On the balmy evening of July 3, 2008, three young women met in the stands of a soccer stadium in Woodbridge, Va. They were there to watch a preliminary match in the 2008 Afghan Cup, an annual event that draws hundreds of Afghan-Americans to the Virginia exurbs for a weekend of sports and music. The three friends, who all grew up in Northern Virginia, were waiting for one more to complete their group. Homaira Rahman, a tall, pretty 25-year-old, arrived around 9 p.m. She was her usual bubbly self.
Within half an hour, Rahman’s phone rang. It was Ehsan Amin, a man she had dated off and on for about two years. She had recently tried to finally, completely end contact with him. But his calls never stopped. This time, as usual, he wanted to know where she was. Rahman took the call and tried to be brief. She told him she was at the soccer game with friends, no big deal. She hung up. He called back. Again and again. Each time the phone rang, Rahman got more distressed. He was threatening her again, she said. Her friends were exasperated and worried. Amin’s bullying was an old source of anxiety.
When he called again, Zarlacht Osmanzoi, 19, asked Rahman to hand over the phone. “I was like, ‘Give it to me, I’m going to talk to him,’” Osmanzoi said two months later, in a courtroom. She told Amin that everything was fine. Rahman was with the girls. He said: “I don’t give a fuck who you are. Give the phone back to Homaira.”
Amin was in a rage. He threatened to hurt Rahman, and just as frightening, he had driven to her parents’ home in Vienna and said he was prepared to go inside and tell Sohail and Jamila Rahman about their relationship. Rahman begged him not to do it. Like many Afghan immigrants, Rahman’s parents did not approve of their daughter dating. She told Amin to go back to Woodbridge, were he lived with relatives.
Rahman’s friends thought they’d seen the last of these tantrums. She had finally dumped Amin, with no possibility of friendship, about three months before. But that night at the soccer game, they realized he wasn’t going to quit. “That’s when we all decided we needed to take serious action,” says a friend, who asked that her name not be used. “I said, ‘Listen. This is not the end. We need to fix it.’” The police wouldn’t do, stirring up too much attention and perhaps just making him more angry. Perhaps, they thought, they could report him to immigration authorities, since Rahman knew he was in the country illegally.
After the game, Rahman called Amin’s house and got word that he was headed home. Convinced the moment of danger had passed, she got into her car, still crying. Her friends told her they’d figure out what to do in the morning. “I thought, the most he’ll do is go and tell her parents,” the friend says. “I would not just let her go home.” She called Rahman from the road. “Everything is fine,” she said.
Rahman and Amin were both part of the 20,000-strong Afghan community in Northern Virginia, but their origins couldn’t have been more different. She was born in this country, had graduated from George Mason University in 2005, and had a good job in human services at Chevy Chase Bank in Tyson’s Corner. Like many unmarried Afghan-American women, Rahman continued to live in her parents’ home after graduation. Since she paid no rent, she could spend most of what she made. And although friends and family nagged her to save, she indulged her material desires, buying closets full of designer clothes and gaining a reputation as a fashionista who never wore the same outfit twice. She joked that Tyson’s Corner was her second home.
Amin had been in the States only a few years. He had entered the United States legally, possibly by virtue of a marriage confirmed by friends and law-enforcement sources, but the terms of his welcome had expired. Even Rahman knew he used an alias. His real name was Ajmal Hashemi.
Rahman had taken note of Amin’s handsome features when she first saw him waiting tables at the Afghan Kabob Restaurant in Springfield. Sparks flew, and she told her friends she thought their server was cute. Rahman’s interest in romance thrilled her friends. Rahman was shy and had never had a boyfriend. “For us it was, ‘Oh, finally! She finally thinks someone’s cute,’” a friend says.
An aunt, who was less conservative than Rahman’s parents, knew Amin and offered to set them up, according to a friend. It took several weeks, but pretty soon a romance blossomed. They were as much of a couple as they could be without telling Rahman’s parents or many of their friends or relatives. Amin’s career prospects improved soon as well. He got a job selling used cars at Autoquest of Stafford.
