By Sonia Hassan / SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
I never wanted the public spotlight – and I certainly never wanted it for this. But 10 years ago, the night my family lost our strongest protector, we also lost our anonymity forever. Survivors are often left to the mercy of the public narrative. In our case, the news media – specifically the local news media – actively worked with our abuser to dictate what that would be.
Today, I’m reclaiming that narrative for my family and for other survivors. I’m done being retraumatized by poor reporting. And I’m done being quiet about it.
For those of you who don’t know, Aasiya Zubair Hassan was my stepmom. Most importantly, she was my Amma (“Mother” in Urdu) and she was the strongest, most courageous woman I will ever know. She was our protector, doing everything she could in her adoptive country to save all four of her children from an abusive man – all while working full-time, getting top marks in her MBA program, driving us to various activities and making sure there was dinner on the table every night.
Amma would not have considered herself a victim. None of us thought of ourselves as victims. We were fighters united in defending each other. Amma was the type of person who tried to give a voice to the voiceless. It’s why she started a TV station to help Americans understand Muslims, an incredibly brave thing to do, post-9/11.
Because she’s no longer here, I will do my best to carry on her legacy. That’s how we should honor the memory of someone who was taken away too soon. We carry on their spirit and keep fighting the fights they weren’t able to finish. So, since she is not here to speak up and protect her children, let me do that for her.
Please grieve into the microphone
The night of Feb. 12, after I’d badgered them for what felt like hours, police officers finally told me that Amma was dead. I was 18 years old with $250 in my bank account and the responsibility to protect all three of my younger siblings.
A day and a half later, I read a news headline and found out exactly how Amma had been murdered.
For days, we couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the grisly details. Everyone wanted to know how this could have happened. Our grief and privacy meant nothing. Reporters found our phone numbers, and those of our friends, and we all learned not to answer. Thankfully, we were staying with family friends so reporters couldn’t ambush us outside our home for responses.
People loved speculating that it was religiously motivated even though the murderer was not religious. People I had never heard of acted like they had been Amma’s best friend. It seemed like everyone had a private agenda and I was furious that they were leaping onto our family horror to grasp their 15 minutes of fame.
No one was more eager than Amma’s abuser and murderer. For more than two years, he shared “his side of the story” on every news channel he could get access to – and they ate up the ratings gold. Interviews, special reports, exclusives – his stories even had their own intro graphics. But news channels weren’t satisfied. Two years later, as the trial grew nearer, they complained that they had so few photos to use. So, between social media and the murderer himself, they aired photos of his living victims.
I was at a friend’s house about to have dinner with her family when I first saw my picture on TV. It wasn’t a picture of me from social media. It was a photo wearing an outfit I’d worn only once. A photo where my abuser threatened me with violence if I didn’t smile. A photo only my abuser had.
My brother and I were over 18. Privacy laws didn’t apply to us, but the laws of decency still did. I am forever grateful to the assistant district attorney because she did everything she could to get justice for Amma and to protect us. The District Attorney’s office had warned the news channels that if they aired photos of us, they would not get any interviews for the rest of the trial. I appreciated that they tried, but broadcast journalists quickly made their answer clear.
Why would they care about the privacy, safety, and trauma of domestic violence survivors when they could have something new to spice up their nightly segments?
Billboards of an abuser
Amma’s murderer had two weeks in court of continuous media coverage, including five days of his own nonstop testimony. Two years and two weeks is more time than any murderer deserves, and his delusional defense never changed.
So then why, 10 years later, months after the anniversary of Amma’s death, would a news channel feel the need to interview him? And why would they believe that their best advertising strategy was to erect billboards with this convicted murderer and abuser’s face on them?
The answer, which you can find on the reporter’s Twitter account, is simply this: She “needed” to interview the murderer and abuser to show why there needs to be more domestic violence advocates.
On the surface, this might seem reasonable: Raise awareness for domestic violence by reminding people how tragic domestic violence can be.
But it’s clear that this reporter and her network didn’t bother to ask a single domestic violence advocate, survivor or member of Amma’s family about how to best portray this message in a healthy, helpful way.
