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An American Honor Killing: One Victim’s Story

16 minute read
Nadya Labi / Peoria

“Dude, my dad is here at the welfare office,” a 20-year-old woman named Noor al-Maleki texted a friend on Oct. 20, 2009. Noor was at the Department of Economic Security (DES) in Peoria, Ariz., helping Amal Khalaf fill out paperwork for food stamps. Noor was living with Khalaf, a maternal figure whom she’d known since childhood.

Noor was estranged from her parents, who disapproved of what they considered her American ways — a fondness for tight jeans and makeup, and a reluctance to accede to their plans for her. Those plans included an arranged marriage to a man in Iraq. Her father, Faleh al-Maleki, was furious when Noor abandoned the marriage, later becoming involved with one of Khalaf’s sons. A few weeks before he turned up at the DES office, according to Khalaf, the father warned her that if Noor continued living with her family, “something bad would happen.”

He meant it. Faleh, who had become a U.S. citizen two months earlier, told his son that he went to the DES to apply for benefits; he had lost his job. But after apparently seeing the two women there, he stalked out. Khalaf went outside to talk to him but couldn’t find him. It was a sunny day, in the mid-80s, so Noor suggested going to a Mexican restaurant across the parking lot for a drink.

(See TIME’s photo-essay “Muslim in America.”)

Walking slightly ahead of Noor, Khalaf glanced to her side and saw a gray jeep bearing down on them. Faleh was in the driver’s seat. Khalaf saw him turn the wheel sharply and head toward her and Noor. She made eye contact with him, throwing her hands in the air and yelling, “Stop!”

Faleh kept going, plowing into the women and speeding off. Khalaf never felt the impact. She awoke on the ground to strangers huddled over her.

Khalaf couldn’t see Noor, gasping for breath as blood gushed out of her mouth. The jeep had rolled over her. She suffered a head injury and multiple facial fractures, among other injuries. She never regained consciousness.

On Feb. 22, Faleh al-Maleki was convicted of killing his daughter, committing aggravated assault against Khalaf and leaving the scene of a crime. His defense attorney argued that he had intended to spit on Khalaf and accidentally ran over the two women. Prosecutors had pressed a first-degree murder charge. They characterized his actions as an “honor killing,” a controversial term that refers to a family member or members killing a relative, usually a girl or young woman, whose behavior is judged to have tarnished the family honor.

“Some families think that the women of the family represent their reputation,” Rana Husseini, a Jordanian journalist who has spent nearly two decades campaigning against the practice and author of the book Murder in the Name of Honor, explains. “If a woman has committed a violation in their point of view, they believe if they kill her, they have ended the shame. Blood cleanses honor.” According to the most recent U.N. Population Fund estimate, which is more than a decade old, 5,000 such killings occur worldwide each year. Experts believe the real number is actually much higher.

(See the top 10 crime stories of 2010.)

The jury found Faleh guilty of the lesser charge of second-degree murder, finding that he didn’t plan the act in advance. They also found the existence of aggravating factors, which means he could face up to nearly 46 years in prison. The evidence presented at trial made clear, however, that Faleh was influenced by a warped sense that Noor had impugned his family’s honor.

Most honor crimes take place in villages in the developing world, however, not in the parking lot of a nondescript American welfare office. The U.S. is supposed to be the melting pot, where immigrants assimilate into the larger culture, discarding much of their native selves. But some communities — like Faleh’s — have stubbornly resisted that transformation. Noor’s murder was an anomaly, but the attitudes that facilitated it don’t spring from the brain of a single deranged man — they are deeply rooted in an Iraqi community that insists on its right, its American right, to believe in the justifiability of practices like honor killings.

A Bloody History
The exact origins of honor killings are not known; the practice likely existed among different ancient cultures. Among northern Arabian tribes, the practice predates Islam in the 7th century. In a typical honor killing, the victim is judged to have engaged in a transgression that can encompass just about anything — from wearing Westernized dress to becoming a target of gossip to balking at an arranged marriage to being raped. The murder is often a collective family decision, with the father, a brother or male cousin carrying out the act; rarely, a female relative like the mother does the killing.

