Looking Back At The World Premiere Of “Honor Killing”

Fewer stories resonate with viewers as they grow older. Children are young, naive, and innocent — they have a fresh outlook on every new experience. The first time they see blood in a television series or movie, they experience that telltale rush of adrenaline. But there are some stories that resonate even with adults. Those that tell a new story. Those that provide a fresh outlook. Those that make us laugh or cry. Or those that are told through a different format — like a play. “Honor Killing” is one such tale for which most audience members were not ready.

Sarah Bierstock’s “Honor Killing” first premiered in the Florida Gompertz Theatre from April 4, 2018 until May 25, 2018.

The story revolves around American reporter Allisyn Davis, who works for The New York Times. When she travels to Pakistan in hopes of reporting on an honor killing, she discovers not necessarily that there is more to the tale — but that there is more to learn about society by learning about the tale. 

Honor killings infrequently occur in the United States, but in other countries they remain a pervasive problem. They usually occur when a family’s patriarchy believes the family has been “shamed” — and that the only way to wipe the slate clean is by killing the person responsible. This person is usually a female member of the family, such as a daughter. The crimes usually include divorce, failing to abide by or agree to the terms of an arranged marriage, or choosing to have a relationship with someone who shares different religious or cultural beliefs. 

These murders are often a public spectacle used to warn other members of society not to make the same mistakes that have already been made. These killings take place through a variety of means, including: beheading, stabbing, cutting a throat, using acid, strangling, and stoning — but there are others. 

Honor killings are still legal in some jurisdictions, but in others they are simply “overlooked.” That said, the “shamed” family members still understand that the law frowns upon murder, and that certain “classes” of people will have a better legal outcome should they be charged with and convicted for murder.

This leads to the use of young children to commit these acts. The children are compelled by “duty” to obey their elders, and failing to carry out a murder on behalf of one’s father or mother (against a sister, for example) could result in yet more violence, exile, or other consequences.

“Honor Killing” has since gone on to the Athena Project in Denver, Colorado and the WAM Theater in West Stockbridge, Connecticut, and was read at the PROJECT W Festival at Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City. Bierstock has gone on to write at least two other plays, “MAD” and “Graceland 2.0.” She continues to act and write, attempting to push the envelope further with each performance or playwright. 

Are Honor Killings Ever Committed By Stoning?

The short answer is yes. Although honor killings are most often conducted in private circumstances in brutal ways, the perpetrator’s intent is usually to end the life of the victim as quickly as possible — which makes sense, considering the victim is almost always a “beloved” member of the immediate family. But stonings have still taken place throughout history, especially when the victim’s community is small and tight-knit.

Du’a Khalil Aswad was 17 when she was killed in 2007, stoned to death in Iraq. The worst part? The murder was filmed. But thankfully, this is why the public at large knows about the crime.

Mark Lattimer of The Guardian wrote: “After Du’a’s death, the international media widely repeated a claim made on a number of Islamic extremist websites that she had been killed because she converted to Islam, but local reports do not concur. Some people tell me she had run away with her Muslim boyfriend and they had been stopped at a checkpoint outside Mosul; others say she had been seen by her father and uncle just talking with the boy in public and, fearing her family’s reaction, they had sought protection at the police station. Either way, the police handed Du’a into the custody of a local Yazidi sheikh.”

The fact that the local police may have been complicit in the young girl’s subsequent murder was one of the reasons it made headlines around the world. But it gets worse. When she finally decided to return home, hundreds or even thousands came after her, at which point she was dragged to the town square to await her execution by stoning.

Brain injury Socal expert Jordan Davis explained what stoning would feel like for the victim: “Stoning is an extremely brutal process, normally used in Middle Eastern countries as a form of punishment against those accused of committing religious crime. It’s even worse than most people understand. The victim is normally buried up to the waist or chest, depending on gender. Stones are most often tangerine-sized. Not big enough that one or two would result in death, but big enough to do some damage.”

