Canada

The alleged ‘honour killing’ that took the lives of three sisters

Women had reached out for help in the weeks leading up to their murder

A family shame

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Mohammad Shafia, his wife, Tooba Yahya, and son, Hamed, allegedly committed unspeakable horrors. According to the police, the couple, along with their son, murdered their three daughters and Shafia’s first wife, Rona Mohammad, by forcing their car into the locks at Kingston Mills, drowning the four of them in three metres of water—an apparent bid to restore the family’s honour. The daughters dishonoured the family, it would appear, for having the gall to dress up, wear makeup and flirt with boys. “May the devil s–t on their graves,” Mohammad Shafia later told his wife in a conversation secretly taped by police.

All the more disturbing, perhaps, is the fact that the three daughters had themselves reached out for help from Quebec’s children’s services, yet suffered the terrible fate nonetheless. Prosecutor Laurie Lacelle told the Kingston, Ont., courtroom recently that child protection workers had visited 17-year-old Sahar in the month before she and her sisters, Zainab, 19, and Geeti, 13, drowned along with the woman they called “auntie.”

The social worker determined that Sahar’s case was genuine, yet was forced to close the file after Sahar clammed up, Lacelle said. The reason for the teenager’s sudden silence: child welfare authorities are required by law to report anything the child says to the parents. “We can’t keep that from them,” says Gerald Savoie, a staff consultant at Montreal’s Batshaw Youth and Family Services. “We have to validate, and confront them with the information.”

Coaxing the full story from a child can amount to a Catch-22: social workers try their best to get the unvarnished truth from children, yet in order to talk to the child alone they must first get the consent of the parents—who may have a vested interest in keeping the child quiet.

Savoie, who did not consult the Shafia family directly, is nonetheless unequivocal. “It’s a failure,” he says. “These situations can be very complex, and the people in the field are just that: people. There will be cases where you missed something, or you see something but you can’t go further. You can’t go to court on a gut feeling.”

The Shafias might also have fooled social workers with their acting chops, which could very well have been on full display in the weeks following the drowning. During this time, the despondent couple and their son invited the news media into their Laval home. Teary-eyed, they showed the cameras pictures of their daughters. How, they asked, could such a terrible thing have happened to them? “You can be struck by the stories people tell,” says Savoie. “Sometimes they can sound quite logical, even brilliant.”