadi's murder a potential "honor killing" proves even more distracting. I spoke with Dr. Nancy Stockdale, a Middle Eastern Studies profesor at University of North Texas and author of Colonial Encounters Among English and Palestinian Women, 1800-1948 (2007), about this terminology and its impact on discussions about Shaima AlAwadi. Dr. Stockdale brought up the idea that honor is not an ideology that is exclusive to the Muslim world. "If someone cheats on their spouse here, don't they feel disrespected in front of their community?" The professor also mentioned a point I had not considered previously, that nearly one third of women murdered in the United States die at the hands of someone with whom they're intimate. Is it a huge leap to assume that many of those murders could have been committed by partners who felt betrayed, undermined, disrespected and, yes, even dishonored?
Just a few days ago, Kevin Allen fatally shot his wife, Katherina, and his daughter in an Ohio Cracker Barrel restaurant after his wife told him she was leaving him. Is it ridiculous to guess that Kevin Allen may have been motivated by a sense of honor or shame? What is the criteria that holds him exempt from having participated in an honor killing? Katherina Allen was shot and killed because her husband was mentally unstable, but Shaima AlAwadi may have been murdered by her husband because she's foreign and a Muslim? What religion was Katherina Allen? Was she born in this country or not? Why is it important to know those details about the late Mrs. AlAwadi but not about the late Mrs. Allen?
As an American Muslim, this untenable distinction between the two women cuts deeply in my psyche and lays at the core of my shutting down when it comes to discussions about AlAwadi's death. I cannot discuss her on the terms that both the general population and the media want to discuss her. The nomenclature used crowds out the sense of connection I have with women who are non-Muslims. It makes me feel othered and misunderstood. I imagine for many non-Muslim American women in the United States, it also causes them to view this crime as something that happens to "those people" from "over there" and thus offers a safe, yet intellectually questionable degree of distance from this type of violence.
The overemphasis on ethnic and religious identifiers obfuscates more important and central issues. While it would be remiss of anyone considering the merits of the case to dismiss entirely that she was an immigrant, a Muslim, or leaving her husband, I believe we can do better in terms of how we as women and a community of informed citizenry frame the discussion. As I researched this story, almost all of the headlines included terms such as "hijab", "honor killing", and "hate crime", and I can't help but feeling that these buzz words detracted from conversations we should be having about violence in general as it applies to women or anyone, for that matter.
I'm struggling with how to frame this death and the discussions about it so that each of us are moved by it in a way that we consider how to pull a more productive and meaningful course of action from it other than making it yet another line of distinction between us. A woman in El Cajo, California was beaten to death in her home. First, investigators thought it may have been someone who didn't like the way she dressed or looked, but now they think it might have been her husband.
Does the absence of AlAwadi's faith and ethnicity change how you would frame this discussion?
What would be your headline?