Neighborhood windows rattled when the taxi cab exploded with Shahpara Sayeed in it, allegedly ignited by her angry husband on August 24, 2000.
The 33-year-old Chicago resident was trying to escape after reportedly being doused in gasoline by her husband, Mohammed Haroon, who then reportedly threw lit matches into the car.
By the time police officer William Clancy, who was in the area when he heard the horrific explosion, reached the scene of the crime, nothing but Shahpara's burned body and the remains of the cab were left.
She had immigrated to the US only a year before. Shahpara had come on a religious visa as an Islamic scholar. She had been married two years ago to Haroon, who also goes by the name Javaid, in Karachi, Pakistan. He had been working as a cab driver in Chicago, and is reported to have entered the US illegally. Both husband and wife were related to each other before marriage. He was reported to have paid $16,000 to get Shahpara's visa.
Accounts of the incident in local newspapers say that Sayeed and Haroon were arguing shortly before he allegedly doused her with gasoline then set the cab on fire. He was also slightly burned and ran away as his wife cried out for help, trying to escape the death trap she was in.
They were practicing Muslims
Based on what has been reported, it seems that both husband and wife were practicing Muslims conscious of maintaining an Islamic lifestyle.
They lived in an apartment complex with a Masjid in the basement; she wore Hijab and also covered her face; he was active in the local Tableeghi Jamaat and kept a beard.
They are reported to have had disputes over children, maybe over money
But their relationship was difficult. One problem, according to a report in a local Pakistani newspaper, was that they didn't have children. In fact, one account said the couple was seeking the help of someone who would give them a "Taweez" to help them have children shortly before Shahpara's death.
A Taweez is a type of Dua (supplication) a number of Muslims seek when trying to fulfill a need instead of directly praying to Allah as they are expected to.
Others who say they know the couple claim that money was involved. One relative says Shahpara had won a lottery and her husband was after it.
Shahpara's case will go on in the court system. The media will eventually forget about the incident but domestic violence will continue.
Four other women killed in Chicago in the same month
In a span of one month, four other women from areas neighboring Shahpara's were murdered, all of different religious and cultural backgrounds. They were white, African-American, Hispanic and Asian.
One of them was Violet Medina Marcial She was a mother of two allegedly stabbed by her husband at their home after an argument over her plan to divorce him. Her husband, Miguel Marcial has been charged with first-degree murder.
Another was Chicago police officer Brenda Sexton. Her boyfriend allegedly beat her to death with a bat in her home as her five children watched. Sexton's boyfriend Sam Lupo has been charged with first-degree murder.
Barbara Satchell was one month pregnant when she was stabbed multiple times at her home. Her 21-year-old son Julius Davis has been charged with first-degree murder and intentional homicide of an unborn child.
Katrina Herlihy, a 20-year-old student was shot near her home in an apparent robbery attempt.
All of these women were victims of the social disease of violence in our society Three of them, including Shahpara, allegedly by a husband or partner.
Some statistics on domestic violence
According to findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey (US Department of Justice) in November 1998, of the women who reported being raped and/or physically assaulted since the age of 18, three-quarters (76 percent) were victimized by a current or former husband, cohabitating partner, date or boyfriend.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report: Violence Against Women (August 1995) notes that domestic violence is statistically consistent across racial and ethnic boundaries.
Female homicide victims are more than twice as likely to have been killed by an intimate partner than are male homicide victims (Bureau of Justice Statistics: Female Victims of Violent Crime, December 1996).
Muslims and domestic violence
Islam is not responsible for Shahpara's death. Nor is Christianity responsible for the deaths of the other women in Shahpara's area.
However, Muslim families are clearly not immune from domestic violence. We are just as susceptible to the problems of our society, no matter how much we isolate ourselves.
Shahpara and Haroon's living quarters are evidence of that: they lived in an apartment complex owned by Muslims, where there is a Masjid. Shahpara was killed within blocks of another Masjid.
