By Phyllis Chesler
Texas-born Patricia (“Tissie) Said, formerly of the Owens family, is the mother who lured her two teenage daughters, Sarah and Amina, to their deaths at the hands of their own father this past New Years Day in Dallas. How can a mother do such a thing? Even if her own life was threatened, even if her husband Yasser had literally held a gun to her head and told her to trick her daughters into returning, isn’t a mother supposed to sacrifice herself for her children? Or at least to protect them? What can explain such a perversion of maternal instinct and of the life force itself?
“Tissie” Said is not the first mother to have participated in an honor killing on American soil. In 1989, in St Louis, Missouri, Brazilian-born second wife, Maria Isa, held her daughter Palestina (“Tina”) Isa down for twenty minutes as her father, Zein
Isa, a Palestinian Abu Nidal terrorist operative, viciously and repeatedly stabbed her to death. The entire murder had been taped by federal authorities who were tracking the Abu Nidal group. The jury got to hear the girl’s heartbreaking cries and found both parents guilty. (Unsurprisingly, Zein
Isa had the same mind-set that Islam Said, the brother of the honor murdered Dallas girls has. Isa said that “he had stabbed his daughter in self-defense, that she had so shamed him, that he had to commit a crime to restore his honor.”)
Palestina tried very hard to please her parents. She was overworked, treated “like dirt,” chronically beaten and constantly abused, both verbally and psychologically. But, like Amina and Sarah Said, Palestina also had academic ambitions—and she had an African-American “boyfriend.” Such Americanized behavior doomed all these honor murdered girls.
Both research and anecdotal evidence document that women collaborate, both directly and indirectly, in honor killings. According to a study which I cite in my 2002 book, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, Arab girls and women gossip about and slander others' girls and women in a way that demands that the men “do something” to restore their families’ honor. Palestina
Isa’s three sisters kept pestering their father to “do something about the nigger-loving whore.”
Sometimes, a mother might physically murder her own daughter on her own, by herself, directly, not indirectly. For example, in 2003, on the West Bank, Amira Abu Hanhan
Qaoud, brutally murdered her 13 year-old daughter Rofayda who had been raped and impregnated by her two brothers.
Amira was quoted as saying that “I had to protect my children. This is the only way I could protect my family’s honor.”
Surely, I am not saying that this mother in Texas murdered her own daughters physically, with her own hands, am I? No, I am not.
Indeed, in Texas “Tissie’s” favor, let me note that in late December, she ran away with her girls, whom she also calls her “angels.” At that time, “Tissie” also admitted to one of my interviewees that Yasser had threatened to kill the girls.
Once, long ago, “Tissie” had also admitted that Yasser had been sexually abusing Sarah and Amina when they were seven and eight years old. But she didn’t turn him in—her mother, the girl’s maternal grandmother, did that. And, according to her Owens relatives, “Tissie” laughed it off, “giggled,” minimized it all. “Tissie” stood by her man and she helped the children recant their sworn testimony because otherwise, “daddy would go to jail.” The girls subsequently told relatives that their recantation was false.
After “Tissie’s” own mother had turned Yasser in to the police, “Tissie” kept all the relatives on her side of the family far away from the girls. She and Yasser kept moving, roving, “like nomads,” (or like sociopaths), to escape school or child protective agency scrutiny.
According to my interviewees, “Tissie” also went to jail for her man when she was caught collecting welfare and a housing subsidy based on Yasser’s presumed absence. (In reality, he would sneak into the government subsidized housing at night). “Tissie” also worked as a store clerk, as did her daughters. According to my interviewees, “Tissie,” not Yasser, was the main support of the family. Yasser only worked as a taxi driver “when he felt like it.” And he kept his money to himself—or so they think.
Even now, when her daughters are dead and her man is still on the run, “Tissie” has chosen to live with one of Yasser’s brothers and she has warned her great-aunts not to speak out and not to call this cold-blooded murder an “honor killing.” She claims that her first-born son Islam needs her, and that he has grown up with his first cousins on his father’s side. Indeed, Islam’s need for her—perhaps her need for Islam—is the reason “Tissie” gave for having to return to Yasser, leaving her girls behind somewhere in Kansas.
According to my informants, “Islam bosses his mother around. And he stalked his sisters, he spied on them. But Islam also spends all his time at home with his mother. That’s where he’s been ever since he dropped out of school when he was 14. There is something wrong with him.” My informants tell me that “Tissie” could never control her son; that she minimizes, denies, and forgives his “weird, frightening, anti-social behaviors.” He is her wounded child. He still needs her. None of my interviewees are clear about whether Islam Said suffers from a learning disability, a psychiatric condition, or has simply been raised to be an aggressive predator against women with a deep hatred of America.
“It’s all of the above,” my interviewees say.
After “Tissie” left her daughters in Kansas, she returned home to Dallas. And then “Tissie” called her daughters and begged them to come back to Dallas to accompany her to put flowers on their grandmother's grave (the very grandmother who, a decade before, had turned their father in for child sexual abuse). “Tissie” told them that Yasser was contrite, that he only wanted to have tea with his daughters and to talk things through.
On television, Islam Said insisted that the boyfriends of Amina and Sarah were the ones who pulled the trigger. I think that “Tissie’s” hand steadied that trigger far more fatefully.
I called “Tissie.” She answered immediately. I told her that I was interested in her side of this story. She was indignant that I had called “so late,” (it was 9pm), and ordered me to “never call again.” She sounded very angry. Perhaps she was not alone, perhaps her every word was being monitored, both internally and externally. Maybe she was Yasser’s victim too. Maybe mitigating circumstances exist that would diminish the charges that will eventually be brought against her.
