Honour and violence: a Q&A with Barbara Kay

Honour motivated violence continues to make the headlines -- even here in Canada. We chat with columnist and ideaCity 2011 presenter Barbara Kay about this important topic.

It isn’t always easy to hear what Barbara Kay has to say. This award-winning columnist isn’t afraid to take on topics others would rather avoid — like gender politics, men’s rights issues, multiculturalism and political correctness. After all, it can be difficult to confront the culture and politics behind devastating inequalities.

Difficult, yes, but necessary — especially when issues like honour-motivated violence are problems within our own borders, not just in far away countries. This year at ideaCity 2011 — a conference known for its frank and open exchange of ideas — Kay is bringing her work to stage. 50Plus.com caught up with her beforehand for a Q&A about her work.

Honour motivated violence and other types of violence against women are topics you keep returning to, both in your columns and in your forthcoming book. How did you become interested in these issues? Why do you think it’s important for people to know about and talk about?

My interest in the issue of honour-motivated violence (HMV) is a spinoff from my interest in what used to be known as “domestic violence” and is now known as “intimate partner violence” (IPV).

Very early in my tenure at the [National] Post I started gravitating to what I would call the “orphan” topics of social commentary, issues that seemed important to me, but were being ignored or falsely portrayed by most other commentators: a general misandry permeating our culture, as well as our social, health and legal institutions; the imbalance in family courts with regard to mothers’ and fathers’ rights (i.e. bias toward mothers); and the astonishing ignorance throughout the liberal media with regard to IPV.

I discovered that contrary to the sacred myth perpetuated by feminists that IPV is a one-way street — men abusing women — IPV is for the most part a bilateral phenomenon, and where the abuse is unilateral or unprovoked, the abusers are divided by gender. (Violence between lesbian and gay partners is actually higher than amongst heterosexuals.)

My interest in HMV was sparked by the arrival of honour killings to our shores. In the last decade Canada has seen about 12 murders of girls and women by fathers and brothers, in which honour was admitted to be the motivation. (In the UK there are about 12 honour killings every year.) I can trace my active focus on the issue to the death of Aqsa Parvez in 2007, murdered by her father and brother for her refusal to comply with their cultural strictures, and her insistence on integrating into Canadian culture.

Two things about the Parvez case galvanized me:

The first was that Aqsa was victimized in spite of having sought out help. Everyone recognized that there was a problem: her teachers, the social services and the police. Nobody abandoned her. She was offered refuge with sympathetic observers. Her parents were called in and it was explained to them that in Canada parents did not have the right to coerce their daughters’ way of dressing or her choice of friends and so forth. They pretended to cooperate. And yet at the first opportunity, her family colluded into tricking her into coming home, where she was most brutally, ritually, slaughtered. So that was the first thing: the “system” was pressed into service; it did what it was designed to do; and it failed.

The second thing that stoked my polemical fire was the reaction to the murder in the media. Almost as one, the liberal press swiftly labeled the killing an act of domestic violence, and implied most firmly that it could happen to any young woman in Canada. I remember that when courageous Toronto Life editor Sarah Fulford ran a piece on the murder and called it by its proper name, an honour killing, she was virtually mobbed for her political incorrectness. The virulence of feminist attacks on anyone who challenged their perspective chilled discourse on the subject, which of course only bolstered my determination to write about it.

Sometimes people are hesitant to speak out about honour motivated violence or violence against women because it’s “someone else’s culture” or “someone else’s country”. Why do you think we should be concerned and involved?

The hesitancy to speak out against — or even to acknowledge the phenomenon of — HMV is, as you imply, connected to the ideology of multiculturalism, adopted throughout the West as a form of expiation for past European sins of imperialism and racism. Multiculturalism insists that all cultures are of equal worth — manifestly not the case — and all must be encouraged to persist within Canada’s tolerant embrace. Thus, when we are exposed to practices and belief systems that conflict with our own heritage values, we feel guilty in condemning them. We have been trained to believe that everyone belonging to another culture is content to live according to its tenets, even though many people from other cultures are here precisely because they want to break with the past and integrate into our culture.

