Florida special prosecutor Angela B. Corey announced during a press conference Wednesday that the state of Florida is charging George Zimmerman with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. It’s about time. Zimmerman, who is expected to plead not guilty, faces a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.
Since the 17 year-old’s murder in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26, the public outcry for justice for Trayvon and outrage that Zimmerman had not been arrested (until this week) has only intensified. Marches and rallies across the country have galvanized college students, parents of all colors and religious leaders, who call on others to denounce the racism in our country that makes a black teen wearing a hoodie and carrying candy “suspicious” and “up to no good” in the eyes of an armed neighborhood watchman.
The intense media coverage of the murder of Trayvon Martin and the public outpouring of anger and grief that it has generated has made me think about the relative invisibility in the media and public consciousness of another murder that involves race, gender, religion and nationality – the killing of Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi immigrant, wife and mother of five children.
Alawadi died March 24, three days after she was brutally and violently beaten with a tire iron in her home in El Cajon, California. Alawadi’s 17-year-old daughter Fatima found her unconscious with a note that said, “go back to your country, you terrorist.” According to police, the family found a similar note earlier in March and didn’t report the incident. Investigators thought the murder was a hate crime because of Alawadi was Muslim and wore a hijab. Soon after her death made news, her name was linked with Trayvon Martin’s in marches and rallies for justice and many people wore hijabs under their hoodies. Those seeking justice for Alawadi created a Facebook page in her honor, “One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi,” which currently has more than 16,000 supporters. On Wednesday, college students across the country held a “National Day of Action for Shaima and Trayvon” and many more women wore hijabs in solidarity over the Easter weekend.
The circumstances surrounding Alawadi’s death are now emerging in media reports that claim that Alawadi was planning to divorce her husband and move to Texas. Police found court paperwork to file for divorce when searching Alawadi’s Ford Explorer, and court records also indicate that Fatima was distraught over an impending arranged marriage to her cousin. Although these circumstances surrounding Alawadi’s death complicates what we think was a hate crime, it doesn’t make her murder any less important or diminish the sense of urgency in finding her killer, just as the victim-blaming of Trayvon Martin wasn’t an acceptable reason not to arrest George Zimmerman sooner rather than later.
Shaima Alawadi and Trayvon Martin may have more similarities in their deaths than they did in life. Alawadi, a 32 year-old female, Iraqi immigrant, and Trayvon, a 17 year-old African-American male, occupied very different social positions in life, but they shared a dilemma that scholar Melissa Harris-Perry describes as, “What It’s Like to Be a Problem.” Harris-Perry states that Trayvon Martin was guilty of being black in presumably restricted public space. Teasing this idea out, Harris-Perry writes that being black in America is a constant awareness of being a problem to others, especially in public spaces. The violent policing of black bodies – whether it’s Jim Crow laws, curfews, stop and frisk laws or by others like George Zimmerman – is consistent throughout America’s racial history, according to Harris-Perry.
Looking beyond the black maleness of the problem that Harris-Perry correctly identifies, the violent policing of immigrant, black, Muslim, Asian, white, Latina, gay/lesbian/transgendered women’s bodies also occur, in public and private ways. One only has to look back at the murder of Tyra, a 25 year-old transgendered woman who was found dead in an abandoned home in Baltimore last year, or remember that veiled Muslim women in the decade since 9/11 have endured public insults as they go about their daily lives.
Shaima Alawadi’s murder is indicative of this. As a Muslim woman clearly identified by her hijab and who was from a country that the U.S. invaded and occupied for nearly 8 years, Shaima Alawadi and many women like her are seen as problematic as terrorists, radicals and oppressed, helpless victims who are prone to the whims of their supposedly terrorist radical husbands. Yet they remain invisible in our national dialogue and narrative about racial justice, equality and violence against women. The lack of intense media scrutiny and national pleas to find Shaima Alwadi’s killer illustrates this invisibility of violence against women. These women embody a racialized and gendered problem in America for those who use Islamophobic insults or physical violence to control them. If Alawadi’s murder is to be seen as a hate crime, then the note left next to her unconscious, beaten body – “go back to your country, you terrorist” – illustrates this.
The lack of intense national scrutiny compared to Trayvon Martin’s murder is perhaps a result of Shaima Alawadi’s beating and eventual death as an event that happened within the home, a private, domestic sphere that has always been associated with a woman’s place. Unlike Trayvon Martin’s murder, which happened outside his home in a semi-public area of his father’s private neighborhood. Add the alleged marital problems Alawadi was having with her husband, claims of her daughter’s unwanted, impending marriage, her own religious and cultural background and the situation surrounding Alawadi’s murder reads as a private, domestic affair (i.e., don’t interfere with other people’s business behind closed doors).
The narrative of Trayvon Martin’s murder reminds us of the worst of our historical and cultural struggle for racial equality as a nation. It’s touched a deep nerve and it’s also a stark reminder that we don’t live in a post-racial world after the election of President Barack Obama. The narrative of Shaima Alawadi’s murder is messier, complicated and less linear in motive and reason. But it underscores a need in our social justice movements (racial, gendered, faith-based, immigrant rights) that we take seriously the violence that occurs to the most marginalized and invisible in our society and incorporate them into our national narrative for equality. They deserve nothing less.