Family, Culture and Law Meet in a Utah Court Case

Sat, Apr 21, 2001


The New York Times / By Michael Janofsky

SALT LAKE CITY— She was much like any other young immigrant from a faraway country, eager to absorb American culture and make a new life for herself.

But over several hours one night 18 months ago, Muna Hawatmeh said she found that her closest relatives were not so willing to abandon the ways of old. In a case now under review by the Utah Supreme Court, Ms. Hawatmeh claims that her two brothers, Iehab and Shaher, and her parents, Jamil and Wedad, felt that her lesbian relationship so shamed the family that they beat her and tried to take her back to their native Jordan.

The four family members were charged with aggravated kidnapping, a felony punishable by up to life in prison, and assault, a misdemeanor. After a preliminary hearing, a trial judge reduced the more serious charge to simple kidnapping, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years. But two weeks ago, the Utah attorney general asked the higher court to reinstate the original charges.

All four have pleaded not guilty.

The accusations surprised many in the city. Despite the overwhelming presence of the Mormon Church, which frowns on same-sex relations, Salt Lake City in recent years has become more diverse. Local gay rights leaders said they did not see the case as a hate crime because of the particular cultural circumstances.

”I certainly think everyone in our community was aware of the situation and had concern for the safety of this woman,” said Darin Hobbs, assistant executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Utah. But, he continued, ”it’s hard to make a connection to the gay and lesbian community at large.”

Mahnaz Afkami, an expert in Middle Eastern culture and president of the Women’s Learning Partnership, an international human rights organization, said a woman having a sexual relationship outside marriage, especially one with another woman, was considered shameful in Middle Eastern cultures, regardless of their religion. The Hawatmehs are Roman Catholic.

In her court testimony, Ms. Hawatmeh, 25, described her brothers’ reaction to her relationship with Leticia Rivera, a graphic artist. Ms. Hawatmeh, who was still learning English at the time, told the court: ”They never accepted it. They were hurt about it and they were, like, cannot believe, you know, a lesbian, and they never accept it.”

Ms. Hawatmeh could not be found for comment. Even Jennifer D. Barton, the deputy district attorney for Salt Lake County who is prosecuting the case, said she did not know where Ms. Hawatmeh was living.

In an interview, Ms. Rivera, who is now 30, said she and Ms. Hawatmeh recently ended their relationship but remained friends. She said Ms. Hawatmeh still harbored ”a lot of anger toward her family over the whole culture and situation.”

”She has a lot of scars,” Ms. Rivera added. ”We’ve both been traumatized by this, but we’re trying to move on with our lives.”

None of the members of the Hawatmeh family, who are free on bond, were available for comment. The father’s lawyer did not return a call. The mother’s lawyer and Iehab’s lawyer said their clients would not comment, and Shaher’s lawyer did not respond after he said he would ask Shaher if he would speak to a reporter.

Ms. Hawatmeh told the court that for weeks, her brothers tried an assortment of tactics — she called them threats — to persuade her to break off the relationship with Ms. Rivera, with whom she was living in Provo, Utah. The brothers, who own thriving computer parts businesses, wanted her to return to their parents’ home in Sandy, a Salt Lake suburb, she said. Several times, she told the court, someone left messages on her answering machine, saying, ”Lesbians must die.” She identified the voice as that of Shaher, now 35.

After weeks of explaining to them that she did not want to leave Ms. Rivera, Ms. Hawatmeh said she agreed to meet the family.

She returned to her parents’ house on Oct. 13, 1999, and found, as she told the court, that they were still ”very mad” at her and had no intention of allowing her to return to Ms. Rivera.

Over the next four hours, she testified, the family members hit her, kicked her and verbally abused her until she kissed her father’s feet and promised to change her sexual orientation.

”I was just in shock,” she told the court. ”I cannot believe it. I was, I was just — I didn’t know how to react. I did not. It was like, you know, my family, my own family were doing this to me. I was just in shock.”

At one point, she said, Shaher held a large knife toward her: ”And he said, ‘You going to die tonight.’ ”

She said Iehab repeated the threat, ”saying you are going to die tonight; we going to kill you.”

Ms. Hawatmeh said said she was overcome with pain and humiliation, and begged them not to kill her. She said she agreed to return to Jordan the next day, saying, ”I’ll be a different person.” She said her body ached and was covered with bruises. (The brothers came to the United States from Jordan about 15 years ago, followed by their parents and sister.)

The next morning, Ms. Hawatmeh testified, as the brothers were about to drive her to the Salt Lake airport, they encountered Ms. Rivera driving toward the family house. She said Iehab threatened Ms. Rivera’s life and tried to grab her before she sped off. The brothers then took Ms. Hawatmeh to the airport, she said.

But before they checked in, she told the court, a police officer, alerted by Ms. Rivera, called on Iehab’s cell phone, insisting that the brothers take their sister to the police station in Sandy to prove she was leaving on her own accord.

At the police station, she told officers everything she said she had endured over the previous 12 hours. That led to the charges against the four family members.

As part of the court proceedings, Ms. Hawatmeh is not allowed contact with her family. Ms. Barton, the prosecutor, said the estrangement had been hard for Ms. Hawatmeh.

”This was once a very loving family,” Ms. Barton said. ”This has devastated her. Muna really misses the contact with her parents, especially her mother. They used to be very close.”

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Kudos to @RepRoKhanna & @RepMattGaetz on their bipartisanship efforts in passing the Khanna-Gaetz amendment in the #House. We're a step closer to preventing another unnecessary/costly war in the #ME. Congrats to @PAAIA & other allied #Iranian-#American orgs for their #advocacy.

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