The AHA Foundation Blog

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Take on Boko Haram

Posted on Mon, May 19, 2014 @ 03:19 PM

"Boko Haram sincerely believes that girls are better off enslaved than educated."

- Ayaan Hirsi Ali

In case you missed it, please take a moment to read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's recent article on Boko Haram, which was first published in The Wall Street Journal.

Though many people want to deny it, and despite all the achievements of the women's movement, violence against women is on the increase today -- including here in the United States.  It's happening because, in the name of culture or religion, practices like honor killing, forced marriage and female genital mutilation are going unpunished.  The AHA Foundation exists to change that, and in doing so, to save innocent women and girls from terrible pain and suffering.

We depend on the generosity of individual donors to do our life-saving work.  Please consider supporting our work by donating today.


Since the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria last month, the meaning of Boko Haram—the name used by the terrorist group that seized the girls—has become more widely known. The translation from the Hausa language is usually given in English-language media as "Western Education Is Forbidden," though "Non-Muslim Teaching Is Forbidden" might be more accurate.

But little attention has been paid to the group's formal Arabic name: Jam'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-da'wa wal-Jihad. That roughly translates as "The Fellowship of the People of the Tradition for Preaching and Holy War." That's a lot less catchy than Boko Haram but significantly more revealing about the group and its mission. Far from being an aberration among Islamist terror groups, as some observers suggest, Boko Haram in its goals and methods is in fact all too representative.

The kidnapping of the schoolgirls throws into bold relief a central part of what the jihadists are about: the oppression of women. Boko Haram sincerely believes that girls are better off enslaved than educated. The terrorists' mission is no different from that of the Taliban assassin who shot and nearly killed 15-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai—as she rode a school bus home in 2012—because she advocated girls' education. As I know from experience, nothing is more anathema to the jihadists than equal and educated women.

How to explain this phenomenon to baffled Westerners, who these days seem more eager to smear the critics of jihadism as "Islamophobes" than to stand up for women's most basic rights? Where are the Muslim college-student organizations denouncing Boko Haram? Where is the outrage during Friday prayers? These girls' lives deserve more than a Twitter hashtag protest.

Organizations like Boko Haram do not arise in isolation. The men who establish Islamist groups, whether in Africa (Nigeria, Somalia, Mali), Southwest Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan), or even Europe (U.K., Spain and the Netherlands), are members of long-established Muslim communities, most of whose members are happy to lead peaceful lives. To understand why the jihadists are flourishing, you need to understand the dynamics within those communities.

So, imagine an angry young man in any Muslim community anywhere in the world. Imagine him trying to establish an association of men dedicated to the practice of the Sunnah (the tradition of guidance from the Prophet Muhammad ). Much of the young man's preaching will address the place of women. He will recommend that girls and women be kept indoors and covered from head to toe if they are to venture outside. He will also condemn the permissiveness of Western society.

What kind of response will he meet? In the U.S. and in Europe, some moderate Muslims might quietly draw him to the attention of authorities. Women might voice concerns about the attacks on their freedoms. But in other parts of the world, where law and order are lacking, such young men and their extremist messages thrive.

Where governments are weak, corrupt or nonexistent, the message of Boko Haram and its counterparts is especially compelling. Not implausibly, they can blame poverty on official corruption and offer as an antidote the pure principles of the Prophet. And in these countries, women are more vulnerable and their options are fewer.

But why does our imaginary young zealot turn to violence? At first, he can count on some admiration for his fundamentalist message within the community where he starts out. He might encounter opposition from established Muslim leaders who feel threatened by him. But he perseveres because perseverance in the Sunnah is one of the most important keys to heaven. As he plods on from door to door, he gradually acquires a following. There comes a point when his following is as large as that of the Muslim community's established leaders. That's when the showdown happens—and the argument for "holy war" suddenly makes sense to him.

