If the story is true—if Zainab Shafia really did ask for her mother’s car keys and embark on a deadly joyride into the Rideau Canal—that late-night knock at the motel door was the last time Tooba Yahya saw her eldest child alive. (The next time she laid eyes on her daughter, Zainab was zipped into a plastic body bag.) On the witness stand 2½ years later, she managed to recall that final conversation without any trace of a tear. “After I gave the keys to her, I changed my clothing, and without washing my face or cleaning my teeth, I went to sleep,” she testified. “I didn’t know anything else until the next morning.”
Minutes later, Yahya’s lawyer asked about the events of July 21, 2009, the day detectives searched her Montreal home and Quebec social workers seized three of her other children—for their own safety. “I will never forget that,” she wailed, burying her face in a Kleenex. “I requested them not to take my children because [the youngest] would not last without me. They did not listen.” It took more than a minute for Yahya to compose herself, her sniffles filling the courtroom speakers.
When the questions turned to the morning of her arrest, she was bawling yet again. “I saw with my eyes that they handcuffed Hamed and took my son away from me,” she cried. “To get Hamed out of that torture, whatever I was able to do I would have done it.”
The jury will ultimately decide what to make of Yahya’s words (and her selective tear ducts). But the trend was difficult to ignore: sobs for the three children placed in foster care. Sobs for the son under arrest. The driest of eyes for the three daughters fished from the Kingston Mills Locks.
Police, of course, say Zainab never asked for the keys—because she was already dead, rammed over the water’s edge in the same black car as two of her younger sisters (Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13) and her dad’s other wife in the polygamous home, Rona Amir Mohammad. According to prosecutors, what was staged to look like a freak accident was in fact a mass “honour kill” orchestrated by the victims’ closest relatives: Mohammad Shafia, father and husband; Yahya, mother and fellow wife; and Hamed, brother and surrogate son.
Following in her husband’s footsteps, Yahya chose to testify in her own defence, a rare and risky tactic for an accused facing four counts of first-degree murder. But for a woman who has already confessed to being at the locks that night—“Never tell my husband that I have said this,” she begged the interrogating officer—facing the jury was her last chance to explain herself, her one opportunity to plant that seed of reasonable doubt. And water it with some tears.
Hour after hour, Yahya denied every bit of the prosecution’s theory: that the girls, new immigrants to Canada, were executed because they were “whores” with boyfriends who tarnished the family’s good Muslim name (and that Rona, infertile and outcast, was a convenient throw-in). Despite weeks of testimony to the contrary, Yahya claimed that hers was an idyllic home, where two wives lived in harmony, the kids had all the money they needed, and the girls were free to pick their own outfits. She and Shafia preferred their daughters to wear hijabs, Yahya conceded, but they didn’t force them. “It was their choice,” she said. “It wasn’t someone else’s choice.”
Yahya, now 42, had an answer for everything. Rona’s personal diary, which accused her of “scheming” to keep Shafia all to herself? “She never complained to me,” Yahya said. Sahar’s botched suicide attempt? “She said that all the time: ‘I will kill myself.’ ” Those tape-recorded conversations with Shafia, where he urges the devil “to s–t” on his daughters’ graves because they “betrayed” both him and Islam? Common Farsi expressions, she said, used in Afghanistan every day. “I wouldn’t let even a thorn get into the feet of my children,” she insisted.
Among the shackled trio, Yahya is the only one who admitted to police that they were at the death scene that night; she said she fainted after the splash and didn’t remember anything else. But on the stand, she swore it was all a lie, another motherly attempt to protect one of her beloved kids. “I thought: ‘Please don’t touch Hamed, he is innocent,” Yahya explained. “I lied, and I did that for Hamed. None of it was true.”
When deliberations finally begin, members of the jury may say the same thing about her testimony.