The World History Of Honor Killings: Part I

It stands to reason that humans have a variety of reasons for any action they take — after all, we’ve evolved a number of complex societies over millennia, many of which have fallen but were later used as the foundation for even stronger (or sometimes weaker) societies. Have you ever wondered how America’s democracy was born? How about why we use the bald eagle as a strong symbol of our society? Easy answer: it’s because Rome used the eagle as a strong symbol of its society, and we fashioned our own government after theirs (although our founding fathers certainly hope they built something better). 

In any case, humans commit murder for a variety of reasons. Honor killings may not be common in the United States, but they occur routinely overseas even as authorities begin to crack down on this strange custom. The family unit is an adaptation that humans have evolved in order to build society from the ground up — so how is it that some societies commit murder against members of their own families? We’ll explore the reasons by poring through the history of honor killings. 

You probably wondered why we mentioned Ancient Roman society. Well, it’s because this is the first piece of historical context available to us.

Honor killings first began in Rome. The head of a household — always the oldest paternal unit called the pater familias — had the legal right to slaughter a sexually active daughter or a wife who cheated. The “right” to kill for honor runs out as soon as a daughter is married and leaves the household. 
We see these instances echoed in Roman literature. The story of Lucretia results in the titular character’s suicide when she was raped. The story of Verginia ends when her father kills her — because she was raped. You can imagine that the stories because even more disturbing when the victim chose to have sex. To the Romans, these stories were romantic (and we’re not just being punny there). But we’ll continue the Roman history of honor killings in part two of our series.

Texas Man Faces Prison For Hiding Honor Killing Suspect

Yaser Abdel Said was an honor killing suspect who took a spot on the FBI’s “Top Ten” list of most-wanted fugitives after the murder of his own daughters Amina and Sara, who were 18 and 17 at the time of their deaths. Their crime? They were dating non-Muslims. Said told their mother that he was taking them out for a meal on New Year’s Day in 2008. Instead, he shot them inside a cab he borrowed.

Said was captured in August 2020 after a more than decade-long manhunt.

Now, his son Islam Yaser-Abdel Said, 32 and also a Texas resident, has pleaded guilty after charged and prosecuted for the crime of assisting his father evade law enforcement capture for the past 12 years. He could spend three decades in prison..

U.S. Attorney Prerak Shah said, “Islam Said prioritized the whims of his father, an alleged killer, over justice for his own sisters. Thanks to the dogged work of the FBI and its law enforcement partners, however, Mr. Said’s efforts were ultimately in vain.”

FBI reported that “On Aug. 25, 2020 FBI agents observed Mr. Said and his uncle deliver grocery bags to the residence, then followed the men to a shopping center 20 miles away, where they dumped trash received from the home.”

The home where Said had been concealed belonged to a cousin from Justin, Texas.
The bigger shock? Crimes like the aforementioned are often overlooked in the United States. According to Farhana Qazi, who used to be a government analyst for Advanced Studies on Terrorism, “Cases of honor killings and/or violence in the U.S. are often unreported because of the shame it can cause to the victim and the victim’s family. Also, because victims are often young women, they may feel that reporting the crime to authorities will draw too much attention to the family committing the crime.”

Calculating The Disproportionate Violence Against Women

Have you ever wondered how much more often the women in your life have deal with violence and sexual harassment than men? If you haven’t, then you might find the statistics somewhat disconcerting. One in three women will experience physical violence and/or rape during their lifetime — from a romantic partner. That’s to say nothing of the violence perpetrated against women by strangers. This compares to about 10 percent of men who experience the same.

There are other forms of assault at play, too. For example, almost half of women and men believe they were victims of “psychological” aggression, manipulation, or coercion. Have you ever known a woman who was battered or abused by her spouse or partner, but she refused to leave him? This is where psychology fits into the equation.

Men don’t experience rape as often as women, but those who do report similar psychological long-term effects and over half of male victims of rape were raped by an acquaintance. Only 15 percent were raped by a stranger. 

