Shafia and cultural reflections

There is a discussion being whispered in the dark places of Canada — if not the entire West — that stands to reflect on us when history looks back on the peoples of the early 21st century. That discussion has been brought to the forefront of the public’s eye once again, with the conviction of the Shafia trio on four counts of first-degree murder each on Jan. 28th.

Mohammad Shafia, his second wife Tooba Yahya, and their son Hamed Shafia have each been sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years for their involvement in the murders of Mohammad Shafia’s first wife and three daughters. On June 30th, 2009, Rona Mohammad Amir and her daughters Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia were found, drowned in a family car off a lock in the Rideau Canal. The conviction comes at the end of an exhaustive three month-long trial that included over 160 exhibits, 60 witnesses, and evidence ranging from wiretaps and diary entries made by Shafia expressing rage over his daughters’ behaviour, to a record of internet queries such as “Where to commit a murder,” and “Can a prisoner have control over his real estate.”

The family of seven had immigrated to and applied for citizenship in Canada in 2007, after leaving their home in Afghanistan 15 years earlier. Tension progressively rose in the family, however, as the three daughters rebelled against the fundamentalist values of Shafia, Yahya, and Hamed with encouragement from Amir, wearing Western clothing and associating in secret with male companions, despite Shafia’s strictly forbidding it.

It is one of the most despicable crimes to hit Canadian news.

In the media blitz that followed the conviction, virtually all agreed that the crime itself was as horrible as a crime could get, but there were varying opinions on what it all meant. Some focused on the eminent failures of our youth-protection programming, as the Shafia girls had been in contact with youth-protection officials prior to their murder. Leaders amongst Canada’s Muslim community were quick to denounce the murders as absolutely reprehensible. Others, however, seemed to view it as an opportunity for cultural propaganda.

The “discussion” I referred to in the opening paragraph is, of course, the ever-permeating notion that violence and the subjugation of women go hand-in-hand with people of Islamic descent. It’s not something folks in the public eye are often keen to say directly, but they flirt with the idea using just enough plausible deniability to get away with it.

In many instances, the conviction of the Shafia family was painted as a courageous victory of “Canadian values” over the broadening, shadowy reach of virulent cultural axioms that claw their way out of icky, backwards countries; a trial that declared once and for all that honour killing, the act of murdering disobedient female family members in the name of familial honour, simply has no place in Canadian culture. This is a ludicrous straw man argument — as though there were any doubt in anyone’s mind anywhere in Canada that these people would be shown leeway under our justice system, simply because they have a narrower definition of the term “murder.”

I’m not really sure where anyone got the idea that there was some possibility the judge and jury could be influenced into thinking the Shafia family deserved special consideration on the basis of cultural tolerance. If any statement was made that day, it was that “murder is bad,” and that doesn’t have quite the same resounding ring some would have us hear.

Some: such as Naomi Lakritz, who writes in the Calgary Herald:

“When the honour killing of Mississauga’s Aqsa Parvez in 2007 made headlines, a letter writer wishing to avoid roiling the racial waters wrote to the Calgary Herald to say that Christians and Jews commit honour killings, too. Nice try, letter writer, but your attempt to tarnish other cultures so as to avoid singling out the culpable ones, doesn’t wash. Christians and Jews may be guilty of spousal abuse and domestic violence, but the premeditated killing of sisters, daughters and wives to preserve some primitive sense of male “honour” doesn’t happen. Indeed, there is no equivalent in the Judeo-Christian milieu of “honour” as defined by men like Shafia or by Parvez’s father and brother . . . ”

Nice try, Lakritz. You may not say “Islam” directly, but you imply it by selecting Christianity and Judaism as your points of reference — focusing entirely on one particular deviance that occurs largely outside of Canada simply doesn’t wash.

Before we all really get on our high-horse here, and keep patting ourselves on our collective Canadian back, I feel I should remind everyone that the subjugation of women is not a uniquely Islamic idea: Women only got the vote in Canada about 90 years ago; there still seems to be an attitude among some in this country that women are, at least partially, to blame for being the victims of sexual assault; and I cringe every single time I hear Katy Perry say on the radio, “I wanna be a victim / Ready for abduction.”

No, we aren’t quite as divided on the matter, as some would have us believe.

I’m not saying that this justifies any one side, or that there are no issues of violence or women’s rights amongst Islamic people. What I’m saying is that we need to be very careful not to paint everyone with the same brush, lest we unnecessarily produce divisions that do not exist. I may not be an expert in Canadian Islam, but I do not need to be any kind of expert to know that Islamic Canadians come from every place and walk of life imaginable, just like other Canadian citizens.

The only Canadian Muslims who owe any portion of the Shafia family’s infinite debt are the ones who agree with the ideology that supports honour killings. And by all accounts, they are few in number.


Gerald believes murder is not a cultural matter.

1 Comment on "Shafia and cultural reflections"

  1. Whoever commits murder should be punished. It does not matter from what religion you are or what colour you are or whaever country you were born and brought up. Murderers should be punished. Our laws should be like in the USA. If you commit one murder you are sentenced for 25 years but if you commit 3 or 4 you should be sentenced for 25 times 4.

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