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Slaying shines light on marital abuse

The mourners carried her severed body inside the white brick mosque on a frosty morning before the sun rose, before the children arrived for school.

Removing their shoes, wives and mothers shrouded in black passed through the women’s prayer area, cordoned off from the men’s with white drapes, and made their way to the washing room. Once inside, they slipped into sandals and, in observance of Islamic tradition, gently bathed her body on a bone-colored tile table the size of a casket to prepare it for burial.

From a distance, a woman named Samia, round-cheeked with thick eyebrows, who cooked meals at the mosque, watched the procession with horror in her heart.

Samia could not bring herself to enter the washing room or look at the victim, Aasiya Zubair Hassan, a woman she had known informally in life. She was too shaken to attend the funeral.

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The two wives were connected by the close-knit Muslim community in western New York, including Buffalo, about 400 miles from New York City. But unbeknownst to each other, both shared a secret -- marriages stained by abuse.

Samia got help. Aasiya died before help came.

She was stabbed several times before being beheaded Feb. 12, inside a dull yellow warehouse that served as headquarters for the Muslim television station she founded with her husband, Muzzammil Hassan.

Muzzammil Hassan has been charged with second-degree murder in the killing, and last month pleaded not guilty.

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Aasiya was 37 when she was killed -- the same age as Samia.

Early news reports, and gossip in the community, called it an “honor killing,” a term that upset Muslims across the country for its implication that the abuse was tied to the couple’s faith.

Samia, who did not want to use her last name for fear it would shame her family, remembers Aasiya, who had wavy black hair and a narrow nose, as appearing poised and professional in public, often wearing red lipstick.

Though some Muslim families in the community believe wives should stay home while husbands work, Samia said she considered Aasiya a modern career woman who wore blazers instead of a hijab and worked diligently on behalf of the television station.

For Samia, who accepted her husband back home in December after five years of on-and-off-again separation, a scary realization choked her thoughts: This could have been me.

‘Happy bride’

Aasiya was raised in a well-off family in Pakistan, and although she was Muslim, she attended an all-girls convent school, St. Joseph’s. She went on to study at one of the country’s most prestigious colleges, the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi.

“She wanted to do architecture from the beginning. She idealized her father, a respected architect,” said Asma Kumial, a childhood friend. She described Aasiya as a natural athlete, tall and slender, who played on the basketball team.

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After college, Aasiya worked at several architecture firms in Karachi. One of her projects was an upscale cafe called Okra, which she designed from scratch.

She had a large wedding, friends said, but not overly elaborate by Karachi society standards. “She seemed like a happy bride,” said Rana Tanivir, who attended convent school with Aasiya.

In 2000, Aasiya joined her husband in Orchard Park, N.Y., where he worked. Friends and colleagues from Pakistan lost touch after Aasiya moved to the United States. Only a few of her friends had met the groom before the wedding, and his past -- two previous marriages and two children -- raised eyebrows.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Aasiya proposed creating a television channel to give Muslims a fair portrayal in the media. With talk shows, game shows and documentaries, it would do for U.S. Muslims what “The Cosby Show” did for African Americans.

Muzzammil Hassan jumped on his wife’s suggestion. He ambitiously built Bridges TV around her vision, soliciting investors and subscribers from the Muslim community throughout Buffalo and the U.S.

Hassan Shibley, a former producer at Bridges TV, said the kind and loving Aasiya represented the heart of Islam. She took the two children to pray at the mosque, but Shibley rarely saw her husband attend.

“The main priority for him was business; it wasn’t the message of Islam,” Shibley said.

Hassan was a “a very, very focused man,” said Faizan Haq, a local professor of cultural studies who took part in the TV station’s early stages. “It was Aasiya’s dream, but it was his planning.”

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Hassan could also be stubborn, and his incessant questioning and difficult nature became too much for Haq to bear. Haq quit the station before it launched in 2004.

In public, Hassan credited his wife as the inspiration for the station. But few knew what was happening at home.