Women who were raped when they were in their teens are also more likely to be raped as adults, compared to women who were not raped during adolescence. Researchers do not understand all the factors that contribute to this statistic, but speculate that some women who are more prone to sexual assault because of fear.

College students who report rape are far more likely to report that it happened at school — and women are far more likely to be raped on campus than men. 

Although women are far more likely to become the victims of sexual assault — it can and does occur to anyone. But few people talk about it. Most victims of violence make no attempt to press charges against the perpetrator, in part because our society continues to promote the idea that the victim is somehow to blame.

How Many Honor Killings Have Been Documented In The United States?

Honor killings are generally associated with Middle Eastern and African countries, but the truth is that the number of murders coined as such are on the rise all over the world — including here in the United States. Maybe part of the reason is because families whose ethnicity stems from the Middle Eastern countries have been under increased pressure to conform to conservative American standards. Hate crimes against American Muslims, for instance, have skyrocketed since Donald Trump took office in 2016.

With his potential reelection just around the corner, this is a dangerous time for those of Middle Eastern descent, especially when those in question are practicing Muslims.

Just like in the Middle East, it can be difficult to find adequate data points to determine exactly how many victims of honor killings there have been in the United States. That’s because no agency devotes its time to compiling data regarding these murders. Many human rights organizations avoid labeling a murder “honor killing” in the states because they believe it could lead to increased pressure and stigmatization of these cultures instead of less.

Trump’s Executive Order 13769 was written and signed in order to gather data on honor killings in the United States — but alongside his mandate that crimes committed by immigrants be collected and published on a routine basis, the effort was likely less than wholesome in nature.

Farhana Qazi, Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism in the United States said that the number of killings was likely more than other organizations estimated because officials also avoided public embarrassment for families involved. Zuhdi Jasser, a member of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, said in 2012 that honor killings should be studied to discover their true impact in this country.

The Islamic Center of Washington in Maryland pointed to Chinese detention centers where Muslims were incarcerated and the Trump administration’s actions toward minorities as the reasons why these murders more often go unnoticed — because members of those very communities are afraid to call out the injustices they see amongst themselves for fear that they might continue to be viewed as second class citizens.

A number of high profile cases have come into the spotlight since 1989 when 16-year-old Palestina Isa was murdered by her parents for her interests in American music. Other reasons for the murder included an African American boyfriend and was working part-time. That same year, Amina and Sarah Said were born. They were murdered by their father for having love interests who were not members of the Islamic community in 2008. Their father Yaser Said was consistency on top ten most wanted lists until he was finally captured earlier this year.

More recently, Gelareh Bagherzadeh and Coty Beavers were murdered by Ali Mahmood Awad Irsan when Bagherzadeh attempted to compel Irsan’s daughter to give up Islamic faith in favor of Evangelical Christianity. Irsan was sentenced to death in 2018.

Body-Shaming Isn’t A Purely Middle Eastern Phenomenon

One would think that the Western world should have more tolerance for other ways of life — especially considering that most of us believe the very idea of honor killing is barbaric. But instead of committing brutal crimes, we mostly commit quieter atrocities. Instead of killing, we conduct mental and psychological attacks aimed at shaming victims for behaviors that don’t affect us at all. 

Body-shaming is one such attack. We body-shame when we find someone wearing less than we think they should — or when they don’t look the way we think they should. 

In Bristol, England, sisters Amaleehah and Nadia Aslam-Forrester noticed they were being body-shamed by members of the Asian community online after they posted pictures of themselves in revealing bathing suits. They were surprised. Although they were accustomed to abusive behavior from members of their communities back home, the same kind of behavior from other ethnicities was completely unexpected.

The two sisters grew up in a household with a Pakistani mother and an English father, which was a different kind of obstacle in a world where attacks on other races are becoming increasingly frequent.

Their parents are mostly supportive of the lives they wish to lead, and don’t want the pair to be held back by outdated cultural practices of biased expectations. Right and wrong should be determined by what each individual believes, and not based on what others believe.