The history of Boko Haram has followed precisely this script. The group was founded in 2002 by a young Islamist called Mohammed Yusuf, who started out preaching in a Muslim community in the Borno state of northern Nigeria. He set up an educational complex, including a mosque and an Islamic school. For seven years, mostly poor families flocked to hear his message. But in 2009, the Nigerian government investigated Boko Haram and ultimately arrested several members, including Yusuf himself. The crackdown sparked violence that left about 700 dead. Yusuf soon died in prison—the government said he was killed while trying to escape—but the seeds had been planted. Under one of Yusuf's lieutenants, Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram turned to jihad.

In 2011, Boko Haram launched its first terror attack in Borno. Four people were killed, and from then on violence became an integral part, if not the central part, of its mission. The recent kidnappings—11 more girls were abducted by Boko Haram on Sunday—join a litany of outrages, including multiple car bombings and the murder of 59 schoolboys in February. On Monday, as if to demonstrate its growing power, Boko Haram launched a 12-hour attack in the city of Gamboru Ngala, firing into market crowds, setting houses aflame and shooting down residents who ran from the burning buildings. Hundreds were killed.

I am often told that the average Muslim wholeheartedly rejects the use of violence and terror, does not share the radicals' belief that a degenerate and corrupt Western culture needs to be replaced with an Islamic one, and abhors the denigration of women's most basic rights. Well, it is time for those peace-loving Muslims to do more, much more, to resist those in their midst who engage in this type of proselytizing before they proceed to the phase of holy war.

It is also time for Western liberals to wake up. If they choose to regard Boko Haram as an aberration, they do so at their peril. The kidnapping of these schoolgirls is not an isolated tragedy; their fate reflects a new wave of jihadism that extends far beyond Nigeria and poses a mortal threat to the rights of women and girls. If my pointing this out offends some people more than the odious acts of Boko Haram, then so be it.

Tags: The AHA Foundation, Nigeria, schoolgirls, abduction, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Boko Haram

New Statistics on Child Marriage Around the World

Posted on Thu, Oct 31, 2013 @ 04:01 PM

child marriage image resized 600

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and Girls Not Brides (GNB) have examined the practice of child marriage -- a form of forced marriage -- around the world and found that 70 million young girls are currently married. This year, approximately 14 million child brides will be married off as children (click here for the full  ICRW-GNB pamphlet). This is a devastating number, and yet there is some hope on the horizon.  The scourge of child marriage (and the broader problem of forced marriage) has begun to attract the attention of the international community, national governments, and a host of advocacy organizations dedicated to combating the practice.  Together, they have begun to develop concrete strategies to combat the practice of child marriage. 

The ICRW and Girls Not Brides have articulated five specific strategies to reduce the incidence of child marriage in the developing world: empower girls with information, educate parents and the community, enhance access to education, provide economic support, and encourage legislation penalizing child marriage.  These strategies may not seem groundbreaking, but they are changing the way the world thinks about child marriage.  By focusing on the structural forces that perpetuate child marriage and by educating individuals on the harms of early marriage – not just to the individual, but to society at large -- ICRW-GNB is providing girls, boys, men and women with the information and tools needed to end child marriage in their own communities. 

While the AHA Foundation’s mandate focuses on instances of forced marriage in the United States (as well as situations where girls from the United States are taken overseas for a forced marriage), we are deeply concerned with the global phenomenon of forced and early marriage.  In 2010 and 2012, the United States Congress passed legislation that would authorize funding for international programs that would prevent child marriage and increase access to education for girls. This legislation passed with full bipartisan support. Given the current gridlock in Washington, it is heartening to know that legislators can come together to try and end this horrific practice. The AHA Foundation strongly encourages the continued funding of programs that address the root causes of forced and early marriage, and is proud to be a part of the network of organizations working towards a solution. 

