Rona Shafia, 52, left and Sahar Shafia, 17, in a photo recovered from Sahar's cellphone, taken June 26, 2009 while the Shafia family was in Niagara Falls. This photo is a released exhibit from trial of Mohammad Shafia, 56, his second wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 39, and their son Hamed Shafia, 18 who were convicted of four counts of first degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the deaths of Rona and Sahar, and also Zainab Shafia, 19, and Geeti Shafia, who was just 13 years old.
A recent case in Canada when a father, his wife and their son were convicted of the so-called “Honour” killing of his other (childless) wife (in a polygamous marriage) and three of the convicted couple’s daughters has galvanised the blogosphere and news outlets with the unimaginable, surreal horror of the event. The murderers have each been jailed for 25 years, the maximum available under Canadian law.
Despite many arguments to the contrary, (and they are easy enough to find on the internet), it would therefore be timely to note, as blogger “Morale Outrage” points out in the article “Honor killings are murder not an Islamic teaching” – which I reproduce below – that this is a cultural phenomenon, and not a religious one.
This is not to excuse such appalling behaviour, merely to ensure that it does not fuel any further the already poisonous atmosphere between Islam and the “West”, whether by that we mean Christian opinion or secular.
What is most worrying to me is that, in the West at least, we are clearly failing to protect women from this miserable, cowardly violence.
As this story shows, the future murders of the wife and children concerned were well-flagged during an appeal to police for help.
The court also heard that Geeti tried to seek help from teachers and child protection authorities, complaining of verbal, emotional and physical abuse at home.
In addition, child protection agencies now admit they failed the children and their mother. TV coverage and commentary here: http://www.sunnewsnetwork.ca/sunnews/canada/archives/2012/02/20120201-150647.html
This is an increasing problem in the West as we welcome some highly traditional migrant families from these areas. At the very least, we need to provide safe refuge for these innocents and ruthlessly prosecute those within their families who threaten them. We also need to understand that it can take incredible courage for young, vulnerable people to make a complaint, and that they may well recant their stories under pressure or out of simple fear, and that once they have raised the issue of in-family violence they must be taken seriously.
Needless to say, the case, and others like it, has provoked an outpouring of opinion.
Language obscures core issue, says expert
Alia Hogben of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women said the language around the Shafia verdict is distracting from the basic fact that four women were murdered.
Instead, she prefers the idea that the deaths were “femicide”.
“Femicide just simply means the killing of women and girls just because they’re women and girls,” she told CTV News Channel on Monday. The term stems from the patriarchal idea that men are the guardians of women and can “do with them as they see fit”, Hogben said.
She said Canadians should stop focusing on the deaths as honour killings “because that makes it kind of exotic and different and therefore does not include them with all of us as Canadian women.”
By viewing the deaths as a female issue, not only that implies ties to any specific cultural group, Hogben said Canadians can focus on how to protect women in the future.
The Government reaction
But Rona Ambrose, Minister for Status of Women, told CTV’s Power Play on Monday that honour killings are real and society needed to “wake up” to the threat.
“I think (the Shafia) trial in particular was a wake-up call to a lot of people who thought honour-motivated violence doesn’t exist in Canada,” she said. “It sends a message that this is real. We need to educate prosecutors, we need to educate police officers, social workers so they understand what this is about.”
Ambrose said that’s already happening in some Toronto women’s shelters, where staff are learning about the phenomenon. Other programs for women and girls, such as those offered through the Indo-Canadian Women’s Association, can also help, she said.
While honour killings are rare in Canada, indeed, in most Western countries including the UK, Australia and the USA, they occur with worrying frequency, and “honour-motivated non-lethal violence against women is prevalent”, Ambrose said.
“Girls are being subjected to violence or intimidation because they wore jeans. This is the kind of thing that’s difficult for Canadians to understand,” she said.
(For many of us, not just Canadians, Ms Ambrose.)
“This is an issue – and there’ve been a lot of very brave women in certain cultural communities who’ve come forward to say this is a problem – honour-motivated violence does exist and we have to address it,” Ambrose said, noting that Indo-Canadian and Muslim communities are working with the government to do just that.