Their mother connected them with members of a youth-led Bristol charity called Integrate. The group fights for women’s rights, gender equality, and racial equality — a good fit for two bullied sisters of Middle Easter descent. Integrate teaches members about female circumcision, sexism, honor crimes, etc.

“In our community, honor lies within the body of a woman,” Amaleehah said. “There’s always pressure on her to uphold men’s honor in her behavior and also in the way she dresses. We had one case where someone told us to drink bleach [on social media.] We got a lot of hate messages. Some people were anonymous, making fake accounts. It was awful. And that was all because we were being judged, there was stereotyping involved.”

She wasn’t just provided a voice by Integrate — she was also provided with a job. Now, Amaleehah speaks to children throughout the United Kingdom about the obstacles she and her sister went through in their own schools. 

If you are the victim of violence against women, an honor crime, domestic violence, or online bullying, then reach out to a trusted friend or family member. You can also find plenty of resources online. Don’t have access to a computer? Go to your public library for a link!

Violence Against Women Not Just A Middle Eastern Problem

We use our voice to speak out against violence against women, focusing on those victims who live and die in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere due to the phenomenon known as “honor killing.” But violence against women is a problem that extends far beyond a few regions of the world. In the United States, nearly 1 in 4 women will experience an abusive relationship. Domestic abuse can include physical or sexual violence, harassment, stalking, PTSD, and even the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases.

Even in the era of #MeToo, the fight requires substantial growth before meaningful change can occur.

Did you know that 15 percent of all violent crimes perpetrated in the United States are the result of a domestic confrontation? What you might find more offensive is that a shockingly low 34 percent of those victims will go on to receive any kind of medical care. The lion’s share of victims will attempt to sweep the problems at home under the rug. That’s why so many of these victims will find themselves hurt again, or worse — killed because they couldn’t find a voice.

Of course, the United States isn’t alone in this culture of violence, rape, and silencing.

Mexico City, Mexico was recently the site of a 25-year-old woman’s brutal murder. Ingrid Escamilla was found flayed. Her body was devoid of its organs. A suspect was quickly detained by authorities. A video in which the presumed suspect can be seen showed him covered in blood as he was questioned by Mexico City police. He was Escamilla’s partner, which makes sense: almost all violence can be traced back to a friend, acquaintance, or sexual partner. 

That’s why so many of these cases lead back home.

Women’s rights groups around the world have spoken out about the killing. The National Women’s Institute of Mexico has said that photographs of the crime scene should not have been published. The organization released a statement that said, “Mexico is facing a tremendous challenge with respect to violence against women. We urge the media to work with rigor and professionalism.”

Escamilla’s case is also an important reminder that even victims who have previously spoken out are at greater risk. She had filed a complaint against the suspect only months before her murder. She eventually withdrew it, as so many victims do.

There are impacts to violence against women that go far beyond lost lives. They include an economic impact from missed days of work, medical bills, and lost jobs. But the emotional impact of survivors is a huge cost as well. Families of those who can’t escape will inevitably suffer the same. Depression and suicidal tendencies are common.

Are you a victim of domestic violence? Help is available: Call 1-800-799-7233 or go to to discuss your situation with an online representative.

Two Dead In Pakistan After Apparent Honor Killing; Others Killed In United States And India

Honor killings are often the result of perceived infidelity. That was the case for one father, Saleh Muhammad, who killed his daughter in cold blood in the Shadheri province of Swat, Pakistan. Muhammad also murdered the person with whom his daughter was purportedly having an affair. Meanwhile, California resident Jagjit Singh, 65, allegedly shot his daughter in another honor killing. No trial date has been set.

His daughter Sumandeep Kaur Kooner, 37, was also having an affair when she told her family that she would run away from them. But investigators say that Singh didn’t just murder his daughter — he also sexually assaulted her. 

Courtroom documents shed little light on the investigation thus far. Authorities found the body on August 26 at 3200 Monache Meadows Drive with apparent bullet wounds to the face and neck.