Tags: forced marriage, The AHA Foundation, child marriage, Girls Not Birdes, International Center for Research on Women, ICRW

Positive News in the Fight Against Female Genital Mutilation

Posted on Thu, Aug 01, 2013 @ 02:22 PM

AfricanGirlPhoto resized 600

On Monday, July 22nd, UNICEF released its report on the state of female genital mutilation (“FGM”) around the world. While FGM remains a widespread problem, there are stories of progress and hope among the bleak statistics that 30 million girls will be subjected to FGM in the next decade.

One bright spot is the story of Bogaletch Gebre, her sister Firkte, and their organization, KMG-Ethiopia, which was detailed in the online version of the New York Times on July 17th. Gebre underwent FGM at the age of twelve and nearly died as a result.   Every other girl in her village underwent the same brutal procedure. Once she recovered, Gebre was eligible for marriage. That’s the way it had always been, and it seemed impossible that things would ever change.

Today, KMG-Ethiopia uses a process called “community conversations” to help families understand the harmful consequences of FGM, and to try to change ideas about what makes a young woman a respected member of the community. Gebre knew that outsiders condemning the practice wasn’t going to change people’s minds, so she began organizing conversations that involved everyone in the community—young and old, male and female. These conversations have led to a dramatic shift in community perceptions of FGM, and an incredible decrease in the number of girls being subjected to FGM, The “community conversations” model is highly effective for several reasons:

  • The whole community took part in the conversation about FGM. KMG-Ethiopia recognized that FGM was linked to notions of honor and status in the community, and sought to challenge those assumptions.  Since FGM served as a prerequisite to marriage, it was crucial for men as well as women to understand the dangers of FGM and the absence of any real justification for the procedure.  Once people began questioning the linkage between FGM and notions of marriageability and honor, the practice began losing support. 

  • The community understood the health dangers of FGM, and disentangled it from their religious beliefs.  Community members looked to the Koran or the Bible and realized that FGM was not religiously mandated, as many believed. And when parents understood the health dangers that their daughters faced as a result of FGM, they were more likely to question its necessity.

  • Parents saw alternatives to FGM for their daughters. As the community began thinking about FGM in a new light, it released the pressure on parents to cut their daughters for the sake of their future status in the community. Clearly, parents were not practicing FGM to intentionally harm their daughters, but to ensure they had marriage prospects. Now there is pressure not to perform FGM—many parents feel that they will be shunned and their daughters won’t find husbands if they go through with it.

The most inspiring part about KMG-Ethiopia’s work is that it has changed the minds of a community within the space of a generation.  This is a remarkable accomplishment and an important reminder that violent traditions such as FGM are never wholly intractable.  We are hopeful that, with a thoughtful approach and the broad participation of entire communities, this harmful practice can be eradicated in our lifetime.

Tags: women's rights, UNICEF, Bogaletch Gebre, Firkte Gebre, violence against women, female genital mutilation, The AHA Foundation, female circumcision, female genital cutting, FGM, The New York Times, KMG-Ethiopia, children's rights

Forced Marriage and the Many Faces of Human Trafficking

Posted on Tue, Jul 02, 2013 @ 04:04 PM

forced marriage trafficking victim

Last week, the State Department released its 2013 annual report on Trafficking in Persons, which found that 27 million people around the world are victims of human trafficking. The Obama Administration has made a public commitment to combating human trafficking by issuing an Executive Order on Human Trafficking, and this new State Department report is another step toward identifying and rescuing trafficking victims around the world.

Many, if not most, Americans are now familiar with the concept of human trafficking.  Over the past decade, the U.S. government has dedicated considerable energy and resources into addressing the scourge of human trafficking in both the international and domestic arenas. These efforts have helped shine a light on a serious global problem that affects millions of women and children around the world.  Yet a closely related issue has received far less attention: forced marriage. 

A forced marriage occurs when an individual is forced to enter into a marriage against her will and without her consent.  A forced marriage differs from an arranged marriage, in which families arrange meetings between children in the hopes of fostering a voluntary relationship that will lead to marriage.  In these situations, while the initial meetings are arranged by the families and a marriage is encouraged, the ultimate decision to marry remains with the couple.  In contrast, in a forced marriage situation, the woman is threatened or coerced into marrying someone against her will, and may suffer honor violence if she resists or refuses the marriage.