I asked my interviewees, four of her female relatives who represent both her maternal and paternal lines, whether they thought that Yasser beat her, whether “Tissie” was afraid of him. All four were adamant: “Tissie” loves him, he never battered her, they never saw any bruises on her.
By contrast, over the years, the Said girls were notoriously bruised, and had red welts visible on their bodies. In one instance, Yasser had embedded one of his daughters’ braces in her lip. “Tissie” covered up each instance. And she never left him because he battered their daughters.
My four informants do not believe that “Tissie” is now being or was ever held hostage. Of course, if she kept herself apart, her relatives might not know such details. Even though they remember incidents in which Yasser did not let “Tissie” leave the house and an incident in which he once blocked her car—“Tissie” could have left at some other time.
Or could she?
I asked my interviewees if “Tissie” is simple-minded, mentally ill, or mentally retarded. They all said no—although they did view her as “very passive.” One female relative thought that she might have been “jealous” of her ambitious, freedom-loving daughters but hastened to add that this was “only her opinion.” All four interviewees did think that, after so many years of marriage to Yasser, that “Tissie ” was probably brainwashed.
Brainwashing is often accomplished by isolating the target from anyone else and immersing her in a culture of like-minded people. Both threats and rewards characterize a brainwashing campaign. This seems a likely possibility in “Tissie’s” case—which, however, does not mean that she is morally or even legally innocent in the matter of her daughters’ abuse and death.
At the beginning of this article, I asked how such a perversion of maternal behavior can be understood. At one level, it is quite simple to understand: “Tissie” behaves in the same way that any normal, uneducated Arab Muslim wife might behave. What makes such behavior unexpected, or culturally “abnormal,” is that “Tissie” was born in America and raised in a Christian (although not in an especially religious) household.
However, like many girls in the Muslim world, (and sadly, among the poor everywhere), “Tissie” dropped out of high school; she may only have completed the 8th grade. At fifteen, she married Yasser, who apparently presented himself to her family as a wealthy Egyptian “prince”—someone who had property and other holdings back in Egypt. Unlike many American girls who cling to their families of origin, “Tissie’s” primary alliance is not with her own family but with her son, her husband, and with her husband’s family. This is typical behavior for Arabs and Muslim women but is less typical of Europeans and Americans.
I am indebted to my good friend and colleague, the psycho-analyst and Arabist, Nancy H. Kobrin, for the following insight: What balances such family dynamics out and partially “protects” the women in a culture which otherwise despises and fears them are the practices of arranged marriage to one’s first cousin and the relationship between brothers and sisters . If one’s mother-in-law is also one’s aunt, a daughter-in-law might be safer living with a family with whom she has probably grown up than among complete strangers.
Also, if “Tissie” had Arab Muslim brothers of her own, they might potentially come to her aid against her husband or on behalf of her daughters—but they might also help her husband enforce the rules and customs of Islamic gender apartheid against her. These customs and relationships, which may seem (and which are) “primitive,” actually preserve a peaceful status quo partly by keeping the wealth within one’s own family.
In the Arab and Muslim world—and in “Tissie’s” world in Dallas, daughters are nothing but “trouble.” Their chastity has to be guarded, their modesty ensured. Otherwise, they will bring shame to their entire family. Among other things, this means that no one will marry the family’s sons or the other daughters. Disobedient daughters are dangerous and expendable.
But “Tissie” lived in Dallas, Texas. Why is she behaving as if she lived in the Middle East?
Some of “Tissie’s” female relatives believe that she converted to Islam. However, they are not entirely sure since she has behaved in secretive ways. They have seen (or were told about) photos of “Tissie” and Yasser in Arab dress, posing with guns and knives in exaggerated “jihadic” poses. But they are unclear about whether Yasser and his family are religious or not. Or political.
Murderously “crazy” on the subject of women—yes.
But some non-Arabs and non-Muslims in America also engage in these behaviors—but not necessarily in all of these behaviors simultaneously: Some own guns and participate in a macho gun culture. Some batter and stalk their wives and physically and sexually abuse their daughters. Non-Arab and non-Muslim mothers also stand by their batterers (who may have girlfriends, and who, like Yasser, may leave for extended periods of time); and, they have been known to scapegoat their daughters for having “provoked” paternal lust.
But such parents do not usually kill their daughters. And, if they do, they are seen as monsters, not heroes. Their families often give them up. They do not shelter them. Their families testify against them. (Recently in Israel, which in many ways is a western democracy, the women of an Arab Muslim family all testified against their men after the ninth female relative had been honor murdered). Our western culture has at least criminalized wife and daughter battering, incest, stalking, and femicide. While we may not always be successful in preventing or prosecuting such behaviors, we know that they constitute crimes.
But, if many kinds of people (Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, native-Indians) engage in some or all of the above behaviors (wife-and daughter-battering, incest, etc.) what might we have to do to prevent honor killings in America? Can we eject all people whose cultural backgrounds value honor killings? Can we refuse to allow people from such cultures to become residents or citizens here? Can we “test” them on these issues? Or pre-educate them? If this approach became known public policy, some people might simply lie.
What if people who come from an honor killing culture desire asylum from it? What if the women of such cultures, transplanted to American shores, are relying upon American law to prevail and to save their lives? What is the “American” thing to do?
I do not have a simple answer. However, Sarah and Amina Said were American citizens. America was their culture. Their desire to live as Americans, and not as Arab Muslims in Egypt is precisely what doomed them. They are one of ours. We failed them. How can we do better?