Davis continued: “The stoning takes perhaps an hour or less depending on the crowd. The first few stones will likely lead to concussion, blurred vision, and general confusion. Once the bleeding begins, loss of consciousness is common. Victims who stay awake for most of the process are much more likely to experience nausea and vomit. Not a pretty way to die.”

Her murder took about thirty minutes. She was stripped naked and stoned without being buried, at which point her body was tied to a vehicle and dragged through the town. Once the debacle was ended, she was buried with a dead dog as a form of disrespect. Allegedly, the entire affair occurred because she converted to Islam.

The event caused a tinderbox to erupt into a firestorm, and a subsequent protest resulted in the killing of many hundreds of Kurdish Iraqi citizens who were protesting the honor killing. A number of other similar events resulted in the deaths of many more dozens.

Indonesia Has First Ever (Recorded) Honor Killing During Coronavirus Pandemic

The nightly news has shifted several times this year, but until recently the focus was on the worldwide crisis in the face of the relentless spread of coronavirus. The U.S. riots after the deaths of two African American men went viral on social media have grabbed most of the attention that had been given to COVID-19, but other stories have been mostly overlooked. One such story was Indonesia’s first honor killing — on record, anyway.

A 16-year-old Indonesian girl confided in her brothers that she had started to date, after which they brutally beat her to death while the family watched. Their weapons of choice? A log and machete. 

Director Alissa Wahid of the Gusdurian Network Indonesia warned that more crimes such as these would likely occur before long because of the world’s current trend toward conservative values and nationalism. “This is what’s worrying,” she said. “It may not be in the form of killing, but nonetheless it is dangerous to well-being, especially for daughters.”

This is especially concerning coming from a country where honor killings are not commonplace.

Already, some are expressing the idea that copycats might take to this sort of self-orchestrated justice within families. Are more girls in Indonesia at risk? Time will tell. But the more important question — and one without an answer — might be whether or not the world will even hear about such murders when headlines are glued to the coronavirus pandemic. Recent headlines have focused on the United States. With an especially chaotic election there looming just around the corner, this trend might continue (and so, too, might the violence).

A 14-year-old girl was also recently murdered by her father in another honor killing after she ran away with an older man. Her father has been arrested, and thankfully the murder was covered in the local news — albeit pro-government news.

The Dangerous Practice Of Testifying In Honor Killing Cases

Honor killings are a brutal and common practice in the Middle East. Many women have been accused of “dishonoring” their families through sexuality or by running off with the wrong man, and subsequently murdered for their supposed transgressions. But what happens when one family member agrees to testify that his older brother murdered his sister? Apparently, he too is in danger.

That was the case for Taha al-Amouri, a 16-year-old who witnessed his 32-year-old brother Mohammed al-Amouri murder their 19-year-old sister, Najlaa al-Amouri. The alleged honor killing occurred on April 11 earlier this year, and Mohammed was indicted for the murder two months later. The Israeli media called Najlaa’s fate at home “systematic torment.”

Prosecutors working the investigation had already fast-tracked the case and Taha’s testimony because they suspected he might be in danger if the case dragged on longer. But Taha disappeared anyway, and his father filed a missing person report with the police.

“We intend to hold a meeting with senior officials to examine how to act if and when he is discovered,” the prosecution said. 

A number of apparent honor killings have been committed in Israel following the formation of the Palestinian feminist movement, “Tal’at.” The name is used to describe the “taking to the streets” of women who want equality.

The recent murder of a Palestinian Bethlehem native shows that there are consequences for those who stand up for themselves in this region of the world. Isra’a Ghrayeb’s death, though,  made the movement all the stronger. Protests have shot through Palestine in Gaza’s West Bank, and in at least six cities in Israel. 

These women aren’t requesting much from their governments — only legal protections from honor killings which, although illegal, are often dismissed by authorities who decide to instead turn a blind eye to the madness. 

