No Protection, No Help: Beheading Case Shows Vulnerability of Abused Women

No Protection, No Help: Beheading Case Shows Vulnerability of Abused Women

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This week, a court in New York convicted a Pakistani-born man of decapitating his wife.

While there has been great chatter surrounding the role of religion in this case, it has overshadowed the larger issue: No one succeeded in helping this woman and her children safely escape the torments of this unstable and extremely violent man.

Aasiya Zubair knew little of Muzzammil Hassan when she married him in October of 2000 in Karachi. Some reports indicate that they had met online a few months earlier, while others seem to indicate an arranged marriage.

What is certain is that he lived in the United States and she lived in Pakistan. Neither had known each other very well or very long when they married that fateful day.

Their union was nonetheless characteristic of an arranged marriage in which parties are joined based on superficial resumes of information (some of which may be simple fabrication) having nothing to do with the intangible qualities that are required of a healthy marriage. If she had actually known Muzzammil, it seems impossible that she would have willingly married him.

However, she did, and it was nothing but ordinary in a society where arranged marriages are still common. Her family didn’t put a stop to her marrying a man neither she nor they barely knew.

Within two months, according to Aasiya’s divorce affidavit filed in an American court, she moved to the United States where the superficial knowledge that she had of her husband proved true: He was a moderately successful businessman with American citizenship.

She was soon to learn the ugly truth, too. Her divorce affidavit is rife with examples of the abuse she and her children endured at the hands of an extremely ill man, who she judged to be afflicted with a severely narcissistic personality disorder, as she stated in an e-mail to her sister a few years before her death.

Muzzammil, it turned out, was twice divorced—both wives had left him because of extreme emotional and physical abuse.

Numerous news reports and accounts indicate that Muzzammil’s abuse of his previous wives, Aasiya and their children were widely known.

But nobody did anything about it, and this poor woman was left to fend for herself against this dangerous man.

Even after she visited family in South Africa—a trip during which she received $3,000 in medical treatment for injuries she had endured at her husband's hands--her family did not succeed in saving Aasiya from returning to her abuser. Neither did her co-workers, her religious leaders or her friends.

Once, during a visit to Muzzammil’s family in Texas, he attacked Aasiya so violently that his brother helped take her to the police station to file a report.

But, according to her divorce document, family elders soon forgot the incident and “merely told [Aasiya] that Muslim women do not answer back, and that it was [her] own fault that this had happened to [her].”

Alone in a foreign country, with two children and two stepchildren to care for, time and again Aasiya chose to forget the incidents, too.

Domestic violence is a worldwide phenomenon that is exclusive of religious belief, level of education and culture–it happens everywhere to all sorts of people, though more often women and girls than men and boys.

And though there are laws in most countries against it and in prosecution of it, these laws are useless in the face of inadequate support and safety systems in a person’s family and friend network, that can help extract her from her abusive situation.

More than laws, victims of abuse need people who care enough to save them from themselves--from that thing in them, whatever compulsion or reason it may be, that keeps forgetting, keeps forgiving, keeps staying in the abusive situation.

Although many people claimed to love Aasiya and had close relationships with her, none of them did enough -- other than offer cursory advice-- to actually remove her from her horrific situation and help her put in place the legal protections that expert after expert says she could have achieved if only she had taken even one of the police reports and followed it up with an actual charge.

There are millions of Aasiyas in the world. Look around you at the women in your life and ask yourself if there is someone who could use your help, someone who could die without it.