The tragedy of honour killings

Barbara Kay, National Post · Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the 43-year-old Iranian woman sentenced to death in 2006, is still alive. The deferral of her execution, hopefully permanent, can be attributed in no small part to an international campaign to shame the Iranian government. (Kudos to Indigo CEO Heather Reisman for her leadership in this campaign and to Laureen Harper, our PM's wife, who lends her name and conviction to this cause.)

Let us hope the momentum generated by Ms. Ashtiani's plight leads to wider recognition of what she represents in the broader sense: the scourge of Honour Motivated Violence (HMV) against girls and women for deviance from draconian codes of sexual purity.

Knowledgeable observers put the number of HMV killings at about 20,000 a year worldwide, 93% against females (not counting the astronomical number of gender-motivated abortions). Pakistan, population 170 million, has the most honour-related blood on its hands, with official numbers radically understated at about 1,000 a year, and thought by credible sources to be more like 10,000 a year--most of the victims girls under 18.

(In Canada, population 35 million, about 50 women--not young girls -- are killed annually by their intimate partners, not their fathers or brothers. In North American honour killings, the father has a hands-on role 100% of the time.)

Moreover, honour killings are sometimes carried out in ways--live burial, beheadings, burning-- that make Ms. Ashtiani's threatened stoning look comparatively benign.

Culture trumps law. In countries where honour killings have been made illegal, "suicides" mount. A disgraced girl or woman may be locked in a room with poison or a noose, an HMV subterfuge often resorted to in the West. In England, the rate of suicide amongst South Asian women aged 16 to 24 is triple the average amongst their white female peers.

Multiculturalism chills open discussion of the problem. In Britain, where honour crimes are escalating at an alarming rate--now about twelve a year -- that taboo has been broken. A special police unit is re-examining more than 100 murders in Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Kurdish families that they now believe are honour-related.

Canadian cultural-competency expert Aruna Papp suffered honour-motivated abuse growing up in India. She was the first academic in Canada to conduct door-to-door research in order to expose the worrisome levels of female abuse in Toronto's South Asian communities. For 30 years Aruna has been counselling South Asian families in crisis, where the safety of girls and women is at stake. Her experience tells her that HMV does not automatically abate in the second and third generation. Girls and women from her culture -- even amongst highly educated and seemingly integrated families -- continue to suffer the burdens of a persisting tribal honour code.

In a speech Aruna gave last weekend to the Ending Violence Association of B.C., she said: "On June 10, 2010, the day Aqsa Parvez's father and her youngest brother were sentenced to second degree murder [for strangling Aqsa over her refusal to wear a hijab], I [spoke] to ... 21 South Asian women. Some had admitted to being victims of domestic violence. I asked them what they thought about the sentence of these two men.

"While one or two hesitated to speak up at first, most soon agreed that 'It was too bad that the girl had to be killed [emphasis added].' Each one of them felt that murder was justifiable.... [One said]:

"'We have our ways. We have our culture. We don't want our children to be like white girls or black girls. That is not who we are. We have to marry our girls and they have to be pure for their marriage.'

"[Another said]: 'Our culture is in our blood. How can we change that?'"

In one way or another, Papp said, all the women justified the killings on cultural grounds.

In the last 20 years, honour killings in the West have escalated (or reportage of HMV is more accurate). World-wide, in 58% of cases, the excuse given (in the perpetrators' own words) is that the women were too Western.

"Too Western" also means "too Canadian." Dec. 6 marks the 21st anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, a day on which scores of memorial vigils are held across Canada. On this coming Dec. 6, let us remember the 14 young Montreal Polytechnic women who were killed by a lone sociopath in 1989. Let us now also mourn the 12 documented honour killings of Canadian girls and women who were murdered by their fathers and brothers, abetted by their mothers and sisters. These killers weren't sociopaths; they were just "not Canadian enough." - The full text of Aruna Papp's speech can be found on the EVA website: Papp's memoir, written with Barbara Kay, will be published by McClelland& Stewart in the fall of 2011.