Forced marriage has several important parallels with human trafficking. Each year, thousands of girls are removed from U.S. schools and forced to return to their families’ home countries in order to be married.  Girls who resist or refuse these marriages may be subjected to physical and emotional abuse, confinement in the home, or even death at the hands of family members.  Once married, victims experience include increased rates of infant and maternal mortality, rape, domestic violence and suicide.  The coercion, exploitation and ongoing violence involved in these scenarios mirrors the key traits of human trafficking. 

Human trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”  This definition highlights the fact that not all trafficking victims are explicitly sold into sexual slavery or forced labor, the most widely publicized types of human trafficking.

In some situations, a forced marriage will qualify as a form of human trafficking. For example, if a woman is sent abroad and then repeatedly raped within a forced marriage, her experience could be characterized as a form of sex trafficking. In situations where a bride is treated as a servant or slave by her new husband and/or his family, the forced marriage could become a form of labor trafficking.  Notably, money need not be exchanged in order for a forced marriage to be considered human trafficking.   In some instances of forced marriage, the goods exchanged are immigration benefits alone.

One of the issues Secretary of State John Kerry focused on when releasing the 2013 Trafficking in Persons report is the facelessness of the millions of victims. Of the 27 million estimated victims worldwide, only about 40,000 were identified last year.  The same silence and invisibility affects the victims of forced marriage, yet – unlike human trafficking – virtually no specific resources and services exist for these victims. Thankfully, the fight against forced marriage is gaining momentum; in terms of awareness, advocacy, attention and resources, forced marriage is today where human trafficking was ten years ago.

Whether a forced marriage results in rape, domestic servitude, or being forced to live in a foreign country against one’s will, it is crucial that we as Americans acknowledge that this is happening in our own communities. Like human trafficking, we must work to end forced marriage by bringing it out of the shadows.   

Please support the AHA Foundation so we can bring these women and girls the freedom we all deserve. 

Tags: forced marriage, human trafficking, The AHA Foundation, Trafficking in Persons, sex trafficking, Obama, immigration, TIPs Report, State Department, domestic servitude, John Kerry, Secretary of State

American Woman Escapes Forced Marriage in Pakistan, Honor Violence Campaign Follows

Posted on Wed, Jun 05, 2013 @ 06:55 PM

scared girl in alley

The AHA Foundation is committed to expanding resources for women such as the one mentioned in this New York Times article, who need support in leaving forced marriages and handling threats of honor violence. We train law enforcement and social services groups around the country, and our ongoing research project with John Jay College of Criminal Justice will further illuminate how many women and girls are victims of forced marriage and the specific dangers they face. To keep women like her safe and free, we must first build an infrastructure of resources that are accessible and specific to their needs.  The AHA Foundation is here doing just that.  Stay tuned for exciting innovations in protecting women and girls coming from the AHA Foundation soon.

Tags: forced marriage, honor violence, honor-based violence, The AHA Foundation, American citizen, Pakistan, Brooklyn, The New York Times, honor killing

An Open Letter to the New Jersey Committee on Women and Children

Posted on Wed, May 01, 2013 @ 05:50 PM

The AHA Foundation is encouraging New Jersey legislators to take action on an important state Bill that will protect women and girls from female genital mutilation (FGM).  We've written an Open Letter to the Assembly Committee on Women and Children, where this legislation has been stalled since May of last year.
How You can Help:

Repost this letter and share it with friends and colleagues.  If you live in New Jersey, find your Assembly Representative here and encourage him or her to support Bill A.2601.  You may also contact members of the Committee on Women and Children directly to urge them to move this important legislation forward (emails are linked below).




