Jahanara Begum was on a birthday video call with her granddaughter, who wore her favorite purple dress and couldn't wait to try her cake.
The little girl was turning 5, and her mother, Saima Tasnim Shapla, had decorated their home in Paterson with balloons.
"What's the special occasion?" Begum joked on the call from her home in Bangladesh. "Why didn't you invite me?"
Despite the loving banter, Begum could sense something was wrong with Shapla.
Shapla's husband was abusive, and had threatened to kill her, Begum said. After a brief split, they had reconciled at the urging of elders, who, in their community, are viewed as authority figures and caregivers. But Shapla felt tension at home. And from across the world, Begum could feel it, too.
That phone call was the last time they spoke.
The night of the birthday celebration, Shapla was killed. She was 22 years old.
Her husband, Md A. Hossain, strangled her to death, leaving her at the bottom of the stairs in the basement while their daughter slept upstairs, authorities say.
He later called 911 to report that his wife was dead, and since then has admitted to police that he killed her and has been charged with murder, court records show.
Advocates who help domestic violence victims in Paterson's Bangladeshi community said they learned about the incident several weeks later, when the Department of Children and Families reached out seeking a family to foster the young girl, who had been in a temporary home.
"This is a tragic case, but unfortunately, we see this more often than we want to see it in the South Asian community," said Navneet Bhalla, executive director of Manavi, a New Jersey nonprofit that supports South Asian survivors of domestic violence. "We know there is deep-rooted patriarchy. We know there are certain cultural norms and gender norms that are widely accepted and promoted."
"When there is domestic violence, there is a lot of victim blaming," Bhalla said. "Why did the victim not leave? It's the wrong question to ask, blaming the victim instead of holding the perpetrator accountable."
Today, Manavi and other advocacy groups are honoring Shapla's life with a campaign to raise awareness about domestic violence and urge people to speak out against abuse. For South Asian women, who may face unique obstacles related to language, immigration status and culture, the struggle to end abuse requires a community response, advocates say.
Reconciling with her abuser
Shapla, described as a devoted daughter and happy young woman, entered an arranged marriage with Hossain in 2015 in Bangladesh. Two years later, they moved to Michigan, where her husband was a legal resident, and where his parents lived.
She dreamed of a prosperous life, said Begum, who is now in New Jersey trying to adopt her granddaughter. Shapla envisioned one day owning a home and bringing her mother to live with her. She wanted her daughter to go to Islamic school and attend a good college, Begum said in a recent interview.
There were problems from the start. Shapla told her mother that her in-laws in Michigan treated her poorly, hitting her and depriving her of food. After six months, Shapla and Hossain returned to Bangladesh for a visit. Hossain took her passport and green card, and family members believed he was planning to strand her there, Begum said.
Village elders recommended that the couple relocate to Paterson, where there is a large Bangladeshi community and where Hossain had distant relatives. They moved in with Hossain's aunt.
Attempts to speak with the elders were not successful.
In New Jersey, Shapla got a job at a Dunkin' Donuts while her husband worked at a discount store. She often posted videos on her YouTube channel, showing her fun-loving side. She captured scenes of the cascading waters at the Great Falls park and of snow blanketing cars and sidewalks outside her home. She posted clips cooking traditional dishes like chicken curry and meat kabab.
Shapla narrated the videos but didn't appear in them. Often, she turned the lens on her daughter, who smiled as she shopped with her mother at grocery stores, jumped in the snow and enjoyed her mother's cooking.
The online cheeriness masked what advocates said was a harrowing home life. In court documents, police said they had a prior report of domestic assault and that Shapla had a temporary restraining order against Hossain. The details of these events are unclear, as the Paterson Police Department twice denied requests for records related to the crime.
Shapla's situation in Paterson was bad, Begum said. Hossain - whose name, Md, is short for Mohammed - had pointed a large knife at her and threatened to kill her more than once.
"He used to say, 'I'm going to kill you,' right in front of the aunt," Begum said.
Begum was told that "these things happen in marriage" and the couple would be fine.
Shapla was hit, strangled and bashed in the head with a teacup, Begum said. In 2020, she got a two-week restraining order and told the court she feared him and wanted a divorce.
Hossain pleaded with community elders, who arranged a reconciliation, Begum said.
Last year, Shapla visited Bangladesh after her father died. When she returned on May 2, Hossain was in Michigan. So she changed her locks and urged her landlord not to let him in.
Again, Hossain met with elders, apologized and said he wanted to go back home and reconcile with his wife. He promised he wouldn't treat her badly anymore. They called Begum, who told them: "All I can say is do what's best for her. I'm not there."
