Full Comment Forum: Canada and the culture of honour killings

Is there a solution to honour killings? Should we be doing more to impress on immigrants that barbaric customs from their home countries are not acceptable here? Full Comment presents a panel discussion. Today’s panelists are Kevin Libin in Calgary, Barbara Kay in Montreal and Scott Stinson in Toronto.

Kevin Libin: Seems to me that asking if there’s a “solution” to honour killing is like asking if there’s a “solution” to rape. And there isn’t, really. We can use all of our resources to discourage it aggressively, and punish it severely when it happens, but that’s certainly nothing like a solution.

The fact is these warped ideas of “family honour,” wrapped up in archaic notions of female purity, are a cultural precept that’s been deeply ingrained over centuries. Look at the way Aqsa Parvez’s mother and sisters seem to so readily accept this horror. It’s chilling to hear the mother talk about how Aqsa willed this on herself, as if it were a perfectly natural outcome for a rebellious teen refusing to wear a headcovering.

It’s been two hundred years since India banned women burning themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyre, and they still haven’t been able to put a complete stop to it.

Like so-called “hate crimes” we can punish these honour killings differently if we choose to, based on our special offense to the motive. Add more time to the sentence, if it makes us feel better. But there’s only so high you can go, and anyway, this seems not to be a crime that would be influenced by degrees of jail time. Nothing means more to these men, evidently, than striking out this imagined “shame” they feel in their community; if the idea of murdering your very own child isn’t enough to discourage you, I can’t see a few extra years in prison making any difference.

Barbara Kay: I agree that in the broad sense we cannot change other cultures. However, we can certainly control our attitude to some of their negative expressions. Honour killings are the dramatic expressions of a systematic and collective code of honour and shame that revolves around girls’ and women’s sexual purity. The tragedy of Aqsa Parvez, as we now know, is not only her death, but the miserable life she lived with less dignity than an animal. She was not an anomaly in her community. There are hundreds of Aqsas waiting to happen right now. As noted in reports, her father said to her mother: “My community will say you have not been able to control your daughter.” The killers’ perception was that the crime was necessary to assuage collective disapproval. The defence, however – and our politically correct bien-pensants – want to spin it as “a simple domestic homicide.”

There is nothing simple about collective complicity in reducing women to chattel and pawns in a complex web of this particular brand of patriarchal chest-thumping. At the very least, while looking for a solution to the Canadianization of immigrants entrenched in retrograde tribalism, we must acknowledge the problem. The problem is not western-style domestic violence, which is a private affair between intimate partners, nor is it a problem of religious patriarchy – fundamentalist Christians and Jews do not kill their daughters who disapppoint them; they may shun or abandon them, but they do not generally assault them – rather it is a problem in cultures, with more than one religion espousing the same codes, from very specific areas. Hiding behind “domestic violence” is counter-productive.

Scott Stinson: I understand the desire to say “something must be done” about honour killings, and I agree that a good start would be for the communities in which they happen to recognize the problem, not pretend that they don’t happen. But in this particular case, in which the accused pleaded guilty and were sentenced to life without parole until at least 18 years from now, it’s also worth noting that the justice system did its job. No one on the prosecutorial side of things seemed interested in giving the accused a break for cultural reasons. All the awful stuff about the life she was forced to lead was right there in the agreed statement of facts, not brushed aside as understandable behaviour.

Barbara Kay: I agree that justice was served in this case, and that we did not see any of the pandering to cultural sensitivities we have seen in the past. That’s good. But it is the tip of an iceberg. I think this case is what they call a “teaching moment,” because it does point to the larger problem of unhealthy, self-perpetuating group dynamics in certain cultural communities – the very communities whose demographics are growing the fastest amongst immigrants – that sanction the dhimmitude and frequent abuse of girls and women. These girls and women are trapped, because there is nobody in their kinship groups or in their community that will rescue them, or in many cases, who will even cooperate with authorities, like the CAS or police, who attempt to help them. We cannot ignore this social problem in our midst, but we should acknowledge that it is not amenable to the usual strategies we use to help “ordinary” abused women. It’s no good saying there is no solution. There is simply no solution …yet. It’s a matter of finding the right strategy.

Kevin Libin: What struck me as particularly tragic about the fate of Aqsa Parvez was that she had escaped. She had sought, and received, the help of child welfare workers and had been given shelter and safety from her family. It actually appears that the state apparatus worked surprisingly well for her. When she felt threatened after her family showed up at her school, social workers arranged for her to be spirited out a back door into a taxicab. She was apparently en route to getting her own apartment and a job. But then she made the mistake of trusting her brother, got into his van, and was never seen again.

In the end, she made a horrible choice, but it was familial pressure that overpowered her to make it. Who can blame her? It’s not easy to so severely cut ties with one’s family and one’s roots, especially for a teenager. So, unless someone plans to forcibly prohibit these girls from ever seeing their families again, it seems to me that all the support systems in the world can only go so far. The root of this problem lies in the communities themselves and they too often seem unwilling to seriously confront this problem, or even acknowledge that it is one. Everyone in that community who had a sense of what was happening to Aqsa-and there were more than just the many people in the family; remember that her brother allegedly told a co-worker about the planned murder-bears some responsibility for this. Why aren’t we jailing the brother’s co-worker? And all the family members who allegedly stood by in silence? Perhaps at least when we demonstrate there are severe consequences for their tacit approval of such savagery, community members will be less inclined to enable it.

Scott Stinson: I do wonder how seriously the Crown and police considered charges against the other family members; Aqsa’s mother certainly seemed to know violence was a possibility, and the victim was the youngest of eight siblings, some of whom would have been in a position to try to prevent what happened. But I suspect that attempting to bring charges against those others was the bridge the authorities were unwilling to cross: once you start prosecuting family members who were not directly tied to the crime, then the case does become a huge precedent. Maybe that’s what was needed here.

Barbara Kay: It is no use prosecuting family members. In such collectively oriented cultural groups, you just don’t step out of your prescribed role, which is how we get the bizarre situation of women – mothers, sisters, mothers-in-laws – instead of sympathizing and supporting their own younger female kin, treat them like dirt on the males’ behalf, and who stand by – or are complicit – in the violence itself. The tragedies are almost like Greek theatre, with the community as the chorus: interested, aware of the approaching tragedy, but studiously impassive. It’s all fated, willed, beyond control. That’s why the victim is so often blamed: she set the tragedy in motion by her “impious” act, which in turn shamed the father before the community, and so she is responsible for her own end. As a non-fatalist culture, we just don’t get it. The people to go after – not criminally but with artful persuasion (gee, it would be a shame to deport you…) – are the community leaders: the imams and the spokespeople. It would stop if they told everyone to stop it.

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