Multiculturalism has now been roundly condemned as unworkable in several European countries by their leaders, but we have not yet reached that point, because, for a variety of reasons, multiculturalism has not produced nearly as many negative effects here as it has abroad.

But there is another ideology at work in this issue as well. Feminism would have us believe that all violence perpetrated against women by men is the product of men’s inherent wish to control and dominate women. Feminism’s raison d’être is the battle against the “patriarchy.” If feminists were to admit that HMV stems from culture, not men per se, and that it is a phenomenon quite distinct from the abuses that individual women experience here, they would have to admit that their ideology is founded on a false premise.

So it is to their benefit to obscure the line between normative IPV and HMV. Yet it is an intellectually incoherent and dishonest position to insist that honour killings and IPV have anything significant in common at all. Honour killings are planned punishments, in which whole families and communities collude, acts of social terrorism designed to keep girls and women submissive. IPV incidents are spontaneous acts between lovers, not between parents and children. They are not endorsed by other family members of by communities. After the sentencing of Aqsa Parvez’s father and brother, 21 South Asian mothers who attended the trial were interviewed. To a woman, they all deplored the fact that Aqsa had to be killed. To a woman, they blamed Aqsa. This is not the face of domestic violence.

So between the guilt trip produced by multiculturalism and the falsehoods peddled by feminism, most people are denied the opportunity to understand and confront an escalating problem in our country. It is important we understand it so we can change it. There are 250,000 immigrants a year coming to Canada, many of them from South Asia, where honour/shame codes are prevalent. Research finds that adherence to these codes does not dissipate within a generation, but persists, even amongst well-educated and successful people, into the second and third generation. We owe it to the thousands of girls and women suffering oppression in silence in our midst to inform ourselves about the problem.

What do you think leaders in countries such as Canada, the U.S. and U.K. could be doing to put pressure on other governments to change the laws and attitudes that perpetuate this kind of violence?

Charity begins at home, and so does social change. The best way for western democracies to put pressure on leaders of other countries is to lead by example in their own. They must speak out loudly and clearly about immoral honour-rooted practices that are being imported into our own countries, and to make it clear they will not be tolerated. In the UK, a special police unit is now dedicated to HMV crimes, including those of forced marriages, dowry theft and forced suicides (the suicide rate for South Asian girls and women is much higher than in the general population). The fact that such a unit has been formed is in itself a healthy sign that the multiculturalism-driven cover-up of the phenomenon has been overridden by realism and concern for girls’ and women’s safety.

Our government has already started that practice, by changing the guide to citizenship for newcomers, and informing them that such “barbaric” practices as clitorectomies and HMV will not be tolerated in Canada. Recently a women’s shelter was opened in Edmonton that caters specifically to victims of HMV, because their therapeutic and intervention needs are quite different from those in the IPV stream. It must surely be an embarrassment to leaders of countries where honour violence is rampant to hear western leaders speaking out against them.

In fact, many countries that have long tolerated HMV, like India and Jordan, are beefing up their laws against it, and it cannot be a coincidence.

In recent years, social media site such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have become instrumental in drawing attention to injustices, like the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani — yet countless cases don’t get any publicity. Do you think social media attention is helping to promote change, or is it simply creating more hype?

I think any kind of social media exposure of these barbaric practices is good. In the Ashtiani case, her stoning was postponed, although her fate remains unsettled and she could well be executed by some other means, if she has not been executed already. The countries in which these practices persist are now well aware of the disgust they arouse in other parts of the world and that is a good thing.

