Chesler Chronicles

A Civilized Dialogue About Islam and Honor Killing. When Feminist Heroes Disagree.

Part One.

It has been my privilege to know and to work with Dorchen Leithold who is a fearless, tireless, driven, and heroic champion of womens’ rights. I remember Dorchen back in the days when we were both anti-pornography activists. She then became an anti-trafficking activist which she still is. We have participated in many important demonstrations, conferences, and memorial services over the last forty-plus years. Dorchen went on to become a lawyer. She is now the director of legal services for battered women in New York City (Sanctuary for Families) and has, Sojourner Truth style, literally rescued and saved the lives of many a woman.

We now have a genuine disagreement about whether or not Islam plays a role in domestic violence and honor killings, including in the recent horrific beheading of Aasiya Z. Hassan in Buffalo. Dorchen thinks not, I think there is a profound relationship that we deny at our own peril and to the detriment of Muslim girls and women.

With Dorchen’s permission, I am now publishing our recent correspondence. This is how people, including feminists, might consider sounding when they disagree with someone. Instead of cutting each other off, or writing each other off, here is one example of how a civilized disagreement might sound.

Our exchange is rather long. Dorchen said I could publish it as long as I did not change or edit anything she wrote. I have now added some material of my own in order to frame this dialogue and to respond to her last letter. I will run this in two parts. Stay tuned tomorrow for our second and final exchange.

On February 14, 2009, I published my first piece about the Buffalo beheading. On February 16, 2009, Middle East Quarterly (MEQ) published my study “Are Honor Killings Simply Domestic Violence?” Thereafter, between February 17th and February 27th, I published an additional five articles on the subject. Dorchen is on my mailing list and so she received every article. Late on the evening of February 28th, Dorchen, in a carefully composed letter, responded to me at length. She is a very busy women and the fact that she sat down and did this speaks volumes.

Dorchen has been nothing if not kind and respectful towards me and yet–I could not help but note that she only wrote to me after I had praised New York State NOW President, Marcia Pappas, for her dissident stand on the Buffalo beheading and had challenged National NOW President Kim Gandy’s party line position on the subject. Perhaps Dorchen kept hoping that I would stop writing on this subject or perhaps that I’d change my point of view. When that did not happen, she clearly felt obliged to write. Obviously, I feared that Dorchen had been asked, even urged, to write on behalf of others. I asked her about this. She said she was speaking for herself. Ultimately, it does not matter. What matters is the exchange of these ideas and how we are modeling a civilized way of communicating.

In my MEQ study, I recommend that we work with those mullahs, Islamic organizations, and individuals who are genuinely pro-woman, anti-domestic violence, and anti-honor killings–but that we must differentiate between such Muslims and those who will say the “right” thing on these subjects, (usually after an honor killing has taken place), but who have no intention of doing any of the hard and serious work against violence against Muslim women.

From her first letter, dated February 28, 2009, it is not clear whether Dorchen read my study or is aware that I mention one of her own cases in it. Without quoting her name, I wrote: “A number of feminist lawyers who work with battered women have credited pro-women sheikhs with helping them enormously. Sheikhs (mullahs, imams), should publicly identify, condemn, and shame honor killers. Those who resist doing so should be challenged.”

From: Dorchen Leidholdt
Sent: Saturday, February 28, 2009 9:39 PM
To: Phyllis Chesler

Dear Phyllis,

I cannot in good conscience not respond to the article that appeared on your blog, “The Left and a Woman’s Severed Head.” While I have had much respect for you and for the very important work you have produced over decades of writing, thinking, and activism, I believe that statements like this statement of yours–“Why the sudden respect for Islam, a religion which is, in reality, not a religion at all but is rather, a totalitarian political ideology which has undergone no evolution for 1400 years and which is dangerous to women and other living beings?” are misguided, divisive, and false.