But the relationship quickly became dysfunctional, according to friends. (Family members say they are not convinced Rahman and Amin actually dated.) Amin, who seemed sweet and introspective at first, lost his temper if he didn’t know where Rahman was and who she was with. If she went out to clubs in D.C., he’d call before 11 p.m. and convince her to head back to Virginia. Rahman told her friends he went out without her and lied about his own activities.
Rahman was not entirely open about the details of her relationsh ip. She spoke about Amin in oblique terms, hinting that she wanted to move on but couldn’t quite make that happen. Whenever his calls interrupted shopping trips at the mall or outings in D.C., Rahman would wander away to answer the phone and return distraught.
On several occasions, friends say, Rahman broke up with Amin, but she never totally severed contact. “He just would somehow come back into her life,” says one friend. “I guess he just made her believe that no one else could love her like he did.” Whenever she dumped him, he’d shower her with perfume and flowers the next day. A friend says he acted like most players who “yell at their girlfriend, treat them like shit and then the next day buy her flowers.” Osmanzoi, testifying in court, said she’d seen Rahman and Amin together and happy just six months ago, when the three of them went out for dinner at the Cheesecake Factory in Tyson’s Corner.
Still, friends urged Rahman to end things. “There was no trust at all,” one says. “I asked her, ‘Where do you think this is going?’” When Rahman finally cut off contact with Amin, she says, “I was very relieved.…Little did I know.”
Sometime before midnight on July 3, Mary Just pulled onto Litwalton Court in Vienna and saw Rahman, her neighbor, standing in the street with a man. Rahman looked distressed and waved at Just as if she needed help. The man, whom she didn’t recognize, had his hand around Rahman’s upper arm. Just pulled into her driveway, got out and walked over to a friend who had arrived first in another car. “Do you think we should go check on that couple?” she asked. “What couple?” her friend said. When she turned to look, Rahman and the man had vanished.
The next morning, a man walking half a mile from Rahman’s home discovered her body lying in a pool of blood on a sidewalk. She’d been stabbed 91 times and beaten around the face. There were bite marks on her arm. Her purse and a broken pair of scissors lay on the concrete.
Fairfax Police Detective Steve Shillingford got the page at 7:45 a.m. At the crime scene half an hour later, he identified Rahman from the driver’s license in her purse. But there were few other clues to work from. Her parents knew nothing about her relationship with Amin, or his threats.
Shillingford realized that Rahman’s cell phone was missing and arranged for a “forced dump,” allowing police to collect data sent to or from her line. One number showed up again and again. It was a land line connected to a home in Woodbridge. Shillingford and his partner drove to the house and spoke with a man who told them that his cousin, Ehsan Amin, had been in a car accident and was being treated at Inova Fairfax Hospital. The detectives drove to the emergency room where they found Amin asleep on a gurney in triage.
According to Virginia State Police, Amin had caused a three-car collision on I-495 early that morning—probably less than an hour after Rahman’s neighbor saw her standing on the street. At 12:06 a.m. on July 4, a 2006 Mercedes E350 lost control on an exit ramp at the Springfield interchange and sideswiped a Honda Civic. The Mercedes then veered into a 2001 Lincoln Navigator, forcing it off the road. The Mercedes didn’t stop. It careered off the road to the left, hitting the guardrail and crossing back over the southbound lanes of traffic. The car finally came to a rest after colliding with the Jersey wall on the right side of the road. The driver fled on foot. Police traced the Mercedes to the Stafford dealership where Amin worked.
It’s unclear how Amin ended up at the hospital, but by the time homicide detectives arrived around 2 p.m., he had already been charged with reckless driving and felony hit-and-run. He was in bad shape. In addition to a slash wound on his throat, later determined to be self-inflicted, he had cuts on the fingers of his right hand, an injury police believe was allegedly caused when his hand slipped down the blood-coated scissors he used to stab Rahman. Doctors had cleared him to leave, pending an evaluation in the psych ward, which might not have fared well. Amin told hospital staff that he’d broken up with his girlfriend and wanted to kill himself.
