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The Most Appalling Cosmopolitan Cover Ever? Will It Spark a Charlie Hebdo-Style Attack?


Courtesy of Cosmo UK

Susan E. Wills - published on 01/30/15

Raising awareness and offering hope to victims of honor-related violence

Over the years, Cosmo covers have given parents plenty of reasons to divert the kids’ attention from the checkout counter magazine racks. A typical cover shows a female celebrity in skin-tight clothes whose image is surrounded by titles or teasers on that month’s features explaining 25, 78 or 52 ways to get more out of sex (and they don’t mean babies). Not the worst of Western decadence, but certainly a contributor to the zeitgeist that elevates recreational sexual activity above all other human pursuits.

So it may surprise many that Cosmo has produced a limited-edition wrap-around cover for its February 2015 issue in the UK. It shows a beautiful young woman posing as if she’s being suffocated to death in plastic sheeting, an obvious reference to honor killings and, in particular, the 2004 murder of Shafilea Ahmed, a seventeen-year-old British-Pakistani, murdered by her mom and dad in front of her siblings for having refused an arranged marriage. But no worries. The real cover of the February issue is true to form — with Kylie (Kardashian) Jenner, a dominatrix tale teaser and “LOOK SEXY NOW: Make Them Obsessed with You!”

Is the faux cover supposed to be a gesture of atonement? Doubtful. But it’s close to the apex of irony, considering that the main reason for honor violence and honor killings in North America and Western Europe is that fathers (and moms, uncles, brothers and cousins) see the teen girls as too “Western” in attire, attitudes and friends.

The Cosmo wrap-around cover is part of the “Britain’s Lost Women” campaign by Cosmo and Karma Nirvana, an organization whose mission is to raise awareness of honor-related abuse and arranged marriages, to advocate for victims and give them a safe haven from their families.

Honor violence and arranged marriages still occur in many traditional cultures — Hindu, Sikh, Yazidi and Muslim. It is cultural or tribal in origin, not religious. Honor-related violence seems to be on the increase in the West due both to the increasing size and number of Middle Eastern and Asian immigrant communities and to the clash between Western “values” and the immigrants’ views on sexual morality, marriage and the role of women. The apparent increase may also be due in part to a greater willingness of police to investigate allegations, which they notably failed to do, despite appeals for help in the cases of Banaz Mahmud (20, strangled on the order of her dad and uncle), Surjit Athwal (27, murdered on the order of her mother-in-law and brother-in-law) and Shafilea Ahmed (17, suffocated by her parents). 

Lest any modern, Western readers start to feel righteous by comparison, consider how many parents in the US have thrown their teen daughters out of the house when they became pregnant or threatened to throw them out unles they got an abortion. Three such women are good friends of mine. One had been raped by an uncle and was then left to fend for herself at age fourteen on the streets of Chicago. Through my involvement in the Church’s Project Rachel Ministry, I’ve heard or read the stories of scores of women who received similar treatment. And these Western parents have the same motivation for abandoning their daughters or forcing them to undergo abortions: the family’s reputation.

The UN has estimated that 5,000 honor killings of teen daughters and wives are committed annually by male relatives, but others believe the number is far higher. Dr. Phyllis Chesler has stated that 5,000 honor killings/year would be an accurate figure for Pakistan alone.

Nazir Afzal, a Crown Prosecutor for the northwest of England, sees ten to twelve murders every year in the UK
, along with “kidnappings, abductions, assaults [and] sexual offenses,” but he contends that such violence “is often hidden and unreported.” His office also prosecuted “more than 200 cases [in 2012] of honour-based violence.”

He estimates that immigrant families force or threaten to force 8,000 to 10,000 arranged marriages yearly, often to first cousins whom their daughters have never met. That was the case with Shafilea Ahmed. Concerned that she was becoming Westernized, her parents sedated her and sent her off to Pakistan to meet and marry a much older cousin to whom they had promised her. She drank bleach in an attempt to kill herself. She then returned home to more beatings. She was isolated and starved, When these tactics failed to subdue her, her parents suffocated her in front of her siblings (as an explicit threat to them) and dumped her body in the River Kent. The siblings had been sworn to secrecy and it was nine years before Shafilea’s younger sister, Alesha, who now lived in her own home, broke silence and told the police. In the Middle East and parts of Asia, such killings — when discovered and prosecuted — rarely involve much jail time. In the UK, finally willing to abandon political correctness and address honor violence, prosecutors seek Western-level penalties. Shafilea’s parents were sentenced to life in prison.