Pamela R. Lampitt, Email


Angel Fuentes, Email


Caroline Casagrande, Email

Bettylou Decroce, Email

Gabriela Mosquera, Email

Gary S. Schaer, Email

Benjie E. Wimberly, Email


May 1, 2013


Dear Committee Members: 

We are writing on behalf of the AHA Foundation in support of a Bill that would provide crucial protections to at-risk women and girls in the state of New Jersey.  We are respectfully requesting that you take action to move this Bill forward.    

Bill A.2601, which was referred to the Assembly Committee on Women and Children in May 2012, criminalizes the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in New Jersey.  The Bill prohibits individuals from performing female genital mutilation in New Jersey, as well as taking a girl out of the state to undergo the procedure.  The companion version of this Bill passed the full Senate on March 15, 2012.

Bill A.2601 was referred to the Assembly Committee on Women and Children one year ago.  Since that time, the President has signed into law the Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act, which strengthened the existing federal FGM ban by making it illegal to knowingly transport a girl out of the country for the purpose of undergoing the procedure.  Last month, Kansas became the twenty-first state to enact robust criminal prohibitions against FGM.  Yet New Jersey still has no specific criminal laws to protect women and girls from this violent procedure.

While many people think of FGM as a custom that only occurs in foreign countries, the threat of female genital mutilation is a reality for a significant number of girls in the United States, and New Jersey specifically.  Research conducted by the African Women’s Health Center of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that approximately 228,000 women and girls in the U.S. had either been subjected to female genital mutilation or were at risk.  According to this study, there are roughly 18,000 girls in New Jersey at risk of FGM – the third highest number among all the states.  An additional 5,800 girls are suspected to be at risk in the Philadelphia-Wilmington-Atlantic City area.

Female genital mutilation has significant and lasting medical consequences for victims.  Immediately following the procedure, girls are at risk for severe pain, shock, bleeding, bacterial infection, and injury to nearby tissue.  Some girls die from the procedure itself.  In the long term, girls and women who have suffered this procedure are at risk for recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, and complications during intercourse and childbirth.  Women who have survived FGM describe significant sexual, emotional and psychological consequences, some of which persist throughout their lives.   The age at which the practice is carried out varies, from shortly after birth to a woman's first pregnancy.  The most common age is between four and ten years old.

Enacting Bill A.2601 would send a strong message that FGM – a brutal crime and human rights violation – is not acceptable in New Jersey.   Accordingly, we urge you to support A.2601/S.1171 and prioritize its enactment.   To this end, please encourage Assemblywoman Lampitt to bring this Bill up for a Vote so that it may be considered by the full Assembly as soon as possible.

For more information on FGM and the threat to girls in the United States, please visit our website:




The AHA Foundation

130 7th Avenue, Box 256

New York, NY 10011

Tags: female genital mutilation, The AHA Foundation, New Jersey, Pamela R. Lampitt, Caroline Casagrande, FGM, Benjie E. Wimberly, Bill A.2601, Angel Fuentes, Bettylou Decroce, Gabriela Mosquera, Gary S. Schaer

New Federal Law Strengthens Protections Against FGM: The AHA Foundation Supports the ‘Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act’

Posted on Thu, Jan 10, 2013 @ 03:53 PM


Since its inception, the AHA Foundation has worked to prevent female genital mutilation (FGM) through advocacy, education and legislative reform.  Last week, President Obama significantly advanced these efforts when he signed into law the ‘Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act’, which was passed as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act.  While FGM has been illegal in the United States since 1996, the Act strengthens the existing federal FGM ban by adding an “extraterritoriality” component, making it illegal to knowingly transport a girl out of the country for the purpose of undergoing the procedure.  This amendment was designed to address the all-too-common practice of “vacation cutting”, in which girls living in the United States are taken to their parents’ country of origin during school breaks to undergo the procedure. Those found guilty under the new legislation will be sentenced to up to five years imprisonment (the same penalty imposed on those who commit FGM within the United States). 

Senator Harry Reid and Representatives Joseph Crowley and Mary Bono Mack -- three legislators with a demonstrated commitment to women’s issues -- spearheaded the Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act.   The AHA Foundation commends their efforts, and applauds the President for signing this bill into law.