Another slaying occurred in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh. Authorities say that a girl’s father and brother caught her and her partner engaged in apparently controversial behavior, at which point they attacked the lovers with an ax, killing the daughter and gravely injuring her partner. The family is in hiding while the girl’s partner remains in critical condition at Saifai Medical College.

Authorities have yet to discover where the accused are hiding. 

Cases like these are common across the Middle East and in parts of Africa, but they occur infrequently in other regions as well. The vast majority of honor killings are perpetrated by fathers and brothers of women who were accused of dishonoring or shaming the rest of the family through non-traditional acts. 

Although the tragic circumstances are getting more attention from activists around the world, there is still a great deal of pushback in countries where these crimes are common. For example, some Palestian officials recently tried to roll back women’s rights by rejecting the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which is a 1979 international treaty put into place by the United Nations General Assembly.

The legislation was signed into law in 2014 in Palestine, but not all of Palestine’s government officials were in agreement.

They made a blanket statement recently saying that “the Palestinian Authority must withdraw and cancel this agreement and call for the closure of all the feminist institutions and those supporting them in Palestine. There are hundreds of them in Palestine and we call for the cancellation of their rental agreements. Anyone who rents to them is a partner in crimes.”

A recent law would have increased the legal age of marriage to 18 for both men and women, but the officials rejected that as well. Women’s rights are under attack.

Second Update: New Charges Filed In Texas Irsan Case

Two 2012 murders have resulted in a number of charges filed against members of the Irsan family, most of which are focused on a father and his son and their dastardly deeds. But now Nadia Irsan, another member of the family, has been charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Initially, she had been charged with stalking — but investigators have uncovered more substantive evidence of wrongdoing in the ongoing criminal case against her.

Nadia has a public defender assigned to the case: Eric J. Davis. “My hope is that people will presume her innocent,” he said.

That seems like wishful thinking in a country where honor killings rarely occur, but are viewed as horrific and unjustified. The prosecutor assigned to the case, Marie Primm, certainly sees it that way.

Nadia’s father, Ali Mahwood-Awad Irsan, has already been sentenced to death for his involvement in the killing of another daughter’s husband, Coty Beavers. The second homicide resulted in the death of Gelareh Bagherzadeh, although prosecutors failed to immediately connect one to the other — especially because the time between the two was approximately eleven months.

Ali was an immigrant from Jordan, but still holds to some of his religion’s more extremist views.

Ali and his son Nasim worked together when going after Bagherzadeh in January 2012. They followed Bagherzadeh to her parents’ home, where Nasim shot her in the car she owned. Nasim was facing a capital murder charge before he accepted a prosecutorial plea deal of 40 years incarceration. 

In November 2012, Ali covertly infiltrated Beavers’ apartment — the door was apparently unlocked — and shot him to death when his daughter exited the building. His wife, Shmou Ali Alrawabdeh, has also been charged with murder. She testified against her husband in exchange for a kidnapping plea.

According to Alrawabdeh’s testimony, Ali planned to kill his daughter, Nesreen, as well. The previous murders were committed because Ali viewed Nesreen’s relationship with Beavers, an American, to be a betrayal of their faith and culture (which is why these murders were considered honor killings).

Primm offered Nadia a plea to conspiracy to commit murder, which would have landed her in prison for at least 25 years. Nadia didn’t take the bait. That means if she goes to trial and is found guilty on the existing charges, she could end up incarcerated for the rest of her life — or for as little as fifteen years if the judge is feeling kind.

Update: Irsan Taken Into Custody

Typically, honor killings occur in African or Middle Eastern countries. They occur when male members of a family feel “dishonored” by a female member of the family. A young woman will abandon an arranged marriage. She will post to social media too often. Or the clothes she wears will show a little too much. The excuses for these heinous murders are both numerous and complex. And in 2011, Houston, Texas was the site of two murders that prosecutors were quick to label: honor killings.

