American Girls

Crossing between American and Egyptian cultures, he Said girls made one deadly misstep: They fell in love

The truth is more complex.

"Honor killings have nothing to do with Islam," says female Saudi writer and activist Wajeha Al-Huwaidar. "It's only tradition. It's the mentality of women as property."

In the case of Amina and Sarah Said, the murders were allegedly committed by a non-religious Muslim raised in Egypt. Yaser Said exerted dictatorial control over his American wife and children since marrying Tissie when she was 15. Culture and religion certainly played a role in his rage, but Said's desire to dominate his family and his twisted notion of success played an equal part.

"Only when it's Muslim do they call it an honor killing. They don't call it a Christian killing. They just say they went nuts."
"Only when it's Muslim do they call it an honor killing. They don't call it a Christian killing. They just say they went nuts."
Sarah, left, and Amina, right, were sisters and best friends.
Sarah, left, and Amina, right, were sisters and best friends.

Yaser Said struggled financially, still driving a taxi 20 years after immigrating to America, while his three immigrant brothers thrived. As his marriage fell apart, Yaser believed Tissie was conspiring against him, interfering with his business, stealing his money and poisoning his food, according to one of his brothers and an employer. Paranoia made Yaser believe people were following him, watching him.

Yaser's culture taught that a father's duty, his highest responsibility, was to see his children wed into good households. Bonds with well-to-do Egyptian families would secure his good name, his future financial success and care in his old age. Now his daughters—sheltered and modest but thoroughly American—were turning their backs on their father's plans.

Yaser couldn't see that his own marriage to a teenage American girl when he was 30 had all the elements of disaster from the outset. Religion, culture and age differences created a gulf the family could not cross.

————

On February 7, 1987, the bride, on her father's arm, made her grand entrance in a second-hand wedding gown and walked down the aisle of a Bedford country Baptist church founded by her Bible-thumping grandfather.

Sitting on one side, the family of Tissie Owens, age 15: white, Christian for the most part, working-class Texans who looked at the groom's relatives and saw immigrants from Egypt who spoke with funny accents, had a funny religion and whose women dressed in flowing robes.

Sitting across aisle: Yaser's brothers and a sister, who had come to the United States in 1983 after their father in Egypt had divorced their mother, remarried and started another family.

Tissie and Yaser had met at a convenience store in Hurst where he manned a cash register. "He was real nice, but you couldn't understand a lot of what he was saying," says Connie Moggio, Tissie's sister. "He didn't speak very good English."

Yaser had no secondary education and few skills. Tissie was a vulnerable, overweight teenager. Tissie's mother had also married as a teenager and was only a year or two older than Yaser.

Tissie's cousin Cindy Quevado says Tissie had first been engaged to Yaser's younger brother, but he "broke it off."

Tall, thin and quiet, Yaser "gifted" Tissie with presents and told her family he owned land in Egypt. Though a Muslim, he agreed to a ceremony in a Christian church, and her parents signed papers allowing their minor daughter to marry a man twice her age.

Tissie's aunt Gail Gartrell took Tissie aside and explained that she was marrying into a very different culture. Tissie didn't care.

"I think it was just a way out of what she was living in," Quevado says. "She grew up extremely poor. I think she had a fairy-tale idea of marriage. I know she wasn't in love. It was ignorance and being naïve."

Tissie's sister, aunts and cousins believed Yaser was wedding Tissie to stay in America. His visa was about to expire, and they had known each other only a week. (Yaser later received permanent residency.) After the ceremony, Gartrell says, several Arabic men approached American women in the parking lot and asked if they were interested in marriage.

The wedding reception, held in a Said home in Euless, emphasized the divide. The men sat in one room, the women in another. All the food was in the room with the men. The female guests were ignored, Gartrell says.

By the time she was 18, Tissie had three children under age 5. To supplement Yaser's meager income as a cabbie, Tissie worked minimum-wage jobs. Moggio says Tissie stopped wearing makeup, wouldn't eat pork and fasted on Muslim holidays. Though she rarely wore a head scarf, Tissie told her sister she had to have Yaser's permission to talk to or go out with friends.

According to Moggio and other American relatives, the couple's son, Islam, grew into a little hellion, calling his mother by her first name and ignoring Tissie's attempts at discipline. "He'd cuss you out," says Moggio. In their household, the pecking order was Yaser, Islam, Tissie and then the girls.

Tissie gradually stopped seeing her family, Moggio says.

"I went over to see the kids," Moggio says. "I was leaving, and he blocked me in. [Yaser] told me, 'I can hurt you right now, and nobody would ever know it,' and don't ever go to his house and get his family."

————

The girls, dark-haired angels with downcast eyes, ate tacos and dangled their legs in late fall 1998 while sitting at Gartrell's breakfast table. Tissie had left the girls with Gartrell while she and Moggio went to the Hill County Sheriff's Department to file a report that Yaser had sexually abused both daughters.

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