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July 8, 2010

An American Honor Killing

jeffrey peck

"At school Noor never talked about her problems at home. It was like she was living a secret life." —Jeffrey Peck, Noor's friend and a manager of her Facebook group

Photo Credit: Brent Humphreys

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Amazingly, honor killings in the U.S. have been largely ignored by the national media. That's because these incidents are typically dismissed as "domestic" in nature — a class of crime that rarely makes the headlines. Since the murderer is a member of the woman's family, there's no extended investigation to capture the public's attention. Also, the family of the perpetrator rarely advocates for the victim, due to either fear or a belief that the woman got what she deserved. "From the family's point of view, if the goal is to end rumors about their female relative, the last thing they want is to have the press talk about the case," says Rana Husseini, a human-rights activist and author of Murder in the Name of Honor. Still, the lack of media coverage or public outcry cannot erase the evidence: Honor killings have washed up on our shores.

While there's little doubt that what Noor endured can only be classified as an "honor crime," the characterization brings up strong emotions in her closest friends. "Noor did nothing dishonorable!" insists Adhikar Dhakal. Appalled by his friend's fate and determined that no other American girl should face the same situation, he and others have established a Facebook group devoted to Noor, with nearly 4,000 members. Every day people post messages of outrage and support, making the fight against honor crimes a growing movement in this country, with increasingly passionate followers.

For her part, Noor has come to represent the profound complexities faced by young women with one foot in suburban America, the other in Middle Eastern tradition. This past spring, I traveled to Arizona in an effort to shed light on why a father would try to kill his own daughter for being too American — a father who, in the case of Faleh Almaleki, had recently become a U.S. citizen himself.

It's a crisp, sunny morning in March when I arrive in Glendale, the Phoenix suburb where Noor grew up. Local newscasts are taken up with the story of two women who were attacked by a swarm of bees. A memorial service is being held for hometown hero Lori Piestewa, a Native American who was killed at the start of the war in Iraq. The air is sweet with the smell of orange trees, now in full bloom.

Noor's friends aren't too eager to talk to me. I'm not surprised. Although honor crimes aren't officially sanctioned by Islam, they're associated with predominantly Muslim countries, and there's concern that any discussion of them will prove inflammatory, even dangerous. Noor's closest friends, I learn, are also angry at the press over local news items containing misinformation about Noor. Several reports said she wanted to be a model; others said she'd moved in with her boyfriend. In fact, the truth about Noor is far more poignant.

At Dysart High School, Noor's photography teacher, Jim Heinrich, stands beside a poster of his classroom rules (No. 1: Wonder a lot!). The school's population of 1,700 students is like a United Nations: Mexican, Pakistani, Iraqi. "Students rarely bring who they are at home into the classroom," he tells me. He describes Noor as "quiet, funny, and productive" in class.

Mary Ancell, who ran the school bookstore where Noor worked, remembers laughing with her on the job. "One day we were working on the computer and she mistakenly deleted herself from the school system," she says. "But we got her back the next day." Then she pauses, and begins to cry.

Leilani Llewellyn, a high school friend, says she and Noor would sit in history class and chat — about guys, clothes, music, whatever. Noor liked the bands Oasis and Rise Against; the Snoop Dogg song "Ballin'" made her laugh. Jeffrey Peck, another friend, says Noor helped him through some "tough times" with his girlfriend in high school, but didn't talk about her own problems.

Susan Poland, who runs the school's Key Club, a community-service program, recalls that Noor would hint at threats from her father to send her back to Iraq (where, he said, she would "learn to be a good girl"), but no one really took him seriously. In the winter of 2007, however, during Noor's senior year, her father made good on his threats, taking her out of school for a trip to his homeland.

Noor's friends have different versions of what transpired, but it's clear that marriage was on the agenda. Friends say her father had had enough of Noor asserting her independence and talking to American guys, so he and her mother tricked her into traveling to Iraq, telling her they needed to visit a sick relative. Only upon arrival did Noor learn of the real reason for their trip: to marry her off.

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