FGM is a traditional practice that involves the partial or complete removal of female genitalia and causes lifelong physical and psychological harm.  The World Health Organization estimates that between 100 and 140 million girls and women have been subjected to FGM worldwide.   According to research conducted by the African Women’s Health Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, approximately 228,000 women and girls living in the United States have undergone or are at risk of undergoing FGM. 

The AHA Foundation has consistently advocated for the expansion of FGM legislation to include procedures performed abroad.  For the past several years, we have lobbied for extraterritorial FGM bans to be enacted on both the state and federal levels.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali, founder of the AHA Foundation, and our Executive Director specifically consulted with Representative Crowley on the issue of “vacation cutting”, and expressed our support for the language contained in the new Bill. 

"The AHA Foundation and organisations like it are the first line of defence for victims of these horrific behaviours. They need the tools to do their job and any law that protects victims is welcome. FGM is an attack on womanhood, it's a terrible indictment of man and his attempt to control a woman or a girl's behaviour. It cannot be allowed to go unchallenged," said Nazir Afzal OBE, Director of the UK's Crown Prosecution Service.

While the AHA Foundation believes that the five-year maximum sentence is too lenient, we regard the Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act as an important development in the ongoing struggle against FGM.  In response to the passage of the Bill, Hirsi Ali acknowledged the work that is yet to be done, saying "As we celebrate this victory we know that this Bill is only a first step." The Act sends a strong deterrent message to parents considering taking their daughters overseas for FGM, and reflects the global condemnation of FGM as a human rights violation and form of gender-based violence.  We acknowledge, however, that legislation alone will not eradicate this practice.  If we are truly committed to ending FGM, sufficient resources must be allocated to investigating and prosecuting instances of FGM, educating at-risk populations, and ensuring that victims have access to adequate support and assistance within their communities.   

In the words of Ayaan Hirsi Ali:  "I will not accept little girls in my country to be forced into marriage, or their genitals to be cut, for them to be pulled out of school, for them to be condemned to a life of submission or violence or death through an honor killing.  What you want for that girl is what you want for your own little girl.”

Tags: women's rights, female genital mutilation, The AHA Foundation, female circumcision, female genital cutting, FGM, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nazir Afzal

Marching Orders: Empower Women to Forge Their Own Way

Posted on Tue, Dec 04, 2012 @ 02:21 PM

The AHA Foundation is proud to announce that our founder, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is one of the featured speakers at this year’s Trust Women Conference, which opens today in London.  Presented by the Thompson Reuters Foundation and the International Herald Tribune, the Trust Women Conference aims to bring together leading voices in the fight for women’s rights to “help spark new collaborations and solutions” to some of the most urgent issues facing women around the world.   Ayaan participated in a discussion about the clash between law and culture that arises in Western countries around issues like honor-based violence, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation.

The tragic results of this clash between our Western democratic culture and legal system and more conservative, oppressive, and male-dominated cultures have been evidenced in recent cases of honor violence in the U.S.  Increasingly, we are hearing stories of teenage girls who are brought to the U.S. by their parents at a young age and raised in a conservative and oppressive household, while at the same time exploring and embracing American culture.  We hear about girls like Noor Almaleki, who grew up to be a typical American teenager who wore jeans and make-up, had friends and boyfriends, and wanted nothing more than to make decisions about her own life.  Tragically for Noor, her decisions to resist a forced marriage arranged by her parents, to move out of her parents’ home and have friends they disapproved of, and to resist their repeated demands that she conform her behavior to their strict expectations resulted in her brutal murder by her father.  We hear about girls like Aiya Altameemi, who attempted to make her own decisions about her life by refusing to submit to a forced marriage and having conversations with boys that were not sanctioned by her parents.  For these acts of defiance, Aiya was threatened at knifepoint, bound and beaten, and burned with a hot spoon by members of her family.