The crimes occur most commonly in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa. Without decent statistics, it’s impossible to ascertain which countries are the worst offenders, but Husseini points to Pakistan, Yemen and Iraq. In those countries and elsewhere, honor killers are treated with lenience; they often get a slap on the wrist if they plead honor as a mitigating circumstance.

(See “Afghan Women and the Return of the Taliban.”)

It used to be that an honor killer in Jordan could plead a “fit of fury” defense — similar to the crime-of-passion defense in Western penal codes — and do little or no time at all. In 2009, Jordan toughened the application of its laws, making it harder for honor killers to invoke the fit-of-fury defense. To elude even the light penalties that often exist for honor killings, however, families sometimes delegate the bloody task to male juveniles.

Islam doesn’t sanction honor killings, and the practice is not limited to Muslims. The crimes also occur in Christian communities in the Middle East and in non-Muslim communities in India. Last July, for example, after a number of Hindu girls were killed for dating out of caste, the Indian Prime Minister convened a commission to investigate whether harsher laws are needed to curb the crimes.

The majority of crimes, however, do occur in Muslim communities, and some of the perpetrators seem to believe that killing for honor is their religious duty. Strict attitudes toward sexual behavior in Islam — sexual relations outside marriage are punishable by death in Saudi Arabia and Iran — don’t discourage that mind-set.

See the top 25 crimes of the century.

See “The Myth of Homegrown Islamic Terrorism.”

Americans would like to believe that a Phoenix suburb, with concrete strip malls that look like any other in the U.S., except that some storefronts have writing in Arabic, is a far cry from a rural village in Jordan or India. But is it?

The practice has followed immigrants from countries like Yemen and Iraq to the West. Phyllis Chesler, an emerita professor of psychology and women’s studies at the City University of New York, has documented 40 attempted and successful honor crimes in North America and Europe between 1989 and 2008; 10 of those were in the U.S. According to Layli Miller-Muro, executive director of the U.S.-based Tahirih Justice Center, which provides free legal service to women fleeing violence, her nonprofit organization has received a number of calls in the past several years from young women who fear being killed for honor because they refused an arranged marriage.

New Land, New Ways
More than 36,000 Iraqis have settled in the Phoenix area in the past four decades, according to Farouk al-Hashimi, chairman of the Iraqi Cultural Association in Glendale, Ariz. They arrived in three waves: the first consisted of largely educated, upper-middle-class Iraqis in the 1970s and ’80s, the second was dominated by refugees of the first Gulf War, and the latest has been people displaced by the recent war. The second group comprised Shi’ite soldiers of limited education, al-Hashimi says, adding, “They struggle to adapt to American thinking and American standards.”

(See pictures of crime in Middle America.)

Among the second wave, Faleh seemed eager to accept America on its own terms. After living in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia, he resettled with his family in Dearborn, Mich., in 1994. He got a job as a truck driver, often leaving home for days or weeks at a time. Back then, Faleh’s and Khalaf’s families were, as Khalaf says in Arabic, “like one big family.” Both families are from Basra in southern Iraq, and they lived within doors of one another in Dearborn.

Wearing a black-and-white sheer scarf over her hair, with a similarly colored tunic over black pants, Khalaf is sitting at her home. She has largely recovered from the fractured pelvis and femur that she sustained during the attack. Her son and Noor’s sweetheart, Marwan al-Ebadi, a skinny 21-year-old with tattoos running up his left arm, is translating, while her husband listens.

When the Ebadis moved to Glendale in 1999, the Malekis followed, living with them for a couple of months. In Arizona, according to his friends and family, Faleh became a heavy gambler, often borrowing money from friends. He rejected their suggestions that he go to a mosque. His wife got a job simulating the role of Iraqis in training exercises at a U.S. military base in California.

