How the West should treat ‘honor’ killings
It took the jury in Kingston, Ontario some 15 hours to return a guilty verdict against three members of the Afghan-Canadian Shafia family in a case that shocked Canada and North America. Mohammad Shafia, 58, his wife Tooba Yahya, 42, and their 21-year-old son, Hamed, were sentenced to life imprisonment on Jan. 29 for the premeditated killing in 2009 of the couple’s three teenage daughters, Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, and that of Mohammad Shafia’s first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad. The Shafia girls wanted to live like ordinary Canadian teenagers, but their father viewed this lifestyle as a violation of his own interpretation of “honor.”
Honor-related crimes, often wrongly labeled an Islamic practice, take place in patriarchal communities where gender roles remain strictly divided and the interests of the community prevail over those of individuals, particularly women. A radical interpretation of Islam does at times provide religious cover for violence against women, and many of the 5,000 honor killings committed each year, according to United Nations estimates, take place in Muslim countries. But such practices persist in Sikh and Hindu communities as well, and only a few decades ago, crimes were still committed in the name of honor in Mediterranean countries like Italy, Spain and Greece.
In patriarchal communities, women are seen to embody the family’s honor, and thus are expected to be modest and obedient. But if honor-based violence goes back to the dawn of time in some parts of the world, tradition today often blends with modern factors — social, political or even economic — to create a potent, and at times lethal, mix. The murders that hit the headlines occur against a broader backdrop of honor-inspired coercion and domestic abuse. Identifying the warning signs and taking appropriate steps in time can protect lives. The Shafia girls, it appears, had reached out for help on several occasions, only to retreat when the authorities interviewed them in front of their parents.
Canada and North America are just beginning to identify and address honor-based crimes as specific forms of violence that require targeted policies, while European countries embarked on this learning curve in the past 15 years, collecting data and consulting with members of migrant communities to improve policies. The murder of Pela Atroshi in 1999 presented a major judicial challenge for Sweden: The 19-year-old was killed in Iraqi Kurdistan, where her family came from, but the crime had been planned by relatives living in Sweden and Australia. Determined prosecutors were able to bring a case against two of the perpetrators in Sweden, based on the testimony of the victim’s sister. In 2003, a British court imposed the first life sentence for an honor killing on Abdullah Yones, who, like Mohammad Shafia, killed his teenage daughter, 16-year-old Heshu. The case prompted the Metropolitan Police to set up a special department and order a review of dozens of homicides that had remained unsolved in the previous decade. In Germany, the murder in 2005 of a 25-year-old Turkish mother, Hatun Sürücü, which led to the arrest and trial of her brothers, also proved to be a turning point in the legal and social understanding of such crimes.
Identifying the patterns that may lead to honor killings is important for law enforcement and prevention purposes. Honor-related crimes differ from intimate-partner violence in that they are often organized and involve several of the victim’s relatives. They occupy the extreme end of a broad spectrum of patriarchal violence against women, a universal scourge that takes many forms worldwide.
But when individual murders committed in the name of honor are used to push an anti-immigration agenda or tar an entire culture or religion, they only serve to undermine the work of women’s rights activists who seek to challenge patriarchal prejudices from within these communities. If awareness of harmful practices against women has increased, it is largely through efforts of local activists in countries, or in migrant communities in the West, where honor killings take place. Westerners are not the only ones repelled by these brutal crimes.
Today, some commentators see the recent Canadian case as a sign that multiculturalism has failed. Allowing the likes of Mohammad Shafia to define norms for an entire nation or religious community ignores the common roots shared by perpetrators and victims: The latter are often equally proud of their ethnic, cultural or religious identity, but unlike their abusers or murderers, they focus on its positive aspects and merge them with the host culture.
Until recently, courts in Western countries accepted culture as a mitigating factor in honor killing trials, much to the consternation of women’s rights defenders, who felt justice was not properly served. That these patriarchal biases no longer apply is an important step forward.
The focus must now turn to prevention. Teachers, social workers and police officers need to be trained to detect early signs of domestic pressure and ensure that cries for help are heard and acted upon. Social workers with a good understanding of social relations in migrant communities need to be involved. Working with boys, too, is important. Hamed Shafia became an enforcer of his father’s authoritarian rule, but many other young men under pressure to police the behavior of female relatives struggle with these patriarchal expectations. Offering them adequate support can save the lives of potential victims and their own.