EL CAJON, Calif. (AP) — There were signs that her traditional Muslim family may have been struggling in the U.S. even before Shaima Alawadi was murdered: Court documents say she was contemplating a divorce, and her teenage daughter was resisting an arranged marriage.
Authorities initially believed Alawadi died as part of a hate crime. Now, they say the Iraqi-American woman was killed by her husband during a domestic dispute.
The suspect, Kassim Alhimidi, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to a murder charge during a brief appearance via a video monitor in Superior Court, where the couple’s teenage daughter Fatima Alhimidi cried quietly in the courtroom in El Cajon.
Kassim Alhimidi was ordered held without bail after prosecutors noted he recently traveled to Iraq and was a flight risk. If convicted, he could face 25 years to life in prison.
The killing of the 32-year-old Alawadi drew international attention after their daughter said she found a note by her mother’s bludgeoned body that read: “Go back to your country, you terrorist.”
Deputy District Attorney Kurt Mechals said El Cajon police worked tirelessly to determine whether the case was indeed a hate crime or a domestic dispute. He said the family is cooperating and hoping for the best for their father but also wants to let the system discover the truth.
“His family like everyone else wants to see justice achieved for their mother,” Mechals said.
He declined to comment further on the case as did the family.
Author Nina Burleigh, who has written extensively about the mix of Islam and Western society, said the case highlights the dangerous clash that can happen when female immigrants, particularly from Islamic countries, rebel against their cultural restrictions and exercise choices made available to them in their adopted homelands.
“These things are happening all over the place,” Burleigh said. “It’s much more openly discussed in Europe where there is more integration from these societies, where in the U.S. it’s not discussed so much partly because we have a bias toward discussing the way these cultures treat women.”
El Cajon, the San Diego suburb where the couple and their children lived, is home to about 40,000 Iraqis.
Alhimidi’s arrest last week occurred only days after the sentencing of an Iraqi mother who was charged in Phoenix with beating her daughter because she refused to go along with an arranged marriage. The 20-year-old woman was burned on her face and chest with a hot spoon then tied to a bed. The victim’s father and sister were also sentenced to two years of probation for their involvement.
In the California case, a sealed search warrant affidavit inadvertently given to a reporter at the U-T San Diego newspaper showed the El Cajon family was struggling with relationship issues.
Detectives found documents in Alawadi’s car indicating the mother of five planned to seek a divorce. Alawadi had left Iraq in the early 1990s after a failed Shiite uprising.
The affidavit showed their 17-year-old daughter, Fatima, was distraught over a pending arranged marriage to her cousin in Iraq and was found in a car with another man in November 2011. After her mother picked her up, the teenager said “I love you, Mom,” opened the vehicle door and jumped out while the car was traveling about 35 mph, the document said.
“Police were informed by paramedics and hospital staff that Fatima Alhimidi said she was being forced to marry her cousin and did not want to do so, (so) she jumped out of the vehicle,” the documents say.
Family friend Qasim Alasady went to the courthouse Tuesday to show his support for the father and his children.
He said he had known the couple for 18 years and never noticed any trouble, although he recently heard from a friend that Alawadi wanted a divorce. He said divorce does happen in Iraq and in the immigrant community but is not common and is “shocking.”
Alasady said he does not know what happened in his friend’s household, but he knows from his own experience that keeping cultural traditions in the U.S. is not easy.
“It is totally different, this place,” said Alasady, who has lived in San Diego for nearly two decades. “American women, they control everything. Back home it’s different. A lot of women they don’t understand. They try to own the man over here.”
Still he said violence is not tolerated against anyone.
Alhimidi was publicly silent for six days after the body was found, even though his children spoke often with reporters. In his first public remarks — made at a news conference at the family’s mosque in Lakeside — he demanded to know what motivated the killer.
“The main question we would like to ask is what are you getting out of this and why did you do it?” Alhimidi said in Arabic as his 15-year-old son translated.
In Iraq, female lawmaker Aliyah Nisayef said in March that the killing of Alawadi was motivated by the anti-Islam and Arab sentiment in U.S. Now she has suspicions about the accusations leveled against Alawadi’s husband.
“This incident has grabbed the headlines as it has angered Iraqis and other Arabs who consider it a hate crime as part of the anti-Islam and Arab campaigns in these countries,” Nisayef told The Associated Press in Baghdad.
“So my point of view is that these accusations are dubious and could be fabricated as America is trying hard to give a pure picture for it in regard to human rights and fighting extremism,” she added.
Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this story.
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