Police were called to the couple’s home on reports of domestic violence more than a dozen times in 2 1/2 years, according to the Buffalo News, which obtained copies of police reports in which Aasiya said Hassan punched her in the nose, gave her a black eye and dragged her by her hands up a driveway. Police prepared orders of protection against him three times, the News said, but she refused to press charges.

“Both of them put on such show, it seemed like everything was OK . . . there was nothing wrong,” Haq said. “But I guess a lot was wrong. I remember once Aasiya had a bruise on her face. We asked, and she said she fell from a horse. We didn’t question it.”

On Feb. 6, she filed for divorce and obtained an order barring him from their Orchard Park home. Six days later, Hassan reported his wife’s death to police.

A month later, wet rose petals wilted in the bushes in front of the television station, which was lined with gray satellite dishes. An ink-smeared note plucked from the prickles of the shrub read: “Aasiya . . . May Allah be with you.”

Turmoil at home

If anyone understands the fear of pressing charges against a husband, it is Samia.

She left him several times but always came back, partly out of guilt. She believed that, deep down, her husband was a good man with a sickness everyone but him seemed to see.

For Samia’s husband, it was drugs and alcohol that drew out the monster within him. She married at 17, and they had four children. Over the years, she grew used to his rants: You can’t do anything right. You are nothing without me.

She began to believe him.

One night in 2004, she remembers, he came home at 4 a.m. deliriously drunk, pounding the door, screaming threats. He kicked down the door and tackled Samia on the couch, choking her until the children ran to get him off.

He later promised to reform, but within six months he was back to his old ways. What followed was a blur: He tried to commit suicide, left the family home and spent 10 months in intensive counseling.

Three months ago, convinced that he had worked hard to better himself, Samia told her children: “Dad is going to come home, and we’re going to support him.”

“They looked at me like, ‘You must be crazy,’ ” she said.

Samia says he has not returned to his destructive habits, and she is proud of him. When she learned of Aasiya’s death, her husband was the first person she called for comfort. Although neither believed he could have gone so far, her husband at times got so high or drunk, she said, that he did not know what he was doing.

“He could have just taken my head off without even realizing it, and when he woke up he would have been like, ‘What happened?’ ”

Aasiya’s death motivated Samia and two other Muslims in abusive marriages to work with Rahama, or Resources and Help Against Marital Abuse. “Rahama” also means “mercy” in Arabic.

Kathy Ahmed, the principal of an Islamic school in Getzville, N.Y., started the group three years ago after a survey of Muslim women in the area found that domestic violence was a major concern.

Since Rahama began, it has guided two women through divorces, and it is working with Samia to keep her marriage violence-free.

But Ahmed feels guilt, as most of Aasiya’s friends and acquaintances do, that she did not spot signs of abuse. Ahmed says she should have tried to get Aasiya to open up in the brief times they met.

“She always seemed sad,” Ahmed said. “We should have pushed.”

In a statement Feb. 16, Marcia Pappas, president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, criticized the media for paying little attention to Aasiya’s slaying. (Her death came to light the same day Continental Flight 3407 crashed in nearby Clarence, killing 49 people.)

“Is a Muslim woman’s life not worth a five-minute report?” Pappas asked. “This was, apparently, a terroristic version of ‘honor killing,’ a murder rooted in cultural notions about women’s subordination to men.”

Muslims called on Pappas to retract the statement, saying it was offensive and stereotypical. Such a portrayal, Shibley said, goes against everything Aasiya worked to create with Bridges TV.

Domestic abuse is not only a Muslim problem, Samia said, but when a strong community of Muslims exists, as it does in Buffalo, victims should feel comfortable to turn to mosques, imams, counselors and other women without fear.

“There is help out there,” Samia said, “Aasiya just didn’t know how to get the right help.”

On a recent gray day in March, Samia opened the door of the room inside the mosque where Aasiya’s body was washed. Samia glanced at the tile table that held Aasiya’s body a month earlier.

Samia turned away. She did not want to remember Aasiya that way. In three days, Muslim girls would gather at the mosque to talk about domestic violence; Samia had agreed to help organize it. She closed the door tightly before slipping into her black shoes and getting back to work.

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Times staff writer Laura King in Pakistan contributed to this report.


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