An attendant wheeled the bandaged suspect into a private room. Shillingford introduced himself and placed a small recorder on the gurney.
Amin started talking. “Something bad happened,” he said, repeating it again and again. “Something bad happened.”
He went on: “I think I beat my girlfriend,” he said. “I didn’t mean to do it. I loved her so much.” He told the detective he’d been drinking when it happened.
Shillingford didn’t place Amin under arrest, not just yet, but he did read him his rights. Then he got to the point: Did you stab your girlfriend?
Amin responded, “With what?”
“That’s what I’m asking you,” the detective said.
“Well, she had some scissors,” Amin said.
It was enough to convince Shillingford, who placed Amin under arrest. He was charged with first-degree murder. If convicted, he stands to serve 20 years to life in prison, after which immigration officials would seek to have him deported.
Amin’s trial promises to reveal many details about the crime and the relationship between Amin and Rahman, details she had carefully hidden from her family and many friends. Rahman’s loved ones are bracing for their community’s reaction to a public airing of a very private relationship. One relative told me that gossip, and the subsequent pain and humiliation, would hurt her family as much as the murder itself.
Within hours of Amin’s arrest, speculation about the crime began erupting on local message boards and online Afghan forums. The posts included cruel rumors and criticism of everyone involved: Rahman, her friends and family, and Amin. Anonymous writers suggested that Rahman deserved what she got because she had abandoned tradition. If her parents had allowed her to date, others asked, might she have been comfortable enough to tell them she was in trouble? When several women spoke up about the dating difficulties of Afghan-American women, they became the subjects of personal attacks themselves.
Rahman’s friends and family have tried to counter the vitriol on the Internet by sharing stories of a young woman who strived to fulfill the expectations of two cultures.
Rahman’s generation of young, prosperous Afghan-Americans led busy social lives that served to preserve their culture and, at the same time, break down many old conventions. The Afghan Student Association at George Mason, which Rahman helped start, opened the door to mixed-gender outings that would have been impossible a decade ago. Rahman and her friends went clubbing in D.C., even though many of them didn’t drink, and attended concerts given by Afghan pop singers in hotels in suburban Virginia.
At a memorial service at George Mason in July, which drew a crowd of several hundred, Rahman’s friends and relatives took turns at the mic. Her girlfriends, clutching loose, unfamiliar head scarves, talked about “Homy’s” unending positive attitude, her giving nature. “She taught each one of us a powerful lesson,” one cousin said, quoting from Rahman’s Facebook page: “Live each day to the fullest, for tomorrow may never come.”
Homayun Yaqub spoke of growing up in Vienna with Rahman, who was his cousin but always felt more like a sister. Their parents had moved to Virginia in the 1980s, following the 1979 Russian invasion. They were educated and had the means to afford relocation but still struggled, working long hours at low-paying jobs so their kids could have a chance. Rahman’s generation took on the next challenge: assimilating to American culture while preserving their ethnic identity. Rahman and her cousins would speak English, not Farsi, when they hung out together, Yaqub said. But they still went to mosque and attended the countless engagement parties, weddings, and funerals that brought the community together.
Rahman’s taste for nice things reflected the importance of prosperity in the Afghan-American community. Every time I ask about her parents, people tell me her father is a successful businessman. Sohail Rahman did indeed provide well for his family, and he did it driving a cab.
Yaqub remembered seeing Rahman after he returned from an overseas assignment with the Army. His goofy little cousin had grown into a striking young woman who stood taller, in stiletto heels, than most men in the family. He called her “Stretch.”