Isra’a was murdered for no more than an Instagram post showing her alongside the man who had proposed to her. She tried to beg for her life, and fled from the brothers who allegedly murdered her, sustaining spinal injuries after falling from a balcony during the struggle in Beit Sahour. She subsequently died in the hospital after suspected foul play.

There have been at least 18 such honor killings of Palestinian women this year. Isra’a’s family denies any wrongdoing. According to a statement released after her death, she died “after she had a heart attack, following an accidental fall.” But much of the rest of the world isn’t buying into it, and cries for change have begun to resonate with humanitarian groups around the world.

The Psychology Of Honor Killings: Why Do They Still Happen in 2019?

Those of us who live in the United States regard many of the crimes committed in the Middle East as barbaric or inhumane — sometimes we even view the punishments for those crimes with similar disdain. However, they happen for a reason. Women are still marginalized in every society in the world, and some male-dominated communities would rather perpetuate terrible violence against women to keep them subjugated than view them as equals. Why?

Family members who commit honor killings very rarely show remorse for what they have done. Not only do they believe their acts were necessary, but they see them as justified both by the laws of men and in the eyes of their faith.

The reasons for these crimes are varied: a woman might run away with a man after a previous marriage was arranged; a woman might appear in public without a chaperone; they may have been raped; they may be too friendly towards their male counterparts; they may have shown their faces in public rather than wear a hijab. 

While many of us might see the impractical reality of these crimes, even psychologists have difficulty comprehending the human capacity for violence toward other members of a family. All animals, humans included, have an instinctual resolve to keep members of their own family safe from harm. Yet in these cases — some in which women did absolutely nothing wrong at all except wander into the wrong place at the wrong time — a parent’s love for a child might be overwritten by the urge to shirk an imagined dishonorable act.

That means the answer is deeply entrenched in Middle Eastern culture and practice. Honor killings occur, even today, because reputation is important to those who live in the Middle East, as is tradition. Men who live in these parts of the world epitomize the modern concept of fragile masculinity: they strive to be as masculine as possible, as rough and tough as they possibly can be. They will not tolerate disrespect from anyone, and certainly not from a member of the opposite sex.

This is because this facade of masculinity is viewed as a key to one’s success in life. Without it, failure would follow. Of course we know this is not true, but perception is reality to those who commit honor killings.

Unfortunately honor killings have been reported in the United States as well. Any Criminal defense attorney will tell you that statistics regarding these crimes aren’t necessarily falling as time goes on, and part of the reason is because radical elements of both conservative and liberal bias are on the rise all over the world — and the more radical a person’s beliefs, the more likely it is they will perpetuate this crime. What can we do to change the outcome? The answer to that question is simpler: we can start talking.

Four Honor Killings Reported In Phoenix, Arizona

After killing his wife, two daughters and the man whom he thought was having an affair with his wife, Austin Smith, a Muslim, was arrested. Why did he commit such a cruel act? According to the Phoenix Police Sergeant Tommy Thompson, Smith believed that “in God’s eyes, it was all right for him to deal with someone in this manner who had been involved in adultery, extramarital affairs.” He also elaborated that he killed his 7-year-old daughter because she was “weeping for the wicked.”

How does this differ from domestic violence? It doesn’t. But the fact that his justification for his crimes refers to God indicates that this is an honor killing. The sad part is that many friends of the wife, Dasia Patterson, did not believe that she was having an affair. What makes this very scary is the fact that Austin Smith was a convert to Islam and was not brought up in the culture where honor killings are happening quite frequently.

If this crime had taken place in Palestine, Austin Smith would be pardoned, given a suspended sentence, or six months to three years of imprisonment. If this crime had taken place in Syria, he would have to serve two years imprisonment. In Turkey, a woman who is accused of violating the family’s honor is forced to commit suicide so family members can avoid jail time or the act is done by young boys so they can serve less jail time for being a minor.

