Six weeks before her body was discovered in a sunken black sedan at the bottom of the Rideau Canal, Zainab Shafia was riding in a different car: her uncle Latif’s. It was May 19, 2009—the day of Zainab’s wedding reception—and the bride was wearing her dress, her skin painted with henna. She was 19 years old.
As Latif Hyderi steered toward the Montreal restaurant hosting the feast, he asked his niece, yet again, the question that was torturing her Afghan family, both immediate and extended. Why him? Why must you marry a Pakistani boy? (“Everyone, their heart was bleeding,” Hyderi explained on the witness stand last week. “Marrying a foreigner affected everybody.”)
Zainab’s answer was far more heartbreaking. “She said: ‘Dear uncle, there has been a lot of cruelty towards me,’ ” her uncle recalled. “‘There were many other boys who wanted to marry me. I rejected them. This boy does not have money and he is not handsome. The only reason I am marrying him is to get revenge for the cruelty of my father. I sacrifice myself for my sisters so they will get this freedom after me.’ ”
Zainab had no way of knowing it at the time, but her tyrant of a father was allegedly plotting his own revenge: a mass “honour killing”—made to look like a tragic car accident—that would supposedly restore his family’s good Muslim name, blighted by the behaviour of his rebellious, disobedient daughters. Two of Zainab’s little sisters (Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13) would drown beside her in the Kingston Mills locks, along with their “stepmother,” the other wife in the polygamous household, Rona Amir Mohammad.
Now 58, Mohammad Shafia is charged with four counts of first-degree murder. So is Tooba Yahya, his 41-year-old wife (for clarity, she is the wife who is still breathing, and the one who gave birth to the three dead girls), and their eldest son, Hamed, 20. All have pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors say the trio used one family car, a Lexus SUV, to push another, a Nissan Sentra, into the canal. But the physical evidence found at the scene—shattered pieces of headlight, a dented bumper, bruises on three of the victims’ heads—tells only part of the story. What really happened in the midnight darkness of June 30, 2009, allegedly began months earlier, when Zainab committed a grave sin: falling for a Pakistani.
The jury has already heard that Zainab, like all the Shafia girls, was essentially an inmate in her own home. When the Afghan clan first arrived in Canada in 2007, she was allowed to attend school—but that abruptly ended after Hamed, her brother, found her with a boy and alerted their parents. Television, the Internet and meeting friends for coffee were strictly against the rules. A driver’s licence was a distant dream.
But by January 2009, 18 months after the family settled in Quebec, Zainab was openly challenging her father’s “traditional” authority. She was stylish, loved makeup and fashionable clothes, and shunned the hijab. For 15 years, the family lived in Dubai, where her dad made his millions and women wore veils. But this was Canada, not the Middle East. That April, with the support of her boyfriend, she worked up the courage to run away to a women’s shelter. “She wanted her freedom,” Fazil Jawid, another uncle, testified last week. “Zainab was a very bright lady. She was able to defend her rights.”
Fazil Jawid is Tooba Yahya’s older brother, and after fleeing Kabul during the civil war of the 1990s, he moved to Sweden and opened up a pizza shop. Speaking through a Farsi interpreter, he told the jury that in early 2009, he received many frantic calls from his little sister in Canada, devastated by her daughter’s defiance. “It was a hot issue in their family,” he said. “Tooba was telling me that Zainab was marrying that Pakistani, and she asked if I could try to convince her not to.”
Over the phone, Zainab told her uncle that she wanted to dress like other Canadian girls—in “regular clothing,” she said, not the kind that would “cause anger.” She also revealed that she wasn’t particularly interested in getting married, but that it was the only way to escape her house. Unable to change his niece’s mind, Jawid says he tried to do the next best thing: fly to Canada to find out more about the prospective groom (his family, his finances and, of course, his reputation). But according to his version of events, when he phoned Shafia, who was in Dubai on business, Zainab’s father had a much different idea. “He told me: ‘I want help from you,’ ” Jawid said. “He told me a plan he has to fulfill: the murder of Zainab.”
Describing his eldest child as a “whore” and a “prostitute,” Shafia asked Jawid to invite the girl to Sweden and plan a barbecue or a beach vacation, something near water. Once there, he said, Shafia would join them—and throw Zainab in. He said Shafia’s goal was clear: “I want to kill her.”