Ironically, none of these Masjids have sermons in a language people can understand. None of them allow the full participation of women and if they are typical of other Masjids, they probably never had sermons on how to handle a marriage dispute, how to control one's anger and none of them offer any counseling services.
The culture of illegality
What makes cases like these even worse in the Muslim community, as has been the case of other new immigrant communities of the past like the Irish, Italians, Polish and Jews, is the ghetto culture of illegality that many live in.
In other words, when people are living in a country illegally, forging documents and faking identities, they are less likely to seek help for their problems from the right venues because they are clearly living in fear.
That means that couples who are having problems are not willing to contact social services for fear of being found out. The same principle applies to seeking medical help.
As well, when a specific community is found to have a number of individuals breaking the law, mainstream services like hospitals and social services are less likely to help them out and take their needs seriously.
Even worse, this culture of illegality doesn't just stop with forging a few proofs of identification. It becomes a way of life that extends to the business, the social and the family.
How can we claim to be honest Muslims when we are cheating, lying and involved in fraud? We are not only putting ourselves in danger in this world. We are seriously endangering our place in the hereafter.
What we need to learn from Shahpara's case
There are a number of lessons we can learn from these cases, especially Shahpara's:
- Muslims need to pay more attention to the fields of counseling and social services so that they can help couples who are having difficulty. Perhaps if more Muslims were trained to give Islamic counseling or help in conflict management, and they were supported by the mosques, numerous women and children could be spared the misery and emotional turmoil of domestic violence.
- Masjids should have sermons in English so most of the Muslims who attend can find more than just an Arabic Khutbah (sermon) they don't understand if they are non-Arabs. They will find instruction in Islamic teachings, including how we must treat our families, especially our women and children.
- Sermons need to connect responsibility towards Allah with responsibility towards His creation. This must be emphasized because Allah does not forgive the sins we commit against humans unless our victims forgive us. We need to remind each other that a good Muslim is conscientious not just about his or her dress and prayers five times a day, but also about how s/he treats others, whether that is a spouse, children, or a stranger on the street.
- Sermons should also emphasize that the Prophet Mohammed (peace and blessings be upon him) never hit his wives, and those who claim to follow the Sunnah and practice Islam must remember that the Sunnah is also in behavior, not just in prayers and dress.
- Masjids and Muslim leadership must actively criticize and oppose domestic violence publicly. Silence is read as consent, not as objection. The Muslim leadership?s silence on domestic violence is simply an indication to others that they are either indifferent to the problem or even worse, don't care. In the end, the negative image of Islam is made worse by our silence.
- Individual Muslims should take part in organizations and activities educating and opposing violence. Not only wiill they develop skills and tools to deal with the problem within the community, but they can also teach non-Muslims that Islam does not tolerate violence against women.
- Muslims should participate in learning skills of conflict management. This is something useful not just in situations of family conflict, but also in the context of the community. Disputes in the Masjid, for instance, can be easily resolved if sincere and skilled Muslims make an effort to resolve disputes properly.
- We must start reeducating our children, families and communities about what it means to be a good Muslim. We must encourage praying five times a day, fasting and dressing Islamically as we already do. However, we need to start pointing out that Islam is also about developing a deep closeness to Allah and respect for and good behavior towards His creation.
- Masjids need to discourage illegal behavior. Muslims should be the last people entering a country illegally and being involved in various kinds of fraud and deception. If Masjids, the primary Islamic institution, take a stand, perpetrators will at least have to think twice. In Islam, a lie is a lie, a theft is a theft, a fraud is a fraud whether it is against a Muslim, non-Muslim, an organization or a government.
- The Muslim leadership must not only work to discourage illegal behavior. They must also help the voiceless: those who are living illegally but are in need of social services and basic health care. They do have rights in the US. It is up to the leadership to do the two-pronged job of ridding the community of the culture of illegality while helping provide the needs of those who are too afraid to ask for them.
This report is based on a number of ethnic and local newspaper reports from Chicago, as well as interviews with individuals and officials involved in the case.