Despite embracing aspects of American culture, the Malekis didn’t allow their children the same latitude. They expected the children to speak Arabic at home, dress modestly and be obedient. “They all basically had a cage around them. They had so much stuff to talk about, and they couldn’t,” Khalaf recalls. “Once they said something, they got hit.”

(See the top 10 religion stories of 2010.)

During her teenage years, Noor began asserting herself. She was striking, with long, dark hair and tawny eyes, and she flirted with the idea of modeling — a taboo for a good Muslim girl. She worked hard at school, getting good grades and writing for the school newspaper, but she also wanted to hang out with her friends and have fun.

Faleh felt his control slipping away. He told Thamer al-Diney, his friend and a fellow truck driver who had lived with him in the Saudi camps, “Noor gives me a hard time. She tires me.” Al-Diney advised Faleh to take Noor back to Iraq. According to al-Diney, Faleh responded, “I will take her, marry her [off] and say, ‘Stay here.'”

When Noor was 17, Faleh took her to Iraq, marrying her to a man who wanted to emigrate to the West. Noor went along with her father’s plans at first, but she returned to the U.S. after half a year, without the husband, stalling on the paperwork to facilitate his green card. “In her mind,” al-Ebadi says, “she wasn’t married.”

Noor’s parents saw matters differently, and her relationship with them deteriorated. In May 2008, Noor got into an accident in her father’s car; he tried to press criminal charges against her for theft. He told the police that he’d argued with Noor because he’d seen a photograph of her with men he didn’t know. In Noor’s interview with the police, she explained that she was in the process of moving out of the family home. Over the speakerphone on Noor’s cell phone at the police station, Faleh told Noor that he wanted her to return home because of how her being gone “would look on the family.”

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Noor returned home, only to argue once more with her parents. Soon after, Khalaf told the police, she found Noor sleeping in a van in the driveway and took her in. Noor’s parents went looking for her, but they didn’t find her. Meanwhile, Noor began exploring how to get an order of protection against her father.

By summer’s end, Noor had learned that her mother was casting spells on a doll that was supposed to be her. “You may refer to me as Layla Diab,” she wrote to al-Ebadi, informing him that she was changing her name. (Al-Ebadi was in prison for having hit Noor; he insists it was an accident.) Noor explained, “This way when my crazy mother does witchcraft or whatever evil it is she does, it won’t affect me.'”

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The Manhunt
Fortunately, a Phoenix suburb differs from an Iraqi village in at least one sense. While their counterparts abroad might look the other way, the police and prosecutors in Arizona pursued Faleh aggressively.

See “Arizona’s Tough New Law Against Illegal Immigrants.”

See the top 10 crime stories of 2009.

As soon as Faleh sped off, the Peoria police were on the case. Lead detective Chris Boughey and his partner met with Ali, Faleh’s oldest son, who initially said that he hadn’t spoken to his father since before the assault. The next day, another detective called Noor’s mother, Seham, as she was driving home from California. Seham was so difficult to interview — she kept yelling at the officer that Khalaf was a liar — that the police asked a local Muslim leader to act as an intermediary.

Within a week, Faleh was apprehended when he tried to enter the U.K. He had headed to Mexico and then flown to London. He was extradited to the U.S.

In an interview with Boughey and another officer, Faleh characterized the incident as “kind of an accident,” saying he “lost control.” He insisted that he loved Noor, saying that he had pictures of her on his cell phone to prove his claim.

(See “Islamophobia: Does America Have a Muslim Problem?”)

Faleh told the officers that in his culture, his daughter should not have left the house and was not supposed to be “Americanized.” He added, “I know the culture is outside, and we are inside, we are outside. You see what I’m saying?”

