‘Canada has been lucky’

Lessons from Europe on dealing with the ‘honour killings’ issue

‘Canada has been lucky’It could be months before it can be said with certainty whether or not Zainab, Shari and Geeti Shafia, and Rona Amir Mohammed, can be counted among the victims of so-called “honour killings” in Canada. But police in Kingston, Ont., where the bodies of the four women—aged 19, 17, 13, and 52—were discovered in a car submerged in the Rideau Canal locks on June 30, broadly hinted that is the case when they charged the Shafia sisters’ father, Mohammad, 56, brother Hamad Mohammad, 18, and mother Tooba Yahya, 39, with four counts each of first degree murder in late July. Relatives of Rona Mohammed—originally said to be a cousin, but now believed to be the Shafia patriarch’s first wife—are alleging the girls were killed because their family, originally from Afghanistan, disapproved of their “Canadian” lifestyles, and blamed Rona for encouraging them.

Regardless of what the courts ultimately decide, those who study honour killings say it is time for Canadian authorities to start taking concrete steps to protect young immigrant women, or risk seeing such crimes become all too commonplace. “Canada has been very lucky so far. We’ve had very few,” says Aysan Sev’er, a University of Toronto sociologist who is preparing a book on the subject. “But we’re not looking at this as seriously as we should be.”

The question is, why? The United Nations estimates that at least 5,000 women a year fall victim to such killings, identifying 14 countries, including Pakistan, Jordan and Turkey, where the practice is widespread. European countries with immigration patterns similar to Canada’s have been openly grappling with the problem for half a decade. And here at home, there have been at least a half-dozen horrifying wake-up calls, stretching back to 2000 when Jassi Sidhu, a 25-year-old Sikh woman from Maple Ridge, B.C., was murdered in India, after marrying a man she met while travelling. Her mother and uncle were among those charged. More recently, in 2007, 17-year-old Aqsa Parvez was strangled at her Mississauga, Ont., home. She had reportedly been refusing to wear a hijab. Her father and brother have been charged with first-degree murder.

Sev’er thinks the reluctance to confront the issue is in part about a desire not to demonize certain religious or ethnic minorities. “Sometimes I think Canadians, with our very positive attitudes toward multiculturalism, have pushed the pendulum to the other extreme,” she says. One alternative is to follow Sweden’s lead. In 2002, the country was shocked out of complacency by the murder of Fadime Sahindal, a 26-year-old immigrant from Kurdistan. The young woman—shot in the head by her father for refusing an arranged marriage and instead dating Swedes—had gone to the police and social agencies seeking help, and even given TV interviews predicting her own demise, but no one was willing to take action. Widespread outrage following her death sparked a host of government measures, including training for police, social workers and teachers, education campaigns directed at immigrants, and the establishment of shelters.

Marianne Forslund, the executive director of Gryning vård AB, one of Sweden’s largest social services agencies, says she has been shocked by the demand. “When we started five years ago, we had plans to have a shelter for 10 girls,” she says from Gothenburg. “Last year, we took care of 160.” The clients, referred by police and social workers, come from all over—the Balkans, Africa, former Soviet republics, Afghanistan, the Middle East. In each instance, Forslund’s organization launches an investigation to assess the risk and possibility for rapprochement. “We don’t want to separate girls from their families unless it is absolutely necessary.”

But despite the heightened vigilance and awareness campaigns, the number of women coming forward for help continues to increase. “I think the message is sinking in. I know the communities are now talking about the problem,” says Forslund. “Hopefully, we’re now at the peak and will soon see a decline.”

Unni Wikan, a social anthropologist at the University of Oslo, isn’t so sure the problem is anywhere near being fixed. Reliable statistics on honour killings are difficult to obtain, she notes. And while authorities across Scandinavia have made good-faith efforts, “it is exceedingly difficult to do something effective,” says Wikan. The crimes—already often cross-national with family members around the globe weighing in during pre-murder deliberations—are sometimes carried out during visits abroad, or passed off as accidental or self-inflicted. For example, since Turkey amended its laws in 2004, imposing harsher penalties for such crimes as part of its bid for full European Union membership, there has been a spike in “honour suicides.”

The twin currents of fundamentalism and identity politics are strengthening all over the globe, says Wikan, making true integration of immigrants more and more difficult. But at the same time, she rejects the notion that there are fundamental incompatibilities between societies, or a need to proscribe immigration from certain countries. “Honour killings are a matter of tradition more than religion,” she says. “And tradition can be changed. We have to take hope.”