By Timothy Appleby, Globe and Mail, December 5, 2011
So-called “honour killings” are rooted in an ancient patriarchal need to control women’s sexuality, and sometimes immigrants from regions that embrace such a code cherish it more dearly than those who stay home, a murder trial has heard.
The keenly anticipated testimony came from Shahrzad Mojab, an Iranian-born University of Toronto professor of women’s studies who has lectured and written on the topic for many years. She told the trial of three Afghan-Canadians charged with murder that in some cultures, family honour is prized more highly than life.
In traditional, male-dominated societies where honour killings take place as a means of “cleansing” a family from disgrace, honour resides within the female body, and that translates into a ruthless control system that polices and constrains women’s every move, Dr. Mojab told the packed courtroom on Monday. And women often participate, she added.
Dr. Mojab was the final prosecution witness in the murder trial of Afghan-Canadian businessman Mohammad Shafia, 58, his second wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 41, and their son Hamed, who turns 21 this month...
Honour killings – of which there are thousands worldwide each year, the United Nations has reported – don’t need be prefaced by actual deeds, Dr. Mojab told the trial as the three defendants stared at her stone-faced.
“Even the assumption [of non-marital relations] is seen as a huge violation of the family honour,” she told the jury. “It doesn’t need to be actual. Even a rumour can cause the killing of a young woman.”
But it is wrong to blame religion, Dr. Mojab testified, because honour killings predate all the great faiths.
The practice “doesn’t have any definite connection with religion at all,” she said, listing Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity among the major religions, along with Islam, that have provided a rationale for such murder.
This murder trial, currently being held in the court house in the city of Kingston, is the result of investigations by police following the deaths of three young women and one of their father's two wives, all part of a polygamous family, allegedly from Afghanistan, living in Canada. On trial are the father and brother of the three young women and their father's second wife.
It is as if a piece of ancient history is being played out ironically in this "first Canadian capital" a city that more than most Canadian cities, is steeped in its own history. Here, however, the history of "honour killings" is a stark reminder of the brutality, and the fanaticism that, according to the witness quoted above, predates the major faiths.
The four deceased were found in a car at the bottom of a lock in the Rideau Canal just outside Kingston after police say, the car was pushed by another car into the lock, bearing markings that purport to match the dent on the "death vehicle."
For Canadians, this story, obviously tragic, is another example of cultural phenomena that we simply do not comprehend. Our law, based on the Judeo-Christian Decalogue, punishes killing for whatever reason(s). Family honour, while somewhat important, does not trump the preservation of life.
Published reports of quotes from the accused father indicate little if any remorse, given the damage these deceased have caused to "family honour" by their disreputable behaviour, in what is seen as normal adolescent behaviour in North America. Press reports indicate that the dating habits of the 17 and 19-year-old women is at the root of the motivations for the killings.
Here, in microcosm, is a distinct clash of civilizations, pitting Canadian criminal law against centuries of family attitudes and beliefs that came with the family from Afghanistan.
All Canadians will be watching as the defence brings its case, and the jury its verdict.