Luckily (but is it?) this heinous crime was done in the United States. Austin Smith will face the death penalty, life in prison without the possibility or parole or life in prison with the chance of parole in 25 years FOR EACH COUNT OF MURDER.

Until Islamic culture changes around the world, honor killings will still be prevalent throughout the world even here in the United States.

Do Middle Eastern Women Have A #MeToo Movement?

Women across the United States have begun to speak out about the issue of rampant sexual assault and harassment by their male counterparts, and the #MeToo movement shows no signs of slowing down. Most notably, comedian Bill Cosby was sentenced to years in prison, while actor Kevin Spacey has finally been charged with just one of his dozens of alleged assaults. No one can argue that it’s far past time for such a movement, but do women outside of the United States have the same options?

The movement–or similar movements–do exist outside of the United States, but they don’t always have the same impact. Part of the reason is rooted in Middle Eastern culture. In that part of the world, women are supposed to be submissive, and accusations of sexual assault aren’t taken seriously. Female accusers often face contempt, and sometimes find themselves in even more danger.

Once upon a time, it wasn’t unheard of for a woman to be stoned to death for being raped outside of her marriage vows–as if it was her fault. It still isn’t unheard of for family members to turn against a young woman who is even thought to have strayed from the path that men think she ought to tread.

Arab celebrities have also managed to escape the rule of law, even when accused shortly after a crime has been committed. This is especially true of singers or actors who are on the road, and have every opportunity to leave the country by skipping bail or provide a mouth-watering settlement offer to poor women who are more likely to accept.

Women who reside in Iran continue to battle against the notion that a woman must be covered by a hijab. Women in Israel are jumping onboard the #MeToo bandwagon, and rather successfully at that.

Life is a little rougher in Pakistan, where an average of 1000 girls of Hindu or Christian faith are kidnapped. These girls are then converted to Islam and married to Muslim men by force. There are still far too many honor killings. On top of that, it isn’t out of the ordinary for prepubescent girls as young as six to marry men who could be their grandfathers. It happens all the time so families can settle feuds.

Protests are in the works because of this barbaric behavior, and the brutally violent crimes against women are finally finding their place in the international spotlight. But is that enough to effectuate real change?

When Were The First Documented Honor Killings?

The gruesome brutality of honor killings is finally becoming more universally opposed, and laws are beginning to trickle down through the Middle Eastern world. How did these killings become so common? How did honor killings become so acceptable to so many? Honor killings similar to those we know now have been documented at least since ancient Greek and Roman times when men had the legal right to kill a daughter or adulterous spouse free of consequence.

Other documents show that honor killings were somewhat common during the Middle Ages. Jewish law prohibited adulterous behavior and punished the crime by stoning the perpetrators. The practice is still documented all around the world, but this murderous behavior is most abundant in the Middle East and parts of Africa.

The ritualistic act has evolved over time. During the Ottoman Empire, killers would collect the victim’s blood and sprinkle it on their own clothes. They would then take to the streets with the murder weapon. This tradition was ironically thought to increase one’s honor.

It’s important that we all understand the nature of the “crime” that may precipitate an honor killing needn’t be proved. It needn’t have even occurred. The crime that these butchered women committed was falling to accidental suspicion, something that isn’t tolerated in certain parts of the world, and never was. This suspicion is what really tarnishes someone’s honor, and so the victim must be killed.

This kind of rationalization is about as ancient as you might expect. Men think it makes more sense to kill someone rather than let groundless rumors spread or be blown out of proportion.

There is a historical context for other types of honor killing. We’re all familiar with the idea of a duel. This type of honor-defending behavior was popular in Canada even into the late 19th century.

The English King Henry VIII had his fifth wife beheaded after she was accused of adulterous behavior. Shakespeare was notorious for including honor-based murder and execution in his plays. Other stories passed down through time include the notion of killing on a shocking scale in order to protect one’s honor. Perhaps the best example of this is the Trojan War.

Thankfully, the prevalence of the practice seems to have diminished over time.