Noor and Aiya and all the other girls like them who suffer at the hands of their families want nothing more than what is promised to all American girls:  the opportunity to work hard, dream big, and become anything they want to be.  This sounds like a modest wish, yet for untold numbers of girls in this country, the desire to guide their own way through life represents an affront to their families and communities and places them in danger of physical harm and disownment.  Around the world, there are women who cannot make their own decisions, who are bound to a male guardian to determine their destiny.

As Ayaan famously once said, “It is a matter of principle that women are free and equal.”  At the AHA Foundation, we believe that these are more than just words – these are our marching orders.  We will keep working – raising awareness, training, urging legislators to take action, supporting victims – until all of our girls are able to safely, confidently, fearlessly, and joyously forge their own way in this world.  We hope you will join us in this mission.

Tags: forced marriage, honor violence, honor-based violence, female genital mutilation, The AHA Foundation, FGM, Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Understanding Honor Violence: Lessons from the Jessica Mokdad Case

Posted on Mon, Oct 22, 2012 @ 03:29 PM

Jessica Mokdad

The verdict has been entered in the case against Rahim Alfetlawi for the murder of his 20-year-old stepdaughter, Jessica Modkad – guilty of murder in the first degree.  From the first days of this investigation, we have paid particular interest to this case as a possible honor killing.  Early reports from police indicated that Alfetlawi tracked his daughter from Minnesota to Michigan and shot her in the head because she had left home and was not following Islam.   Police explained that Mokdad was more “Americanized” than her strict Muslim stepfather, and that this tension contributed to her murder.[1]

In the months following Jessica’s murder, the prosecutor backed away from the possibility that this was an honor murder, stating that religion did not play a role in the case.[2]  Instead, prosecutors argued that Alfetlawi had been sexually abusing Mokdad for years and snapped when he learned she had told her mother about the abuse. [3]  The investigating officer explained that as the investigation continued, he came to believe that Alfetlawi was an abuser who went to great lengths to control every aspect of Jessica’s behavior and that it was this desire to control that was the primary motive for his violent conduct, not religion.  Jessica’s family has also been adamant that this was not an honor murder, explaining that Jessica was, in fact, a practicing Muslim and that Alfetlawi was not himself a particularly devout individual.[4]

We can debate the reported facts of this case to argue whether this was, in fact, an honor-motived crime, but to do so may be beside the point.  What this case offers is an opportunity to clarify what we mean when we talk about honor violence and how shining light on this form of violence against women is not an attempt to demonize entire religions or cultures, but rather an effort to protect untold numbers of girls and women in the U.S. from suffering a similar fate as Jessica Mokdad.

At the AHA Foundation, we define honor violence as a form of violence against women that is committed with the motive of protecting or regaining the honor of the perpetrator, family, or community.  Victims of honor violence are targeted because their actual or perceived behavior is deemed by their family or community to be shameful or to violate cultural or religious norms.  Honor violence involves systematic control of a victim that escalates over a period of time and may begin at a young age.  Honor violence can take many forms, including verbal or emotional abuse, threats, stalking, harassment, false imprisonment, physical violence, sexual abuse, and homicide. While honor violence does occur in Muslim communities, it is not a problem unique to Islam or any other religion.  Honor violence has been found in a variety of cultural and religious communities that have a strong sense of a collective identity and emphasize the well-being and honor of the collective community over that of any one individual.  It is from this mindset of protecting the collective – either familial, cultural, or religious – that the perpetrator of honor violence acts.  The primary objective of honor violence is to control the behavior of the victim, with force and violence if necessary, to bring her conduct into line with community expectations.

Religious beliefs are certainly a factor in many cases of honor violence, but the inquiry does not begin and end there.  To reduce the issue of honor violence to an attack on Islam or any other religion and dismiss it as a legitimate area of study and form of violence against women does a grave disservice to the women and girls in the U.S. who are daily victims of this form of control and abuse.  We cannot properly investigate these cases or ensure the safety and support of victims of honor violence without understanding the dynamics involved and the dangers posed by misguided notions of honor.  Brave young women like Jessica Mokdad and Noor Almaleki were not afraid to stand up to their oppressive communities to seek a life of their own choosing.  We owe it to them and every other girl like them who struggles against honor-based abuse and oppression not to be afraid to call out honor violence when we see it.  Only by doing so can we move forward to helping prevent these types of heinous murders. 






