Around June 2009 the lives of three sisters — Zainaib, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13 — and their father’s first wife, Rona, were tragically cut short. The four women were found dead in their car in the Rideau Canal. It was made to look like an accident, but foul play was suspected. On January 29, 2012 the jury came to a verdict on the suspected party in the crime. Mohammad Shafia, the father, his second wife Tooba Yahya, and their son Hamed were each found guilty of four counts of first-degree murder. There is no chance of parole for 25 years. By that time, the father of three of the victims will be in his eighties. Canadians have watched the case play out over the last three years, and though the jury has reached a conclusion, debate on the matter is far from over.
Some call it an “honour killing,” others call it “femicide,” and still others call it an instance of domestic violence. No matter what we or the media chose to refer to the incident as, the facts remain the same: three teenage girls and a woman lost their lives. Nothing the Canadian justice system can do will ever change that.
Caught on a wiretap the day before being charged with the murders, Mohammad Shafia said that even if he was placed the gallows, nothing is more important than his honour. However, it is important to understand that “honour killings” are not a religious practice. Nazira Naz Tareen, the founder of the Ottawa Muslim Women’s organization, notes that Islam does not condone killings in order to preserve honour. She also states that “it’s totally, totally cultural and it’s totally against the teachings of Islam.” These killings are not religious in nature; instead they spring from the idea that men are to control the female members of the family in a male-dominated society.
Understandably, it’s challenging to pick up your life and move to a new country. Every week, Baldev Mutta, CEO of the Punjabi Community Health Centre, gathers 25–40 South Asian men to talk about the challenges of adjusting to raising a family in Canada. He is greatly encouraged by the men who are changing their worldview as a result of the discussion at his sessions. This is a start in an important dialogue about the clash of societal norms in other countries and living in Canada in the 21st century.
The question remains: what actions on behalf of the Shafia sisters were so dishonorable in the eyes of their family that they ultimately resulted in their deaths? Sometimes the girls dressed “provocatively,” taking photos of themselves with their cell phones. The two eldest daughters had secret boyfriends, and Rona was seeking a divorce from her husband to start a new life. Did this make them less honourable?
Conservative MP Rona Ambrose tweeted, “Honour motivated violence is NOT culture, it is barbaric violence against women. Canada must never tolerate such misogyny as culture.” The jury’s verdict supports this view — that Canada will not tolerate violence against anybody motivated by “honour.” The verdict sends a very clear message about Canadian values: that we live in a free and democratic society, where every life is valued. In some cases, the murderers might be given lighter sentences or even excused, but the Shafia verdict shows that Canada takes these murders seriously and will not tolerate such actions. Canada encourages immigrants to integrate and participate fully in Canadian life.
I have always seen Canada as a place where the best aspects of every culture in the world can be brought together. Canada provides a high quality of life for its citizens — universal healthcare, a world class education, fair and free elections, and an abundance of fresh water are some of the luxuries we enjoy. However, as a nation we must fight to protect the lives of all of our citizens, and to ensure ample opportunity for a successful life. Protecting the lives of Canadians matters more than political correctness. It is time to address these issues in the public sphere and bring an end to violence against women under any name.