The bigger picture
That is all only the beginning of the solution for Western countries, of course. A much longer and more intractable problem is to turn around the attitudes to women throughout much of the Middle East, Asia and Africa that permit such atrocities anywhere. As we shake our heads over the news coverage, we are left, ultimately, with the same, persistent, terrifying question. How can a father or brother look in the eyes of his daughter or sister and murderously wield a cudgel, a knife, or fire a gun? What is it that could conquer any normal paternal or filial duty of care? That such behaviour seems simply incomprehensible to us in the West should merely spur us on to greater efforts to understand, and counter, the cultural beliefs that permit such sociopathic attitudes. In short, not all cultural beliefs are equal. Some are just plain wrong. We need the courage to say this, unflinchingly. And also to remind ourselves that it has nothing to do with religion, which is merely used as a cover for such behaviour.
All victims of "honour murders". How many more?
The eyes of those thousands of girls and women murdered every year throughout the world on the flimsiest of excuse stare back at us from our computer screens and the pages of our newspapers. They demand that we do more to help them, and to prevent others joining their tragic ranks.
And as we contemplate the mysteries of cultures other than our own, let us also not forget: women are terrified, injured or die every single day in Western countries at the hands of men who are supposed to love them. And that therefore, all over the world, only a fundamental alteration in men can finally, and irrevocably, change the future of all women for the better.
As John Lennon so pointedly remarked, “Woman is the nigger of the world. Think about it. Do something about it.”
The Moral Outrage blog follows:
Honor killings are murder not an Islamic teaching
Leading Muslim thinkers wholeheartedly insist that “honor murders” have no place and no support in Islam.
“There is nothing in the Quran that justifies honor killings. There is nothing that says you should kill for the honor of the family,” said Taj Hargey, director of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford in England.
“This idea that ‘somehow a girl has besmirched our honor and therefore the thing to do is kill her’ is bizarre, and Muslims should
stop using this defense,” he said, arguing that the practice is cultural, not religious in origin.
“You cannot say this is what Islam approves of. You can [only] say this is what their culture approves of,” he said.
Yet several Arab countries and territories, including Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Yemen and the Palestinian territories, do have laws providing lesser sentences for honor murders than for other murders, Human Rights Watch says. Egypt and Jordan also have laws that have been interpreted to allow reduced sentences for honor crimes, the group says.
Nadya Khalife, a researcher on women’s rights in the Arab world for Human Rights Watch, agrees that the practice should not be blamed on Islam. “It’s not linked to religion; it’s more cultural,” she said. “There have been several Islamic scholars who have issued fatwas against honor killing.”
Irshad Manji, the author of “Allah, Liberty and Love: Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom,” said there was another conflict at work in “honor murders”, a term that broadcaster CNN uses in preference to “honor killings” because the latter phrase does not properly describe the crime.
It is “a tribal tradition that emphasizes the family or the tribe or the community over the individual.” Although the practice may not be Islamic, she said, not all Muslims understand the distinction.
“It is a problem within Islam because of how Muslims often confuse culture and religion,” she said. “It’s Muslims who have to learn to separate culture and religion. If we don’t, Islam will continue to get the bad name that it gets.”
On the other hand, honor murders are not a problem in Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population. “No such a practice can be found among Indonesian Muslims,” said Azyumardi Azra, the director of the graduate school at the State Islamic University in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Taj Hargey, the director of the Muslim Educational Centre, said violence was sometimes the result of painful transition. “Muslims are in a state of flux,” he said. “They are between two worlds: the ancient world and the new technological age,” he said. “Women are getting rights and the ability to choose their own spouses. [Especially Muslim families living in the West don’t] know how to respond to this: the conflict between the discipline of children and the new reality.”
Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service has an expert devoted to prosecuting honor-based violence, Nazir Afzal. Convicting perpetrators can be difficult, he said. “There is a wall of silence around this, and people are not prepared to talk,” he said.
And along with the Islamic scholars and human rights advocates, he rejected out of hand the idea that religion justified it. “At the end of the day, murder is murder. There is no faith on Earth, no community on Earth that justifies this,” he said.
“Abrahamic faiths say ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ ” he pointed out. “At the end of the day, nobody should die for this.”
Nadya Khalife of Human Rights Watch says reliable figures of the number of honor murders are hard to come by, but she pointed to a United Nations Population Fund estimate of 5,000 per year.
Varying Canadian media comments on the case can be found here: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/2012/0130/Honor-killings-in-Canada-5-responses-to-the-Shafia-verdict/Honor-killings-deserve-harsher-penalty-than-first-degree-murder
Innumerable blogs on the topic are also available. Sadly, I can hardly wish you “happy reading”.