[4] order=1&act=print

Tags: honor killings, honor violence, The AHA Foundation, Noor Almaleki, Jessica Mokdad, honor killing in the US, honor killings in North America

A ‘Brave’ Stand: The Fight to End Forced Marriage

Posted on Tue, Oct 16, 2012 @ 05:01 PM

This blog first appeared on the Girls Not Brides website.

By the Executive Director/General Counsel for the AHA Foundation

Last month, I took my daughter to see the animated Disney/Pixar film Brave in theaters. Following in the footsteps of films like Aladdin, Brave depicts a familiar storyline:  a princess whose parents believe she should marry a man of their choosing, over the young girl’s objections.  The parents in these stories, however strict or traditional they may seem, are ultimately benevolent, and the tale typically ends with the King or Queen relenting.  The princess’s desire to ‘marry for love’ (or not at all) is validated.  The underlying message is simple:  getting married is a choice.  You have the right to make choices about your own life.

For little girls like my daughter, this message comes as no surprise.  The idea of a family forcing a child to marry against her will is just a story, plucked from the pages of a bedtime fable.  But for a staggering number of young girls around the world, this scenario is no fairy tale.  It’s a harsh and chilling reality.

Each year, an estimated ten million girls are married before they reach the age of eighteen.  Countless more are forced into marriage as young adults.  These marriages are accomplished through violence, threats of violence, threats of disownment, emotional blackmail, and emotional abuse.  The forced marriage itself is often just the beginning of the suffering:  victims of forced marriage are at an increased risk for physical and mental health problems, and may be subjected to sustained physical and sexual abuse within the marriage.

There are myriad reasons why a girl or woman may be forced to marry. Parents or extended family members may see it as a means to restore the family’s honor, enhance the family’s status, or secure an economic/immigration benefit.  Other families may cite cultural traditions or religious beliefs.  Whatever the rationale, one thing is clear:  forced marriage is a global human rights issue that threatens the health, well-being and autonomy of its victims.

As Western countries are beginning to realize, the problem is not confined to the developing world.  In the United Kingdom, an estimated 5000-8000 forced marriages took place in 2009 alone. In September 2011, the Tahirih Justice Center found as many as 3,000 known or suspected cases of forced marriage within the United States in the two years preceding the survey.  Many of these cases involved girls under the age of eighteen.

However, whereas Britain has a dedicated Forced Marriage policing unit and a national Forced Marriage Helpline to assist callers in crisis, the United States currently has no comparable programs.  As a result, victims of forced marriage in the U.S. often find themselves with few options, and even fewer resources.

The AHA Foundation is tackling this problem head-on.  We train service providers, law enforcement officials and educators to recognize forced marriage cases and ensure victims’ safety.  We have commissioned a study to better understand the nature and frequency of forced marriage in the United States.  We are also working to establish the first national telephone hotline to assist U.S. forced marriage victims.  Our hotline will dispense emergency advice and connect callers with the appropriate law enforcement officials, social service providers, legal counsel, and emergency shelters.  This much-needed service will provide a crucial lifeline to those at risk of forced marriage, as well as those who are currently living in a forced marriage situation.

Like the heroine in Brave, my daughter will have the freedom to choose whether she gets married, when she gets married, and whom she marries.  The AHA Foundation is working to ensure that the same opportunities are afforded to every woman and girl in the United States.  They deserve nothing less.

Tags: forced marriage, The AHA Foundation, forced marriage survey, AHA Foundation Forced Marriage Hotline, forced marriage hotline, forced marriage in the US, Tahirih Justice Center, child marriage