First, like many in the movement against violence against women, I work with amazing, committed Muslim feminists. Statements like yours, which disparage Islam, tell them that they have no place in the feminist movement. As a feminist lawyer representing Muslim women victimized by male violence, I have seen over and over how their faith has provided them with an important source of support as they challenge male domination and abuse. I remember vividly how my courageous Pakistani client who survived domestic violence and threats of honor killing read her copy of the Koran in court to gather strength as her husband and his family members menaced her from across the waiting room. Now free from her husband’s abuse, she is raising a vibrant, free-spirited daughter who is learning about Islam and feminism from a mother who sees no contradiction between the two. I believe I told you the story of the time when my client, this same woman, learned that her older brother, who had threatened to kill her while in Pakistan, was now in New York City. When I learned of this, I realized that I needed to meet with him because he was a witness to threats my client’s husband had made against her. I contacted him and told him that I wanted to meet with him at Davis Polk & Wardwell, the firm handling my client’s asylum case. I set up a meeting with the brother and a male pro bono attorney at the firm who had taken several of our most challenging gender-based asylum cases. Also from Pakistan, this attorney was a deeply observant Muslim married to a feminist doctoral student from Pakistan. We met with our client’s brother, who, as you might imagine, had many questions of me. The pro bono attorney challenged him about his treatment of his sister, and quoted many passages from the Koran about the obligations of an older brother to protect and support his sisters. At the end of the meeting, our client’s brother agreed to testify on behalf of his sister, and two weeks later, to my astonishment, he did just that. I could clearly see that just as the Bible and the Torah can be used to support or prevent violence against women so can the Koran.

Second, religious scholars point out that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share many of the same roots, and I am struck over and over by the similarities of the three major monotheistic world religions. So many of the prophets and precepts are virtually identical. Sadly, all three in text, interpretation, and practice are pervaded with misogyny that can be used to justify violence against women. I’m not as familiar with the Torah as the Bible, but both contain passages like this one in Ephesians: “Be subject to your husbands as to the Lord: for the man is the head of the woman, just as Christ also is the head of the church… [women must be subject] “to their husbands in everything (Eph. 5:21-24).” Christian and Jewish feminist scholars, theologians, and practitioners have done much to transform the interpretation of the Bible and Torah. I have met Muslim feminists who are engaged in the same endeavor with the Koran. Your statement suggests that the Koran is inherently misogynist and their labors are futile. Surely you cannot be opposing their valiant and admirable work.

Finally, in some of your blogs you suggest that honor killing is peculiar to Islamic societies. That is absolutely false. Honor killing takes place all over the world, whenever a man, aided and abetted by others or not, kills a woman because he feels she has tarnished his honor. Almost always it’s accompanied by usually spurious allegations of a sexual nature–of adultery, infidelity, or involvement in prostitution. Brazil was once considered the capital of honor-killing, and only recently eliminated the defense that a man was justified in killing an intimate partner because he believed his honor had been besmirched. Indeed some scholars and activists have seen a connection between Catholicism and honor killing in Latin America. Similarly beheadings and other gruesomely murderous forms of intimate partner violence are not peculiar to Muslims, whether we’re talking about historical examples of femicide (Henry VIII’s justification for the beheading of his wife Anne Boleyn was that she was an adulteress) or contemporaneous ones (remember that East Village man who beheaded and dismembered his girlfriend before making a soup of her remains, which he served to his neighbors).

Dr. Susan Wilt, Director of Epidemiology in NYC Dept. of Health’s Injury and Prevention Program, published a study in March 1999 on female victims of homicide in New York City 16 and over killed between 1990 and 1994. She found that like Aasiya Hassan nearly half were killed by current or former husbands and boyfriends, more than half died in private homes, usually their own, and one third of the women killed by their husbands were trying to end the relationship when they were killed. Dr. Wilt was dismayed by the ferocity of the men’s violence against the women they killed: “Where men are most likely to be killed by guns, the women’s deaths were very different. We were surprised of the degree to which some of these murders just spoke of enormous rage. Some women were stabbed and also strangled. Some women were beaten, and they weren’t dead yet, so they were thrown out of the window.” The horrific nature of the deaths of these women were so disturbing to the research staff that they found it necessary to attend monthly support group sessions.

