The Globe and Mail – December 6, 2011
According to Shahrzad Mojab, an Iranian-born University of Toronto professor of women’s studies who has lectured and written on the topic for many years, so-called “honour killings” are rooted in an ancient patriarchal need to control women’s sexuality, and sometimes immigrants from regions that embrace such a code cherish it more dearly than those who stay home. It is wrong to blame religion, Dr. Mojab testified, because honour killings predate all the great faiths. Worldwide, honour killings are on the rise, Dr. Mojab testified, but in North America they remain extremely rare. In 1989-2008, just 13 were identified in a 2009 article in the Middle East Quarterly cited by defence lawyer Patrick McCann, and only two took place in Canada.
Dr. Mojab was the final prosecution witness in the murder trial of Afghan-Canadian businessman Mohammad Shafia, 58, his second wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 41, and their son Hamed, who turns 21 this month. The defence will soon begin its case and in a highly unusual move, its first witness is expected to be Mohammad Shafia.
The Canadian Council of Muslim Women opposes the addition of “honor killings” to the Criminal Code on the grounds “murder is murder” and a special category could stigmatize new immigrants and some ethnic or religious groups. Opposition Liberal and New Democrat MPs and several legal experts also objected to such a change, floated by Rona Ambrose, federal Minister for the Status of Women, at a recent news conference.
Three law professors said the first-degree murder provisions of the Criminal Code already contain all the tools needed to prosecute and punish those who commit “honor killings” and they knew of no Canadian judge or jury who treated cultural family “honor” as a mitigating factor in sentencing.
The Canadian federal minister for the status of women, Rona Ambrose, went to an immigrant health centre to issue a warning that honor killings and other violence against women will not be tolerated in Canada. “There is a small minority in some communities who use violence against women as a method of avenging their so-called honor,” Ambrose said at the Punjabi Community Health Services in Mississauga, west of Toronto, which is home to many immigrants from South Asia.
The Conservatives have spent much time and capital courting the South Asian communities and Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week appointed a Pakistani immigrant who was a Tory candidate in the 2008 election to the Senate. With the death of Aqsa Parvez in 2007, Mississauga was the location of one of the most shocking cases of so-called honor killing in recent Canadian history.
On Dec. 10, 2007, Asqa Parvez’s father called 911 saying he had killed her. When police arrived, they found Ms. Parvez’s mother crying hysterically and her father with blood on his hands.
In a Brampton courtroom last week, Ms. Parvez’s father, Muhammad Parvez, 60, and her brother, Waqas Parvez, 29, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. They will be sentenced to 25 years in prison. When asked by his wife why he had killed their daughter, Ms. Parvez said her husband told her: “My community will say you have not been able to control your daughter. This is my insult. She is making me naked.”
Observers say the case, among the first so-called honor killings to gain widespread attention in Canada, will cast a spotlight on generational strains that can tear at families adapting to a new culture. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said it’s a particularly pernicious form of murder to kill a member of one’s own family for cultural reasons.
Muslim Canadian Congress founder Tarek Fatah said the guilty plea is a wake-up call for parents to understand that young women are not the possessions of men. Muslim leaders who do not call Ms. Parvez’s murder an honour killing are avoiding the real issue, Mr. Fatah said.
The German drama “Die Fremde” (“When we leave”) portrays the subject of honour killings in a Turkish German family. Up-and-coming actress Sibel Kekilli, a Turkish German herself, acts the part of Umay, who grows up in Berlin and gets married to a Turkish man in Istanbul. When Umay escapes the brutal relationship and flees to Berlin, she is rejected by her family and threatened by her husband.
In an interview with Der Spiegel, Kekilli speaks about her role and the significance of the topic of honour killings, which she campaigns against with “Terre des Femmes”. Asked about her view on contemporary Islam and its ability to reform, Kekilli claims that all religions can be interpreted in an intolerant way, and that Turks in Istanbul are generally more open and modern than their German counterparts, who have always lived a segregated life out of homesickness, fear and frustration. As for herself, she cherishes the values of both cultures she grew up with, particularly pointing to the German values she internalised: discipline, free thought and tolerance.
