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.