Giving an abuser a platform to continue abusing his victim’s memory and his living victims is morally reprehensible. Forcing me, my brother, and other domestic violence victims and survivors to relive our trauma is unconscionable. And to then have the audacity to tell us we’re being “helped” by something that is so obviously harmful is the pinnacle of arrogant, irresponsible, ratings-hungry reporting.
How many people in abusive relationships, or survivors, had to drive under the billboard of a convicted abuser and murderer?
How many of their abusers saw those ads and fantasized about their 15 minutes (or 10 years) of fame?
The TV ad spot further revealed the reporter’s true motivation with its focus on her cartoonish overreaction as she gasps, “Who could do something like this?” It’s easy. A convicted narcissistic sociopath who gets off on attention, as was established eight years ago at his trial and 10 years ago when this reporter had previously interviewed him.
The better question is, “How could a reporter who has won awards for community service think this interview was helping domestic violence victims and survivors?”
Because on May 2, 2019, when this reporter was probably celebrating her attempt to be the next Gayle King, I was crying silently at my desk at work. I had only slept four hours the night before, spending over an hour on the phone with my brother – furious – trying to figure out what we could do against this injustice. My brother had already tried calling and letting the news channel know how awful this was for us, only to be asked to go on the record after it aired.
So, instead, on a day that is actually a celebration in our family, I was forced to recall some of the worst memories of my life. Telling my little brother and sister they would never see their mother again. Walking into that courtroom, past the rows of reporters and spectators, past the murderer who had ripped my family apart. Publicly answering questions about the most horrific things I’d ever witnessed in front of a room full of people waiting to live-blog it to the world with their hot takes.
The judge’s words from the sentencing hearing came to mind that day. I thought it fitting how they applied both to the murderer and to the woman interviewing him: “I am sure that there are more [people] than we can imagine who are victims of domestic violence, and you have done them no favor.”
There are ways to raise awareness about domestic violence that don’t retraumatize the survivors or dishonor the dead. None of us chose to be abused. None of us deserve to be ambushed by our trauma over and over again.
And after today, I’m never staying quiet about it.
Honor victims the right way
There are ways for journalists and reporters to commemorate victims in respectful ways. I know this because The Buffalo News did it for Amma.
The lead reporter who had covered the trial reached out to our family months ago saying she wanted to write a piece for the 10-year anniversary. She wanted to honor Amma’s legacy, who she was as a person and the strides against domestic violence taken in her name.
As you can imagine, I did not feel at all comfortable talking to a reporter. But, I remembered that The Buffalo News had never run our photos and had done the most accurate, respectful and compassionate reporting of any of the news media.
I agreed to talk with her, and grilled her for a solid 30 minutes about the nature of the story. The entire time she was patient, kind, and understanding of how difficult it was for me.
What really helped sway me to go on the record was the idea that we could help write the epilogue to this story. After years of being at the mercy of our abuser’s narrative, we could finally do something to change it. We could honor Amma’s legacy publicly so the community would remember what an amazing woman she was and what an honor it was to know her.
It wasn’t an easy thing to do, and I also cried at work, but this time it was my choice. It was a cathartic experience and a way to do something for a woman I admire and love so much. It was important to me that this piece not only highlighted her, but also the ways people in domestic violence situations could get help.
The stakes of domestic violence are clear in the story of a life unfulfilled and in the shattered family left behind. What survivors and people living through it need to know is that there is support out there for them. There is hope that they can create a better tomorrow for themselves and for the people they love.
Because, as I have already noted, I remain stubbornly, relentlessly optimistic. I believe we can all do better. It began with all the old neighbors and friends – even strangers – who raised their voices to tell this news channel to do better. You gave me courage and the strength to finally speak up again. Buffalo really is the City of Good Neighbors.
So, in the spirit of being neighborly, I encourage you to read the piece from The Buffalo News. I encourage you to learn a better way to honor victims – all victims. And the next time you’re tempted by a sensationalized headline, I encourage you instead to find the story about the victims and honor them instead.
Sonia Hassan is the stepdaughter of Aasiya Zubair Hassan. She works as a copywriter in New York City.