The award winning film was released at cinemas on 11 March 2010 and brings honour killings back on the agenda of the German feuilletons.
Speculation that the deaths of three Montreal-area sisters and their female caregiver could have been “honor” killings has rekindled the reasonable accommodation debate in the Quebec press.
Le Devoir columnist Jean-Claude Leclerc called the tragedy, which took place in Kingston, “the pretext for another dispute over tolerance in Canada.” Le Journal de Montreal’s Richard Martineau declared the killings a result of a “barbaric” extremist ideology and concluded by quoting French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s statement regarding the banning of the burqa in France: “We should not be ashamed of our values, we should not be afraid to defend them.”
In La Presse, Patrick Lagacé reserved some of his outrage for the police officers involved in last week’s press conference.
Police identified 19-year-old Zainab Shafia, 17-year-old Sahar Shafia and 13-year-old Geeti Shafia as the sisters who were found in the vehicle submerged in the Rideau Canal near Kingston, Ontario. The body of their aunt, Rona Amir Mohammed, 50, was also retrieved from the vehicle. All four victims were from St-Leonard, a borough in Montreal.
Ms. Yahya, her 56-year-old husband Mohammad Shafia and their 18-year-old son, Hamed, are charged with four counts each of first-degree murder and four of conspiracy to commit murder in the June 30 deaths of their daughters and sisters and Mr. Shafia’s first wife, Rona Mohammad, whom he had been passing off for decades as his “cousin.”
One of the teenage girls allegedly killed by members of her Afghan-born family had been dating a Pakistani boy in Montreal against her parents’ wishes, according to a man and woman who say they are siblings of one of the victims. This allegation has spurred interpretations that the incident may be related to “honor” killings. The head of the Canadian branch of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) told news agencies that the story was unrelated to Islam. Other journalists have pointed to the dozen women who have died similarly in the last decade. Amin Muhammad, a psychiatrist who studies honour killings at Memorial University claims, “There are a number of organizations which don’t accept the idea of honor killing; they say it’s a Western-propagated myth by the media, but it’s not true,” he says. “Honor killing is there, and we should acknowledge it, and Canada should take it seriously.”
Police investigating the fatal stabbing of 16-year-old German girl of Afghan origin are searching for her brother on suspicion he carried what media believe may have been an “honor killing”. Police said on Friday they were conducting an all-out search for the victim’s 23-year-old brother, whom they “strongly suspected” was responsible for the attack in a park in a central area of Hamburg on Thursday night. A police spokeswoman said the motive was unclear in response to German media speculation that the girl’s death from multiple stab wounds was the result of an honor killing. “We are investigating in all directions,” she said.
The Swedish government announced that it had set aside 32 million kronor ($4.9 million) to fund local efforts to combat honor crimes. Integration and Gender Equality Minster Nyamko Sabuni said many youths, mainly girls, who are the victims of honor oppression are living in very difficult conditions, sometimes risking their lives. The announcement came as Swedish police were investigating whether a 16-year old girl who died from falling from a fourth-floor balcony was the victim of an honor killing. Her stepfather and brother have reportedly been charged with murder.
Two brothers of a Turkish woman murdered in Germany in an honor killing have been ordered to be retried on charges of accessory to murder in the 2005 incident. There are suspicions that her youngest brother, who was convicted of the crime, did not act alone. A German court has ordered the reopening of the trial of two Turkish immigrants who were acquitted of charges related to the honor killing of their sister, who apparently led a lifestyle that was too Western for her conservative siblings. Germany’s Federal Court of Justice in Leipzig on Tuesday ordered the 26- and 28-year-old brothers of Hatun S_r_c_ to be retried. S_r_c_’s youngest brother, who was 18 at the time, was convicted of shooting and killing the 23-year-old single mother.