Mohammad Shafia was a prosperous businessman and a tyrannical father who enlisted the help of his second wife and his 21-year-old son to impose an iron-fisted discipline on his three teenage daughters: Zainab, 9, Sahar, 17 and Geeti, 13, who were seen as too free and Westernized. They were found dead, killed apparently to salvage the family’s “honor,” in a car submerged in a canal in Ontario in July 2009, alongside Shafia’s first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad.
The case has shocked Canada and given new momentum to the debate on immigration and multiculturalism in North America. In this case, the jury took 15 hours to deliver a straightforward verdict, recognizing the crimes for what they were -- first degree murders -- and sentencing the three defendants to life imprisonment, with a minimum of 25 years without parole.
Since I am currently in the US to promote a book I recently wrote on honor killings, I am following media reactions with great interest. A similar discussion has been ongoing in Europe over the past few years. While crimes committed in the name of “honor” in migrant communities, and related problems like widespread domestic violence and forced marriages, do pose specific challenges that Western societies are often ill-prepared to face, the debate has at times taken a racist tone in the post 9/11 era.
Honor is an important notion in many societies, but it is a much abused concept, often deployed to control women. Two different discourses divide the debate in the West: Feminists view honor killings as a specific and extreme form of violence against women, placing them within the broad spectrum of universal violence against women, which remains a global scourge. Political conservatives, on the other hand, argue that honor killings are clearly distinct from the violence that women experience in the West, since families are usually involved. They retreat behind notions of “Western values” and place the blame squarely on “Eastern cultures” or on Islam. When honor-related issues are used for political purposes, it undermines the efforts of activists who are trying to transform the communities from within. One recent example was Republican candidate Rick Perry, who was forced to abandon his presidential bid, suggesting that Turkey should be thrown out of NATO because honor killings still occur in this country.
Honor-based crimes are of course not limited to Muslim countries, even if in some societies today a deeply misogynistic form of radical Islam is giving brutal patriarchal practices a religious cover and putting increased pressure on women. Crimes have been committed in the name of honor for millennia in several parts of the world, but tradition these days often intersects with very modern factors to make each case unique. In wiretaps and phone records, Shafia was heard raging against his daughters, calling on the devil to defecate on their graves. But the killing of his first wife, relegated to the rank of family servant when she failed to produce children and he brought in a second wife, may well have had less to do with lofty ideals of family reputation than with the fact that she threatened his immigration status, since Canada doesn’t recognize polygamous marriage and she had been passed off as a cousin.
Rather than putting multiculturalism itself in the dock, Canada should take concrete steps to examine how polices are implemented, perhaps learning from European countries that have tread this path in the past decade or so to offer better protection to potential victims. The horrendous homicides that hit the headlines are only the tip of the iceberg: A recent survey by the women’s rights organization Ikwro found that some 2,800 honor-related incidents, including forced marriages, intimidation and domestic abuse, were reported to the police in the UK in 2010. Until very recently, Western countries allowed culture to be used as a mitigating factor in court cases, a fact that critics of multiculturalism attribute to excessive political correctness and cultural relativism. It could also be seen as evidence of patriarchal biases, which allowed the male interpretation of culture to become the defining version, at the expense of the victims who shared the same cultural background but found it easier to combine multiple identities. In this particular case, Canada failed to protect Shafia’s daughters, who asked for help on several occasions only to backtrack when they were interviewed in front of their domineering father. The case promises to be a turning point that will lead to a policy review.