“How did the phone call end?” asked Gerard Laarhuis, one of the prosecutors working the case.
“I swore at him and cut the line.”
Latif Hyderi, the other uncle, told the court that he endured a similarly vulgar call from Zainab’s dad. “I am ashamed to repeat the words,” said the 65-year-old, sporting a short, grey beard. “It was very, very insulting. Those words should not be said to a human being.”
“We need to know what those words were,” said Laurie Lacelle, another prosecutor. “We know you don’t mean disrespect.”
Hyderi composed himself, then spoke into the microphone. “He said she is a whore, she is dirty, and she has cursed her father.”
Hyderi is the brother of Tooba Yahya’s father (Zainab’s grandfather). Like Jawid, he was unable to persuade his great niece to call off the nuptials. So, acting on Yahya’s direction, he made sure that at the very least, things were done properly. He summoned a Montreal mullah and acted as a witness for the couple’s nikah, the Islamic marriage ceremony. Then he booked the restaurant, an Iranian joint, for the next day’s reception.
After her arrest, Yahya told a police interrogator that she drove Zainab to a salon to get her hair styled that morning, and to buy a dress. She admitted to the officer that she was heartsick over her daughter’s decision, and tried, countless times, to get her to back out. “I said: ‘My child, don’t do this, don’t do this,’ ” she said. ‘You’re betraying yourself. You’re a beautiful girl, young, well-behaved, everything good. Don’t do this.’ ” However, she also insisted that once Zainab made up her mind, she gave her blessing. “I said: ‘Okay, my daughter. When you want it, I don’t have a problem. I did my obligation for you.’ ”
Shafia stuck to the same dubious storyline during his post-arrest interview. “My daughter, whoever she chooses, this is her word,” he told the officer. After all, he shrugged, we’re in Canada now. “The boys and girls are in the same school,” he said. “When you come here, you accept this here.”
Ironically enough, a few hours after she was driven to the restaurant by her uncle Latif, Zainab demanded a divorce. Nobody from the groom’s family showed up—his parents didn’t approve of the union, either—and the couple had nowhere to spend their first night as husband and wife. “Tooba just fainted,” Hyderi testified. “She fell on a chair. People were throwing water on her. Zainab threw herself on the chest of her mother and said: ‘If you do not agree, I will reject this boy.’ ”
The groom, whose identity is protected by a publication ban, agreed to the annulment. “He said: ‘If the girl doesn’t want me, then I don’t want her, either,’ ” Hyderi said. “Everybody was crying.” Such shame. Such embarrassment. Such dishonour.
Thankfully, uncle and mother found a face-saving solution: Zainab could marry one of her uncle’s relatives, a good Afghan boy. Thrilled with the development, Hyderi again phoned Shafia in Dubai to share the good news. “He said: ‘Okay, just wait until I come home,’ but he was still angry,” Hyderi testified. “He said: ‘I’m not happy. She didn’t do a good thing. If I was there I would have killed her.’ ”
Hyderi tried to calm him down, saying that “children can make mistakes,” and that “the matter was solved; his honour was in place.” But Shafia repeated his message: don’t do anything until I get home.
In the meantime, while waiting for the engagement to become official, Hyderi tried to lecture Shafia’s son about life in a Western country. (A former mujahedeen fighter who battled the Russians in Afghanistan, Hyderi has lived here for 11 years.) “I said: ‘Make sure [Shafia] knows his surroundings. You have to make sure your father knows the conditions. He should not put the girls under this much pressure.’ ”
Shafia flew back to Montreal on June 13. Hyderi was later told that Shafia kissed Zainab “on the forehead” and assured his daughter that all was forgiven.
The last time Hyderi saw the family, they were in the parking lot of a Montreal grocery store, luggage packed for a road trip to Niagara Falls. “Tooba was very scared, and she was in an unusual condition,” he recalled. “I told her: ‘This girl is our trust with you. You have to bring her back safe and sound.’ ”
Zainab never did come back. Among the evidence seized from the sunken Nissan Sentra was her cellphone, full of photographs. In one shot, she is cuddling with her Pakistani boyfriend, two weeks before running away from home. In another, taken just days before her death, she is holding hands with her uncle Latif’s relative, her shirt and nail polish the same shade of light blue.