Just yesterday I read of a courageous woman in Saudi Arabia who had a companion film her for YouTube driving a car, which is forbidden to women there. Without the publicity, I daresay she would have suffered a severe punishment for her transgression. The likelihood now is that she will get off lightly, because Saudi Arabia actually cares a little bit what the West thinks. One of these days, the driving ban will probably be lifted. Of course, not being allowed to drive is the very least of Saudi Arabian women’s problems. And of course in places like Afghanistan, where the Taliban are indifferent to what the West thinks of them, no media exposure will alter women’s fate.

Of course, this kind of violence isn’t limited to other countries — it’s an issue we face in North America as well. However, the police, media, officials, etc. avoid calling crimes “honour killings” or “bride burnings” so as not to appear prejudiced. (For example, the Shafi case in Kingston in 2009). Do you think the label of “domestic violence” conceals the nature of the crime — and our awareness of this issue in Canada?

As I pre-emptively elaborated in answer to your first question, there is no question that purposefully confusing IPV with HMV prevents awareness of the problem. Because of the conflation of the two phenomena, people do not understand the nature of cultural honour codes in South Asia and in Arab countries. It is not a function of any particular religion in the countries of origin (although 95 per cent of honour killings in the West are executed by Muslims). In South Asia, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and even Christians commit honour violence on girls and women, because the entire culture of that area subscribes to the same basic idea that a family’s honour is bound up with the sexual purity of daughters and wives.

With your background in literature, you often focus on how language influences how people perceive and approach certain issues. How do you think “political correctness” is interfering with the ability to identify and address honour-motivated violence and other types of violence stemming from cultural and religious practices?

You have a perfect example of political sensitivity around language in the case of Justin Trudeau’s reaction to the word “barbaric” in the new citizenship guide. He finds the word too harsh for his liking. He would rather label HMV against women as “unacceptable” — or at least when committed to print, since he acknowledges that it is barbaric in private — rather than use a more judgmental and value-laden word.

But let’s examine that word. What does “unacceptable” mean? Why, it can mean using your spoon when you should use a fork; it can mean speaking loudly in a theatre; it can mean wearing a strapless dress in church. In this case it is a deliberate dumbing-down of a behaviour that sickens us in order to curry favour with newcomers, and to encourage them to think of us as a kindly, compassionate, tolerant people. He reveals himself as someone willing to gently indicate what constitutes good manners in Canada, but would never go so far as to condemn another culture’s values.

The remark happened to touch a nerve, and arouse a great deal of dormant anger. To many Canadians Trudeau’s instinctive privileging of immigrants’ self-esteem over the need to project our non-negotiable commitment to women’s individualism and rights summed up the whole problem. We are afraid to call things by their proper names.

Many people aren’t policy-makers or members of the media. What do you think the general public can do about violence that has such deep roots in culture?

The general public can inform themselves, demand that media give an honest account of what is happening in communities where HMV is high, and do what they do best: write letters to the editor, jam the phone lines on talk radio shows, buy books on the subject. And of course pester their MP to do something about it.

Want to know more? Kay’s latest project — a collaboration with social worker and activist Aruna Papp on her memoir — tackles the topic of honour-motivated violence against girls and women in South Asia. Unworthy Creature: A Punjabi Daughter’s Memoir of Honour, Shame and Love, reveals the inner workings of an “honour culture” — and how these practices can persist in countries like Canada. (Watch for its February 2012 release from M cClelland & Stewart.)

Kay’s columns can be found on her website, www.barbarakay.ca.

ideaCity, also known as ‘Canada’s Premier Meeting of the Minds’, is an eclectic gathering of artists, adventurers, authors, cosmologists, doctors, designers, entertainers, filmmakers, inventors, magicians, musicians, scientists and technologists. Hosted and produced by Moses Znaimer, this 3-day brain camp gathers the world’s brightest and most eclectic speakers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives in under 20 minutes.

ideaCity 2011 will take place on June 15, 16, 17 at Koerner Hall in Toronto. Go here for more information on attending the conference or to sign up for the live Webcast.

Please note: just a friendly reminder that while we welcome discussion on controversial topics hate speech and abuse will not be tolerated.