Mahwood-Awad Irsan was disappointed when his 23-year-old daughter, Nesreen Irsan, fled home to be with her boyfriend, Coty Beavers. Why was it such a big deal? Coty was American-born — and a Christian. Nesreen converted to his faith to make their relationship more tenable. But it had the opposite effect for her father.

Gelareh Bagherzadeh was an Iranian women’s rights activist who championed Nesreen’s desire to convert to Christianity, but she was found dead. Police considered it likely that her murder was politically motivated by hate groups in the area. They didn’t even begin to connect the dots until ten months later, when Beavers was found dead in his apartment in 2012.

It was then that investigators started looking into Ali.

Nesreen told them that her father had been agitated over her relationship with an American man, her departure from home, and her conversion to Christianity. She said that he believed the two murdered individuals had stained his family’s honor, and that she and Beavers had always feared for their lives. Ali, she said, had a known history of violence.

Before the murders, Nesreen had asked authorities for a writ of protection against her father. This prevented Ali from having access to guns — but it was too late for that. After Beavers was found murdered, police obtained a warrant to search Ali’s property in Conroe. They found something more damning than firearms inside, though: they found an envelope with at least two license plate numbers and addresses, belonging to Bagherzadeh and Beavers. 

The dots were finally connected. This man was obviously responsible somehow.

Harris County Special Prosecutor Anna Emmons described the raid to the documentary, A Wedding and a Murder: “So that one piece of evidence, that envelope, connected Ali to both Coty and to Gelareh, who were both dead.”

Later, Ali was taken into custody and charged with capital murder for the two killings. His wife, hoping to avoid charges as an accessory to murder, decided to testify against Ali in return for a plea deal. During a subsequent trial, she described his perhaps poorly laid out plan to murder Nesreen as well, noting that he only failed because he couldn’t sabotage her car successfully.

But it turned out that Ali’s son, Nasim, was involved in the murders as well. It wasn’t until August of this year that Nasim pleaded guilty to the murder of Bagherzadeh. The arrests haven’t helped Nesreen feel safer — she lives in isolation for fear of reprisal.

Irsan was sentenced to death.

Protests Erupt In Bethlehem After 21-Year-Old Woman Murdered By Family

Israa Ghrayeb was a 21-year-old Palestinian woman who grew up in Bethlehem and had a promising future — until she was murdered by her brother, Ihab. Even more disturbing is that Israa’s own father ordered her brother to commit the crime. What the family saw as an insult to their honor is hardly unthinkable in much of the rest of the world.

Israa had posted pictures and videos online of she and her fiance. The social media posts weren’t controversial in any way. So why did her family get so upset? Because a young woman and her fiance aren’t supposed to be together — or be seen together — prior to marriage. When relatives caught wind of the posts and alerted Israa’s father, he ordered Ihab to beat and kill her.

Ihab did as he was commanded, but Israa escaped — barely. She fell from the second story of the family home, severely injuring her spinal cord in the process. 

Subsequently, she made another Instagram post about her injuries, but made no mention about how she sustained the injuries.

She said, “I’m strong and I have the will to live — if I didn’t have this willpower, I would have died yesterday. Don’t send me messages telling me to be strong, I am strong. May God be the judge of those who oppressed me and hurt me.”

Israa was recovering in a nearby hospital when they apparently came for her again. Video of the attack there allegedly shows her frantic, begging her attackers to let her live. But that’s not the official story, and has been contested by her family, who say she passed away after a heart attack. 

Palestinian NGO Adalah Justice Project didn’t mince words during a statement made after the killing: “Israa was murdered by members of her family after she posted a selfie video of an outing with her fiance. The crime is being called an ‘honor’ killing, but this is misleading and false. There is no honor in murder.”

Many want justice for Israa. Others are asking if the same thing could happen to them, including a high school friend: “After I heard what happened to Israa, I was terrified. I live with my family and I have my freedom to go wherever I want. But what if someone started to spread rumors about me? Will that lead to my death, too?”

Protesters are begging the Canadian government to arrest Ihab for his sister’s murder, since he currently resides there.