Shapla let him back into her home, but tension hung over them like a dark cloud. "She had a feeling he was going to do something bad," Begum said. "She wasn't willing to accept him anymore."
'A nice guy'
On Sunday, June 5, the Paterson Police Department received a 911 call from Hossain saying his wife was dead. Police and medical personnel arrived at the apartment and found her on the floor near the basement stairs, pronouncing her dead at the scene.
At the police station, Hossain told officers that they argued after their daughter went to sleep. He said he placed his hands on her throat during a struggle until they both passed out.
Begum sobbed while recalling the devastating phone call when she learned that her only child had been killed.
"I don't want any woman or daughter to go through the experience my daughter lived through," she said. "I don't want anyone to lose their life like that."
Begum said she does not hold a grudge against the people who advised Shapla and Hossain to reconcile their marriage. Like many abusers, he presented himself as a good man who loved his family. They did not know that he intended to kill her, she said.
"According to everybody, he was a nice guy," said Smita Nadia Hussain, co-founder of BAWDI, the Bangladeshi American Women's Development Initiative, based in Paterson. "Abusers are charming. They look like your everyday guy. They are teachers, doctors, anyone. They smile at you. You don't know what's happening behind closed doors. That's why women are not believed."
"There's a tremendous amount of guilt and shame in the community," Hussain added. "Yet, there are questions. [People say] he's a nice guy, so she must have triggered him."
Paterson City Council President Shahin Khalique, who is Bangladeshi American, said community leaders told him they did not know the couple and that Hossain may have sought help from elders he knew through his family. The couple had not been in Paterson long and traveled between New Jersey, Michigan and Bangladesh.
"The incident - it was shocking," he said. "That was probably the first incident of homicide of that nature in our community, and I've been here over 30 years."
In New Jersey, Begum has gotten legal assistance from Manavi as she tries to adopt her granddaughter - or get a visa so she can stay in the U.S. to care for her.
"She's my only kin," she said. "I don't have anyone left in my life. This will bring peace to my mind."
Honoring Shapla's memory
While domestic violence affects people of all ethnic, racial and faith backgrounds, South Asian immigrants may face unique challenges. They may not know English and may lack understanding of services and rights in the U.S. Some also worry about their immigration status if they report a crime or separate from a spouse, often because their visa is linked to marriage or their husband's job.
Other barriers include cultural stigma over divorce and distance from family support systems.
"Domestic violence is seen as a private matter and as a family matter," said Bhalla, of Manavi. "Often in South Asian communities, the accepted cultural norm is not to talk about it happening, because it's airing dirty laundry and it brings shame to the community or family.
"Rather than telling survivors what they should and should not do, ask them what they need to feel safe and supported, and most importantly, never judge, so they feel empowered to come forward," Bhalla said.
Nearly half of South Asians in the U.S. are affected by domestic violence, according to authors of a 2021 report in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, which surveyed 468 South Asian women and men.
With offices in New Brunswick, Paterson and Jersey City, Manavi provides services annually to about 450 women, including counseling, advocacy, legal support and transitional homes for South Asian women leaving abusive relationships. Manavi also fields more than 3,000 calls to its 24-hour domestic violence hotline.
Advocates are fighting so that Shapla's killing will not be forgotten or overlooked.
"We can be ashamed, sad, regretful," Hussain said. "We can't change the past, but what about now? You can do better now. I would like the issue of interpersonal violence to be less hush-hush, less seen as a family issue, but seen as a community issue."
At a vigil in November in Paterson, advocates asked participants to honor Shapla's memory "by making sure that each one of us collectively step up, speak out, take action and do everything we can to end the epidemic of domestic violence."
BAWDI, Manavi and Wafa House also paid tribute to six other South Asian women killed in domestic violence incidents in the U.S. last year.
"If you are going through this situation," Hussain said, "know there are resources available if you leave those circumstances."
How to get help
Manavi's confidential domestic violence hotline runs 24 hours a day/seven day a week. If you or someone you know needs support, call (732) 435-1414 or email email@example.com. Staff and volunteers speak English, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Farsi, Gujarati, Bengali, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, French, Swahili and Kikuyu.
Wafa House, a domestic violence center in Clifton, offers services in English, Arabic and Spanish. Its hotline number is 800-930-WAFA (9232)
The New Jersey Domestic Violence Hotline, at (800) 572-SAFE (7233), accepts calls 24 hours a day/seven days a week. Interpretation services are available. It provides confidential access to domestic violence information and services, including crisis intervention, referral and advocacy.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Domestic violence killing rattles Paterson's Bangladeshi community