Sandeela Kanwal left her home country of Pakistan at the age of nineteen, bound for America. Her family had arranged for her to marry her cousin, who was twice her age. Less than six years later, Sandeela was dead, strangled to death by her father for the crime of filing for divorce.
Teenaged sisters Sarah and Amina were shot to death by their father because he felt they had become too “westernized” in their lifestyle.
A young woman named Palestina was stabbed to death by her father while her mother held her down, all for such “crimes” as dating someone they disapproved of and getting a job at a fast-food restaurant.
Waheed Mohammad considered his sister a “bad Muslim” and believed she was shaming the family. At his mother’s request, Waheed stabbed his sister multiple times, though she managed to survive.
Honor killings. A strange term for something so horrific as killing one’s own relative—unless you consider the depth of custom and belief that drives such drastic actions. Human Rights Watch defines honor killings in this way:
Honor killings are acts of vengeance, usually death, committed by male family members against female family members, who are held to have brought dishonor upon the family. A woman can be targeted by (individuals within) her family for a variety of reasons, including: refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, being the victim of a sexual assault, seeking a divorce—even from an abusive husband—or (allegedly) committing adultery. The mere perception that a woman has behaved in a way that “dishonors” her family is sufficient to trigger an attack on her life.
Though honor killings can be perpetrated on men as well as women, the vast majority of them are carried out against female family members. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that up to 5,000 women and girls are killed annually by members of their own families, though some women’s groups believe there may be many times that number. That this family-related crime is on the rise right here in the United States is evidenced by the examples above, all of which took place in America.
These honor killings, however, occur for more than the so-called crimes of refusing a pre-arranged marriage or some form of immodesty; they are often committed against family members for conversion from Islam to another religion, particularly Christianity. During the research for my April 2011 release, People of the Book, set primarily in the Saudi Kingdom, I discovered numerous examples of people throughout the Middle East who had been killed for no reason other than becoming Christians; that those murders were committed by family members only compounds the horror.
I met a young woman named Dolly at a writers’ conference while I was in the early stages of researching and writing People of the Book, and when I discovered she had lived in the Saudi Kingdom for eighteen years, I was anxious to talk with her. Until then I’d had a very difficult time finding someone with first-hand experience in that country and culture, but now I had met someone who spent the majority of her growing-up years there, having only come to America about five years earlier. And unlike some of the Saudi women I’d tried to connect with on the Internet (who were understandably hesitant and even fearful of talking with me), Dolly was more than happy to tell me of her experiences.
Dolly and her family had moved to Saudi Arabia from Lebanon when she was a young child. She and her entire family were Christians and miraculously managed to escape detection while attending an underground church throughout their nearly two decades in the country. Dolly’s friend was not so fortunate. The only Christian in her Muslim family, this young woman’s conversion to Christianity was discovered by her relatives, who were both appalled and furious. Determined to show her the error of her ways and restore her to the “true faith,” as well as restore the family’s honor, they beat and tortured the girl in an attempt to get her to deny Jesus (Isa) and to proclaim her faith in Allah. When she refused, they cut out her tongue and set her on fire. The young Saudi girl joined the ranks of Christian martyrs, refusing to deny her faith no matter what she had to endure in the process.
An honor killing? The girl’s family obviously considered it so. As Christians, we see it differently. The only honor was in the young girl’s unswerving stand for Christ. I look forward to meeting her in heaven one day. Meanwhile, there are people dying around the world at the hands of their relatives, with the tragedy no longer confined to Muslim countries; it is happening right here in our own country, possibly in our own neighborhood.
Heartbreaking. Globally, as divorce rates soar, families splinter apart, and children are sometimes left to fend for themselves, others who want to hold their families together and not bring shame upon themselves resort to unimaginable horrors to try and do so. This very conflict drove me as I wrote People of the Book and tried to deal with a tragic topic in a healing way, but it isn’t an easy thing to bring beauty from ugliness or life from death. And yet isn’t that exactly what the Savior did when He hung naked and bloody on the Cross—and then rose again in triumph? Yes, it is. And He did it for broken people like you and me—those who deal with divorce, child abuse, and splintered families, as well as those who mete out unimaginable punishment on those they once claimed to love and cherish.
There is no honor in honor killings, but neither is there honor in destroying families for personal or even political gain. As we see the family unit under attack on nearly every front, it is time that we commit once again to pray and to live in such a way that family members know they can trust one another without fear of betrayal or abandonment. My Saudi acquaintance Dolly put it this way: “My friend’s family cut out her tongue, and she can no longer speak. But I can speak for her, and so I will, every chance I get, regardless of the cost.”
Are we willing to make a similar declaration, no matter the cost? We must—for Sandeela, Amina, Sarah, Palestina… and so many others who need to be able to live without fear of the very ones who have been commissioned by God to protect them.
Kathi Macias (www.kathimacias.com) is the author of more than 30 books, including her latest release, People of the Book, book four in the Extreme Devotion series from New Hope Publishers.
Publication date: March 29, 2011