A few years later Dr. Wilt conducted research into the femicide of immigrant women. She ultimately concluded that in New York City there was not a greater incidence of intimate partner homicides among immigrant women than among native born women.

Phyllis, I earnestly hope that you will reconsider the statements that you have made about Islam and honor killing and modify or disavow them. Not only are they false, for the reasons I explain above, but they fuel prejudice and discrimination and create divisions between nonMuslim and Muslim women at a time when we so desperately need to stand together.

In sisterhood,


From: Phyllis Chesler
Sent: Saturday, February 28, 2009 10:40 PM
To: Dorchen Leidholdt

Dear Dorchen:

I find it very surprising that you are now, here, revealing details of that particular case which you once brilliantly handled and which I have described in The Death of Feminism–a case which you forbade me from sharing any details about. I did not do so. Is this information (about the Pakistani case which you handled in the offices of Davis, Wardell) now public? Are you doing so now in order to be able to prove that Muslims can also be good. Of course they can; like Jews, prick them, will they not bleed? Or do you wish to prove that in this instance the Qu’ran was used for good, not for evil?

I don’t doubt it. But how many other cases like this have you worked on?

In respect and sisterhood and with great affection,

From: Dorchen Leidholdt
Sent: Saturday, February 28, 2009 11:00 PM
To: Phyllis Chesler

Phyllis, this is not a public message and there is no one behind it but me. I wrote it in the space of an hour as I sat at my computer this evening. I must admit that I’ve been increasingly concerned about your messages about this case and have been hoping that they would take a different turn. I have such admiration and affection for you that reading them has been personally difficult for me. Finally, when I read this message tonight in my office, catching up on the deluge of e-mails that I get each week, I felt that I could stay silent no longer. By the way, I am very sympathetic to Israel and am much concerned about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the world. At the same time, I see the discrimination, post 9-11, that our Muslim clients have experienced. Nonbeliever that I am, I believe that like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is one of the great religions of the world and that it can be a force for peace and social justice but tragically has been hijacked by fundamentalists in the service of terrorism and misogyny.

In sisterhood, Dorchen

From: Phyllis Chesler
Sent: Saturday, February 28, 2009 11:15 PM
To: ‘Dorchen Leidholdt’

Dorchen my friend:

Let me read your letter carefully and respond. Is it possible that we actually have a different point of view? Perhaps even based on different facts, different interpretations, with, perhaps, different concerns?

You are citing one 1999 study which studied immigrant women in New York City from 1990-1994, and found that there were no higher rates of domestic violence or femicide among them than among native-born women. I cite another state-wide study in Massachusetts, published in 2008, which examined the data in domestic violence deaths which took place between 1997-2006, and which found a higher-than-expected rate of such domestic violence femicides among immigrant women. We are comparing two small studies which looked at data in two different states and in different years. Unsurprisingly, the findings are different. Which is right? Which is true? And what about all those cases which go unreported and unrecorded and which may include honor killings which the police did not name appropriately?

Have you really read my study in MEQ which does differentiate a classical honor killing, (which the Buffalo case is not), from traditional western-style domestic violence and from domestic violence femicide? This is important. Have you read that I’ve suggested working with pro-womens’ rights mullahs? And about the importance of making alliances with Muslim feminists, Muslim dissidents, ex-Muslim dissidents? Clearly, we both believe that this is a crucial alliance.

I would be very interested in some examples of helpful mullahs and Muslim lawyers because I really want to know. But I also know that “Islamophobia” is a false concept, one being widely used by scoundrels.

You may be right about Islam but only in the hands of those Muslims who risk their lives to take their religions back. Understandably, few actually do so. We must work with those who do. As I am. But I am not certain that Islam is a great and peaceful religion. Based on my information, it is not that. Many scholars tell me that individual Muslims may be peaceful, but Islam, as it is written and unrevised, is not. They insist that Islam is a political ideology, a totalitarian ideology, not the kind of “Religion” that we are used to in the West.

I look forward to our dialogue.

With warmth,

End of Part One.