The problem of forced marriages of young girls persists. Mr. Afzal stated that a British government survey of school pupils revealed "hundreds and hundreds of young girls, and by that I mean 11, 12, 13-year-olds, who would just disappear off the school rolls."

A 2010 study by Phyllis Chesler in "The Middle East Quarterly" describes "Worldwide Trends in Honor Killings." Dr. Chesler is emerita professor of psychology and women’s studies at the City University of New York. She describes two types of honor killings with two classes of victims. The average age in the first group is seventeen; in the second group, it is thirty-six. Slightly more than half of the victims were daughters or sisters; one-quarter were wives or girlfriends of the killer. The remaining victims were mothers, aunts, cousins, nieces, uncles or non-relatives.

About two-thirds of victims are killed by their own family of origin. In North America, fathers were involved in the killing more than half the time, but were less so in Europe (one-third of the time), and even less often in the Muslim world. Worldwide, 42 percent of the killings were done by multiple perpetrators. Chesler also found that —

Worldwide, more than half the victims were tortured, i.e., they did not die instantly but in agony. In North America, over one-third of the victims were tortured; in Europe, two-thirds were tortured; in the Muslim world, half were tortured. Torturous deaths include: being raped or gang-raped before being killed; being strangled or bludgeoned to death; being stabbed many times (10 to 40 times); being stoned or burned to death; being beheaded or having one’s throat slashed. 

Additionally, a majority of women were murdered for being "too Western": In North America, that reason was given 91 percent of the time and in Western Europe, 71 percent of the time. This is less often the reason in the Muslim world (43 percent of the time).

Victims in their thirties are often killed by their husbands but, worldwide, the husband is aided 44 percent of the time by his or her family of origin. In the Muslim world, older women victims of honor killing are murdered by their family of origin almost two-thirds of the time, while in Europe the victim’s family participates in her killing one-third of the time. 

The rate of torture preceding death is highest in Europe (68 percent) for victims of all ages, 35 percent in North America and 51 percent in the Muslim world.

Can’t happen here? The AHA Foundation, established in 2007 by Ayaan Hirsi Ali to protect and defend women from honor violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation describes five cases of honor violence or killing in the United States:

February 2012: Aiya Altameemi, a 19-year-old Iraqi-American living with her family in Arizona, was severely beaten by her mother and sister and her father threatened to kill her, placing a knife at her throat (leaving a 1-1.5 inch scar, for having been seen talking to a boy. Several months earlier, her mother burned her on the face with a hot spoon because Aiya refused to consent to an arranged marriage with a man who was twice her age. Because Aiya later defended her family, stating "that’s our culture," all three were given no further jail time, and only two years’ probation.

In January 2008, Texas resident Yaser Said shot and killed his two teenaged daughters, Sarah and Amina, due to their "Western lifestyle" and the fact that each had a boyfriend. The father disappeared after the murders, but at a vigil remembrance of the girls, their brother placed all the blame on his sisters for their Western attitudes: "They pulled the trigger, not my dad." 

Faleh Almaleki, an Iraqi living in Arizona, killed his 20-year-old daughter Noor Almaleki by twice running over her with his car. She had refused to marry her father’s choice of a man she’d never met who lived in Iraq and she had become "too Western." He was convicted and sentenced to 34 1/2 years in prison.

In May 2008, Waheed Allah Mohammad stabbed his sister Fauzia, then 19 years of age. A number of family members and he had been arguing with her outside their home over her decision to move to New York City with a friend. He explained to police that she had "disgraced the family" by dressing immodestly and going to clubs. He pleaded guilty to attempted murder and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. 

A 2012 Canadian study identified twelve honor killings in that country since 1999.

Will the faux cover and campaign spark an attack on the offices of Cosmo or Karma Nirvana? Honor violence is a cultural, not religious, deed. The cover does not attack Islam or its god or prophet, but in the current environment, it does take courage to call into question any practices of extremist Middle Easterners. So, "Good on you," Cosmo and prayers for the safety of your personnel. 

It may take a long time for immigrants in the West to value the lives of their daughters and wives more than "family honor." By drawing attention to these crimes, training school personnel and police to be more alert and responsive to complaints, and providing resources and means for victims to be protected before their lives are taken are only the first, though necessary, steps.

Susan Willsis a senior writer for Aleteia’s English-language edition.

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