While family members often scolded Rahman for her spendthrift ways, at the memorial her extravagance became a virtue. Yaqub recalled chastising her for spending $250 on a Dior bracelet when she could have purchased a knockoff for $10. “But it’s not the real thing,” she said, and that was that. When her grandmother fell ill for the last time, Rahman hurried to the hospital everyday after work with gifts of candy and perfume. Again, family members lectured about the excess, but Yaqub says Rahman had been right to do it. The attention made a dying woman happy.
“She was the wiser of the both of us,” he said.
The last to speak was an aunt from California, who walked slowly across the stage, her head wrapped tightly in a shawl. She spoke of the Quran’s instructions, written 1,400 years ago, for how women should dress. “God knew what the condition of the world would be like 1,400 years from then” she said. He spelled out “boundaries for women not to cross and that was for the safety of women.” She told the audience to read a page of the Quran every day. “That’s what’s going to help you, not the material life.” She worried that the American obsession with individuality would erode the Afghan community’s sense of collective identity.
Many Afghan-Americans I spoke with described their community, somewhat lovingly, as a network connected by gossip and judgment. While many things have changed, reputation and family name hold a powerful sway over individual lives. If a young woman gets a bad reputation—for dating openly or showing too much skin—her parents will share the blame for her behavior. Both young adults and parents I spoke with said the best option is often something like don’t ask, don’t tell, only vaguer. It might be acceptable to go to dinner with a young man; going out to dinner with a different man the next week could spell trouble.
Since dating is considered taboo in most households, especially for young women, most romances spring out of friendships that develop in public settings, like school or social gatherings. Lately, the Internet has provided an opportunity for unsupervised exploration, but even then, face-to-face meetings are carefully planned.
Ameena Kazem, 27, a friend of Rahman’s, says views about dating and gender roles have changed drastically just within the last five years. “The dynamic of the entire community has changed,” she says. “It’s very common now to see groups of girls and guys together. There are more independent women. Friends know who’s dating who. It used to be more hush-hush.”
Parents have been slow to accept the changes brought by their children, Kazem says, because their life experiences are so vastly different. “They grew up and got married in their teens. There was no dating involved,” she says. Add to that the importance of reputation, and parents become very fearful of sanctioning change. “Public embarrassment,” Kazem says. “That’s what it comes down to.”
“It’s a cultural thing,” says Yama Azami, who helped start the student association at Mason with Rahman. “To be honest with you…it’s unfortunate…most of the stuff that happens is kind of hidden.” The stigma against dating, he says, does not apply across the board. “It’s OK for guys but it’s not OK for girls,” he says.
Azami says the solution is not simple. Even if Rahman’s parents had given her permission to date, she may not have been comfortable with that freedom or the social implications of blatantly challenging the rules.
At a preliminary hearing on Sept. 3, Amin’s defense attorney, Peter Greenspun, argued that the prosecution’s case relied on speculation and that the evidence did not point to premeditated murder. “This man cared for her,” he said. No one could say who started what on the night of July 3, he said. “You can say who ended it perhaps,” he said, but the evidence supported “manslaughter, at worst.”
Amin turned around just once during the hearing, looking over his shoulder at the two groups of family and friends, his and hers, on opposite sides of the courtroom. A frown drew deep, triangular creases in his face. At the end, as his people walked out in silence, a woman from the other side said aloud, “He’ll pay for this.”
Outside in the hallway, a group of Amin’s friends stood waiting for Greenspun. They said they couldn’t talk about the case, but told me to remember that every story has two sides. “The truth will come out,” one said.
Weeks later, I get a call from a friend of Amin’s in the middle of the night. He tells me his friend is not a monster. He loved Rahman and wanted her to be his wife. She should have gone to her parents, the friend says, and told them that Amin was the man she wanted to marry. The friend says Islam dictates one man for each woman; Rahman chose Amin as her one man by choosing to spend time with him romantically. He knows Americans have a different take on what dating means. But, he says, “We are Afghans.” On the night of the murder, Amin asked him if he wanted to go to the soccer game. “If I had gone,” he says, “this never would have happened.”