"It is difficult to conceive of a more despicable, more heinous crime,” Judge Robert Maranger stated as he listened to the jury's verdict, Guilty of premeditated murder, rendered on three members of an Afghanistan-born Montreal family on Sunday, January 29, 2012.
Ever since four bodies were discovered floating inside a submerged Nissan Sentra on June 28, 2009 in the muddy waters of Kingston Mills Lock, Kingston, Ontario, the Shafiah case has been attracting as much attention as any, among the modern detective-murder news. In the days following the retrieval of the bodies of Zainab (19), Sahar (17), Geeti(13) and a 52 year old woman Rona Amar Mohammad, Canadians poured out much sympathy towards the unfortunate family who emigrated from Afghanistan to make a better life for themselves.
Today, almost two-and-a-half years after the trial which started on October 11, 2009, the cause of their death by drowning is established, but the how or the exact when of it has never been determined. The prosecution can only speculate.
Along the trial's path, very disturbing facts emerged. Words such as “honour killing”, “polygamous marriage”, “ family honour”, “man's need to control woman's power” started to float. The story, pieced together through forensics and witnesses, as well as the testimony of two of the alleged convicts, convinced the jury that this was no more than a cold-blooded, premeditated, mass murder of four innocent women whose only wishes were to integrate into a society and live like human beings.
The alleged murderers were the father, Mohammad Shafia(58), his second wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya(42), whom he took because the first one, Rona Amar, could bear him no children, and Hamed, their eldest son. Although the sisters were not often seen wearing headscarves by their neighbours, they complained of abuse at home to their teachers and to the police. They wanted to be more like their Canadian peers, but they feared the heavy hand of their brother, Hamed. (This is an authoritative behaviour I have seen – first hand – assumed unquestionably by the eldest male in line, in strict Islamic families, and when I sense it, my internal alarm system warns me to stay away from such people.)
I don't often follow murder trials no matter how big the headlines they make. Somehow, I did this one. My curiosity was more to learn about the state of an Islam that is unfamiliar and fearful to me. I hoped I could perhaps get a glimpse into the mind of a creature who remained cool and composed throughout the entire case and the reading of the verdict that will not let him see a day in sunlight again. Nor his accomplices.
I learned that there was a kind of liberalism that prevailed in the Shafiah house, but also there was much darkness and chaos. The restrictions were apparently stifling, the girls longed for more freedom. At one point, Zainab ran away to a women’s shelter. Sahar tried to kill herself after an argument with Tooba, and the youngest begged a detective to place her in foster care. The eldest daughters also had secret boyfriends. Zainab got married to hers, though it was annulled after just one day. Rona, the first wife who lived with the family and introduced as an “aunt” meanwhile, apparently asked for divorce at one point.
The Shafia case has shed a strong light on the clashing disparity between the lives the young victims were trying to lead in Canada, and the one which the defendants would allow them.
Shahrzad Mojab , a professor at the University of Toronto (and an expert in honour killings) who co-edited a book called Violence in the Name of Honour was The Crown’s last witness in making its case. According to her, [honour killings] don’t have direct connection with religion at all and such killings are not restricted to Islam, though the United Nations report suggests it’s more prevalent in these societies. “It is not unique to any particular religion. We see it among Hindus. We see it among Jews and Christians in the (Middle East) region. It is also not limited to the Middle East or the Arab world.”
“If a man cannot control his own household, which is represented by the behaviour of the female members of the family, he cannot be trusted for any other public matters, including financial relationships,” Dr Mojab explained and went on that feeding that violence is the belief in the control of the female members of the family in a patriarchal society.
According to experts, honour killings are on the rise in the world. They occur most often in the Middle East, North Africa and parts of South Asia. As many as 5,000 girls and women are murdered every year in these types of killings, (2000 United Nations Population Fund report). In 1999, at least 1,000 women were killed in Pakistan alone.
At the core of these cases are often the issues of virginity and sexual chastity, although in many instances the women who are killed have been raped by a member of her own extended family. In some places, the perpetrators of the honour killing are excused or given light sentences because the family’s “dishonour” is taken into account.
“A woman’s body is considered to be the repository of family honour,” Dr Mojab said, refrerring to an Arab adage, “A man’s honour lies between the legs of a woman.” For some, an honour killing may even be seen as an act of mercy, she continued. “It is part of the continuum of love and care. Living as a dishonoured member of the family — the suffering of that is greater than death.”
So if a woman’s reputation is perceived to be tainted, through premarital sex or rape, taking a boyfriend, asking for divorce, even exerting her independence, “Cleansing one’s honour of shame is typically handled by the shedding of blood,” Mojab said.
“It’s really about men’s need to control women’s sexuality and freedom.”
And that is exactly what the jury decided Hamed and Mohammad Shafiah did, despite their numerous denials otherwise. I still fail to grasp how Tooba Yahya could have gone along with them.
Rob Tripp, an award-winning crime reporter for CBC, announced in an interview that he is working on a book depicting the compelling story of this mass murder which will delve into much of the untold story of the victims who died only because they wanted to live a life like that of their peers: having friends, seeing movies, trying make up or speaking out their mind. The working title of his book is "Dead in the Water". It is picked up by Harper Collins Publishers of Canada, and is projected to be out in January 2013.
The victims, four women, now rest in an Islamic cemetery in Laval, Québec
The Politics of Theorizing "Islamic Feminism':Implications for International Feminist Movements
Photos: Courtesy of Canadian Press, The Toronto Star, & Globe and Mail
Füsun Atalay ~ Copyright © Will of my Own - 2012