U.S. News

Two girls murdered in Texas taxi: Were they honor killings?

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The last words from Sarah were “Oh my God, I’m dying.” Then the 911 emergency operator heard a barrage of gunshots. Sarah, 17, and her sister Amina, 18, were found shot 11 times in the back of their father’s taxi, abandoned in a hotel parking lot.

Their father Yaser Said has not been found since that New Year’s Day seven years ago when he told his daughters to climb into his cab, he was taking them out to dinner.

The chilling emergency call opens the documentary “The Price of Honor”, which recounts the lives of two vivacious American teenagers growing up in the Dallas suburb of Irving, Texas, and their attempts to escape the grip of an Egyptian father who planned Muslim marriages.

Their deaths were honor killings, said Ruth Trotter, using a phrase little heard in the United States for a hidden horror of murder by a close relative to protect the family name, but rarely recognized by public safety officials.

Amina was secretly dating Trotter’s son, Joseph, and Sarah had a boyfriend too, facts they tried to hide from their father,

“Amina always knew that Yaser was going to murder her, it was just a question of when and where. She made Joseph promise that he would not harm himself, that when she dies he would live,” Trotter said in an interview.

He beat the girls and took them to Egypt to find husbands when Amina was 15 and picked one man who was almost 50. She begged and pleaded with her mother to come back home, she said.

Honor violence is a crime without a name in the United States. No data is collected on its prevalence, many people think it happens in countries far, far away from the United States, experts on gender-based violence said.

Its forms range from domestic violence for defying parental authority or behaving “too Westernized,” to extreme sexual control including female genital mutilation (FGM), forced marriage and ultimately killings to protect the family’s reputation in a conservative community.

A recent study by the U.S. Justice Department quoted research that estimates between 23 and 27 honor killings occur each year in the United States and there are 1,500 forced marriages. But there are no official statistics.

A separate study by the Population Reference Bureau estimates that 507,000 women and girls in the United States are at risk or have already undergone FGM, where her genitalia are partially or totally removed to control sexuality and ensure virginity until marriage, more than twice the number estimated 15 years.

“When you consider that we have many, many immigrant communities in the United States who did not leave their culture behind, the scale is huge,” said Amy Logan, co-president of the U.S. National Committee for UN Women in San Francisco who was a consultant for the documentary.

European countries are much further ahead in training police and social workers to identify those at risk of honor violence and teaching how its contours differ from domestic abuse, and how to intervene safely before it escalates toward death.

Amina and Sarah had nowhere to turn in Texas. No one understood that a teenager saying “My Dad is going to kill me” is a serious cry for help, not adolescent drama, said Trotter.

James McLelland, Irving Police Department spokesman, said police do not view the case through a cultural lens, and investigated it no differently than any other homicide.

“We are not giving any credence to honor, but approach it as capital murder. Whatever the motivation was, is for him to explain. The end result is the same,” McLelland said.

FBI’s 10 Most Wanted

When Xoel Pamos began researching the documentary, which premiered in September and had its first showing in Washington last week, he set out to tell stories from women around the world. But the tragedy of Amina and Sarah captivated him.

Authorities had ignored signs of family turmoil, he said. The maternal grandmother recounts in the documentary how she alerted the police when the girls confided that their father was sexually touching them. But she said Amina and Sarah recanted, urged on by their American mother to keep daddy out of jail.

After their deaths, police did not interview all family members and potential leads turned cold, Pamos and Trotter said.

Pamos and his co-director, Iranian-born Neena Nejad, hired a team of private investigators. They uncovered a video showing the father spying on his daughter as she worked in a convenience store and his anger when she smiled at a customer.

They uncovered cellphone records that showed Yaser Said making multiple calls to family members immediately before and after his daughters’ deaths. Then he disappeared.

Irving police said they followed up on every credible lead.

Almost seven years later, after the movie premiered, the FBI placed Yaser Abdel Said, 58, on its Ten Most Wanted list. He remains at large.

Pamos said Amina and Sarah’s story is a horrific tale about what happens when honor violence is ignored.

“We need to be aware this a real issue in the U.S.,” he said.

“We need more men, more Muslim men to fight, to sign up and protest that you cannot move to the United States and marry a white lady and say to your daughters you cannot date an American guy. You cannot come and violate basic human rights.”