Ribbon for domestic violence awareness. Photo courtesy the University of Hawai'i–West O'ahu.
When a Pakistani court sentenced Waseem Ahmed Azeem to life in prison last week for murdering his famous sister, press accounts say the victim’s mother wept bitterly – for her living son, not for her dead daughter.
Fauzia Azeem, who rose to fame under the name Qandeel Baloch, was a social media star. She was also one of her country’s highest-profile activists on behalf of women’s rights. She flouted her country’s social expectations through aggressively sensual dress and dance, as well as through words in her interviews and online posts. Baloch courted the sort of attention that women in her part of the world rarely get away with courting. In the end, she did not get away with it either.
In July 2016, one week after she released her music video “Ban” with male singer Aryan Khan, according to prosecutors, Azeem smothered his 26-year-old sister as she slept in their parents’ home. Azeem was motivated by anger and shame over the dishonor he perceived that his sister brought to their family. He was not the only man charged in Baloch’s death; another brother remains a fugitive. Six other defendants, including a religious scholar, have been acquitted. Azeem’s lawyer has said he will appeal his sentence.
My reaction when I first heard this report on the BBC was to think “same old story – an honor killing in a backward corner of a country that is still trying to catch up to the late 20th century, let alone the 21st.” But after a few minutes, it dawned on me that my own society is not as different as I am quick to assume.
While we don’t label them “honor killings,” murders of live-in romantic partners and family members are endemic in this country. According to statistics from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, more than 10 million women and men are physically abused by an intimate partner each year. The organization further reports that 72% of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner, and 94% of the victims in these cases are female. One in three female murder victims are killed by intimate partners.
We generally respond passively, as though such genuine domestic terrorism is inevitable even if it is not acceptable. Nobody is surprised when we hear about someone, usually a man, who stalks and then kills a partner or ex-partner. Many times other victims are involved as well, including a couple’s children, the target’s family members, or other friends or romantic partners who happen to be present. We scarcely pay attention to these cases anymore unless somebody famous is involved. Domestic violence may make it into a popular song, but action to address the crime is harder to come by. The federal Office of Violence Against Women has an entire budget of just under $489 million, compared to the Justice Department’s overall budget of $28 billion.
If you are an American adult, chances are very good that you personally know somebody who was the victim of domestic violence. You may even know the identity of the perpetrator. I know I do. Most of the time, we don’t see very much we can do, beyond offering moral support or helping someone find temporary shelter. This is in cases where we know the abuse is happening at all – fear and shame often keep victims from telling even those closest to them.
It seems to me that the overseas concept of “honor killings” and our own garden-variety domestic violence are manifestations of the same idea: that we ought to be able to own and control another human being, especially if we are men and the person we want to control is a woman. The next step in this warped logic is that we have the right to inflict violence if they defy the power we claim. Our society declares such violence unacceptable, but that is just talk. We would not see such violence so often unless we accepted it in many ways. A mother crying for the imprisoned son who murdered her daughter is only one of those ways.
Take corporal punishment of children. Not a single state has outlawed the deliberate infliction of physical punishment by an adult against their own child, although Delaware says such punishment must not cause physical pain. (The psychological impact of a parent striking a child is ignored.) Even in public school, 19 states still allow unrelated adults to inflict physical punishment as a form of discipline. If an adult did this to another adult – say, an employer disciplining an employee – the minimum legal consequence would be an assault charge. If we demonstrate to children that it’s OK for a bigger person to use force to control the behavior of a smaller person within a family, some fraction of those children will grow up to believe it is OK for a bigger adult to use force against a smaller adult, as long as they likewise keep it within the family.
Courts hand out orders of protection liberally but enforce them sparingly. Police often have more pressing business than to intervene when a stalking ex-spouse merely appears near a home, workplace or school to glare or shout insults. Stalking wasn’t even identified as a crime until the 1990s and is still often treated as less threatening than it is to the person being stalked. Some jurisdictions even allow work-release for individuals who are behind bars on charges of or after convictions for domestic violence. We should not be shocked when these policies end badly.
I can’t do anything constructive for Qandeel Baloch and the society that made her untimely death foreseeable, if not inevitable. But I can do something to make similar atrocities less common here. The BBC report I read motivated me to join the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a Colorado-based advocacy group currently headed by Ruth Glenn, who survived being shot three times by an ex-partner. This is a first step, to educate myself about what I can do in my own state and community to make domestic violence rarer and to help its victims.
I expect to come back to this subject in future installments of this blog to share what I learn and to encourage others to get involved. I have been reading these awful stories since I was old enough to decipher a copy of the New York Daily News. I am sick of them. It just doesn’t feel good enough anymore to tsk-tsk about bad things that happen to women in Pakistan, when there are so many bad things happening in my own backyard.