When Boughey probed deeper, Faleh admitted that he had wanted to “scare” Noor. Boughey then asked if he tried to hurt Noor. Faleh looked down, sighed and nodded his head in agreement. According to the police transcript of the interview, he made a final attempt to explain himself, comparing Noor’s behavior to part of his house being on fire and asking the detective, “So we burn all the house, let the house burn or we try to stop the fire?”

The Peoria police said they were investigating the extent to which family members were involved, but to date, no charges have been brought against anyone other than Faleh. Both Ali and Seham initially denied speaking to Faleh after he ran over Noor, just before 2 p.m. But records of his cell phone showed five calls between Faleh’s phone and Ali’s between 1:16 p.m and 2:30 p.m. In a similar time frame, there were 12 calls between Faleh’s phone and the phone Seham told police she was using in California. Faleh also called a male relative in Detroit. And about 15 minutes after the crash, he called his cousin in Phoenix.

In the days following his disappearance, police learned that Ali and Seham had filled a prescription for Faleh, an insulin-dependent diabetic, and stopped by the workplace of the cousin. Faleh also admitted to Boughey that he called the cousin for money; the cousin sent someone over the border with $1,900.

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While they appeared to have helped Faleh escape, did the family members know beforehand that Noor was in danger? During a phone call in Arabic to her husband at the jailhouse (Faleh didn’t know the police were taping his calls), Seham scolded him for killing Noor, saying, “You rushed into it, Faleh. Honestly, you rushed into it.”

Aftermath of a Murder
“The whores … burned us,” Faleh said in another jailhouse conversation with his wife. He added, “They destroyed me.” Seham responded, “May God seek revenge on them, God willing.”

Seham reassured her husband that “the people are not letting you down. They know you are a good-hearted person and have nothing.” At a later point, Faleh urged her to round up Iraqis from his tribe to protest his imprisonment at the American consulate. “No one hates his daughter, but honor is precious, and nothing is better than honor, and we are a tribal society that we can’t change,” Faleh said. “I didn’t kill someone off the street; I tried to give her a chance.”

At her husband’s advice, Seham tried to drum up support and raise more than $100,000 in cash for a lawyer. She met with the imam at al-Rasool Mohammed, a Shi’ite mosque in Peoria popular among the Iraqi immigrants, many of whom speak limited English. Seham attended the mosque a few times, but she stopped going when no money was forthcoming. She also petitioned the Iraqi Cultural Association, without success.

It is easy for the community to distance itself from Faleh now that he is a convicted murderer. But who spoke up for Noor when she was reportedly being brutalized at home and forced into an arranged marriage? Did any of Faleh’s contemporaries defend her right to dress herself how she wished? Why is Khalaf’s husband so quick to insist that Noor was a virgin and never involved with his son? Why do the teenage girls at al-Rasool mosque scold Noor for violating the precepts of their religion?

(See a video about young Muslims praying for understanding.)

The attitudes that fueled Faleh’s rage are widespread in his community. It is no coincidence that Faleh believes that Iraqis in the U.S. and abroad will judge him more kindly if they think it’s an honor killing. “Connect it to honor,” Faleh advised Jamal from jail.

Asked whether the community has taken away any lessons from Noor’s murder, the owner of an Iraqi grocery store in Peoria nods, explaining, “They don’t want their daughters to become like Noor.”

Saher Alyasry, a mother in her mid-30s praying at al-Rasool mosque, speaks out firmly, in Arabic, while her teenage daughter, rocking a newborn, translates. “I think what he did was right. It’s his daughter, and our religion doesn’t allow us to do what she did,” she says. “A guy who cares about his reputation, he should do that because people will start talking about him if he doesn’t.” When asked if honor is more important than love, she responds, “Yes. What’s the point of loving her if she’s bad?”

(Comment on this story.)

According to the police report, as Noor lay in a coma, every time Seham touched her daughter, Noor’s heart rate spiked. She was unplugged after her doctors informed the family that she was clinically brain dead. Only then did she reach a place where her family could no longer hurt her.

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