Woman Stabbed 80 Times in Gruesome Honor Killing

It can be difficult for one culture to understand the beliefs of another, especially when those beliefs allow men to get away for murder–but that’s what happens in many Middle Eastern countries when they so often turn a blind eye to the honor killings committed against women. There are hundreds each year, and the rest of the world barely takes notice of the women who don’t survive. Those who do are often afraid to tell their stories.

In Abu Dhabi, an Arab man currently stands accused of the murder of his sister. His trial is underway. The Khaleej Times described the arguments between the accused and the victim prior to the murder as “heated” after the defendant questioned the morality of his sister’s actions. He stabbed her 80 times, only calling the authorities after he was certain she was dead.

Like so many similar trials, the outcome is up in the air. The defendant’s mother has managed to stall proceedings by requesting medical reports evaluating his mental state prior to the murder. According to the Khaleej Times, he should still find himself under the scrutiny of an official sentence even if his mother decides to drop her personal right charge.

Although honor killings occur in countries all over the world, they are far more common in the Middle East. When a woman was thought to have cheated on her husband earlier in the year, her father murdered her. In a separate case, one woman’s new husband made allegations that she was not a virgin–after he murdered her. When another woman ran away from home, her husband brutally killed her. Another live-streamed an honor killing using Facebook to disseminate the event publically.

These killings won’t stop until we raise public awareness that they’re happening in the first place, and put pressure on human rights entities to do more than they’re doing now. The practice is under increased scrutiny in some Arab countries, where legislative bodies are finally taking action to protect the rights of the women who live there. One of the biggest issues is how many of these honor killings remain unreported by other friends or family who know they’ve been committed. The law must not accept this in order for it to change.

Connecting The Muslim Holiday of Ashura To Honor Killings

Depending on which sect of Islam you ask, Ashura is a special day in Islamic history. The term itself means “Tenth” in Arabic and that’s directly connected to the Islamic calendar.

Ashura’s origins stem from a related Judaic day for atonement. According to Sunni Islam and NJ Employment Attorneys, this day was reserved as an important one by Prophet Musa (Moses) to thank God for all that he had provided Israelites. In addition to Prophet Musa, the day is also marked as being close to Prophet Mohammad, who would fast on this day and also encourage others to do so as per tradition of the Jews.

However, in the case of Shias, Ashura is solely reserved for the 10th day of Muharram and as a means to remember Husayn Ibn Ali’s martyrdom in the year AD 680. It’s important to note this is not a celebration but more of a way to remember the sacrifices of those who came before this generation. This is often commemorated with a deep period of mourning. In this case, the mourners will congregate in one place (i.e. Mosque) and work on remembering Husayn Ibn Ali with sorrow and will also take up chants such as “Ya Hussain” while beating drums. During this period, many scholars will take up the time to speak to the masses and help shed light on what’s being honored and why it’s essential to mourn.

One of the prominent stories told during the day would be about Husayn Ibn Ali’s sacrifice as it can help illustrate why the mourning is important and what it implies. It is a way to get closer to the religion and also appreciate what the Husayn family had to deal with at that time.

Ashura is not reserved for a specific country and is observed in various parts of the world.

However, the way it is set up can vary with Arab countries (i.e. Iraq, Syria, Iran) focusing on the storytelling whether it has to do with the Battle of Karbala or the martyrdom of Husayn Ibn Ali. Iran is also renowned for taking up the time to put up plays that can help illustrate what happened on that fateful day and why it’s important to keep it in one’s heart as a Muslim.

In South Asia, there are many sermons and the day is often capped with celebrations that go on throughout the Shia community. There are often processions that take place throughout the course of the day but this can vary from place to place.

There are many mosques around the world, which take the time to speak on this day and what it means to Muslims. Many will visit their scholar and look to rekindle their passion for the religion and deepen their understanding of what it means to be a Muslim. We hope on this day that those who have been murdered in an honor killing will also be remembered.