Prison before dishonour
Barbara Kay, National Post · Oct. 26, 2011 | Last Updated: Oct. 26, 2011 3:07 AM ET
The deaths of Montreal teenagers Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, along with their "auntie," their father's first wife, bring to something like 17 or 18 the official number of murders in Canada allegedly motivated by the need to redress family honour. Now on trial for their murders are their father, brother and mother.
As immigration from countries dominated by honour codes proceeds apace, it's likely that there will be more such killings. As is typical, it was the Shafia girls' Canadian social life - mall-surfing, open flirting, boyfriends - that reportedly triggered parental alarm over their family's honour. And as we saw in the iconic 2007 case of Toronto's Aqsa Parvez, the 16-year-old girl murdered by her father and brother after an eerily similar trajectory, the victim's appeals to teachers, social workers and police - even though taken seriously - were no match for the determined machinations of her honour-obsessed family.
They didn't succeed, because one of the hallmarks of honour killings is the murderers' relative indifference to legal penalties. Honour is about appearances. Those whose lives and reputations are bound up with an "honour group" - whether it is the military, the Mafia or a culture mired in a tribalistic past - do not look to outside authority for approval of what they deem manly conduct. Their good opinion of themselves derives only from the judgment of their honour group peers. Thus, a life in prison may literally be perceived as a lower price to pay than feeling shamed in the group's eyes.
If we are to combat this social scourge, it is no use hiding behind politically correct feminist and multicultural mantras. At a panel discussion last winter, for example, a Toronto therapist took the reflexive feminist line that honour killings are just another form of domestic violence, a product of a generic "patriarchy" that could happen to any Canadian girl or woman: "It's not a [product of] South Asian or Muslim culture." Another panellist suggested there was an element of Islamophobia in "how these things keep getting labelled." The Canadian Council of Muslim Women claims that any connection between Islam and honour violence is "coincidental."
Such exculpatory discourse is not helpful to the many potential victims of honourmotivated violence mutely dreading a similar fate to that of the Shafia girls. We cannot deal with the problem if we do not acknowledge some hard truths. Western culture used to be patriarchal, but aside from "crimes of passion" arising from adult sexual jealousy, honour killings were never a feature of Christian countries. Even those are now rare. In Canada about 45 women - not daughters - are killed annually by their intimate partners. But many thousands of daughters and wives are killed every year in Pakistan by their kinsmen (even though honour killings are nominally illegal there). The phenomenon exists amongst Hindus, Sikhs and even Christians in South Asia, but statistically is overwhelmingly tied to Muslim societies - and the more fundamental the Islamic strain, the worse the problem.
By now it should be obvious that where at-risk numbers warrant, our educational, enforcement and social service professionals should undergo training in cultural competency. By now, a social worker should know better than to ask a Muslim girl to articulate grievances against her father in his presence, as happened to one of the Shafia girls.
The court has heard wiretapped conversations between Mr. Shafia and the girls' mother, Tooba Mohamammad Yahya. At the core of the father's distress was his daughters' sexual immodesty. In one sequence, the father says to his wife, alluding to cellphone photos their daughters had taken of themselves in their underwear and with their boyfriends, "'I say to myself, 'You did well.' Were they to come to life, I would do it again."
It seems counter-intuitive to state, when faced with such a corruption of the word, that a sense of honour is not intrinsically evil, and is even arguably hard-wired in humans. But that is the case. Social engineering can suppress but not eliminate it. Honour is invariably linked to sexual relations between men and women. The West - pacifist, obsessed with sexual freedoms, unfriendly to traditional masculine virtues - is an anti-honour society. That's not something to be proud of. Honour codes that dignify sexual relations - "ladies" and "gentlemen" were the West's honour inventions - are good when they are adjusted to meet contemporary rights standards. The absence of an honour code cannot drive out bad honour codes; bad honour codes can only be vanquished by good ones.