How to Use a Murder Victim: The Exploitation of the Aqsa Parvez Tragedy

A recent Toronto Life magazine article regarding Toronto teenager Aqsa Parvez’s murder, entitled Girl, Interrupted, has sparked outrage in many circles in Toronto and beyond. And for very good reason. Journalist Mary Rogan has simply perpetuated stereotypes about Muslims, South Asian culture, and immigrant communities.

toronto-life-december-20081The disrespectful treatment begins with the front cover, where you see a full page picture of Aqsa’s face, posing seductively with only a hint of a strap on her bare shoulder. Now call me picky or cynical, but I find it hard to believe that this could have been unintentional. Aqsa Parvez has become famous for being murdered by her father for not dressing conservatively enough and the photo used for the cover is arguably not very conservative. The juxtaposition is no coincidence. But what does it say? Both South Asian culture (to which Aqsa belonged) and Islam encourage and value modesty in dress. Using Aqsa’s private picture, never intended for such public display, not only seems a violation of her privacy, but also a purposeful taunt to the Muslim and South Asian communities.

Rogan begins by recounting the events leading up to Aqsa’s murder. Her fear of her father who had sworn to kill her, her brother luring her home on other pretexts, and finally her father strangling her to death and then calling the 911 to confess his crime. It doesn’t take long for Rogan to throw in the phrase “honour killing.”

Was her murder an honour killing or simply a gruesome case of domestic violence? Worldwide, an estimated 5,000 women die every year in honour killings—murders deemed excusable to protect a family’s reputation—many of them in Pakistan, where the Parvez family had emigrated from.

Rogan uses a tactic used many times – point out violence against women in other cultures without acknowledging the extent of the problem within one’s own culture.* In the Western** context the killing of women by relatives and partners may not be termed “honour killings” but that does not mean women are not killed by those they love. The reasons provided may be different, but the underlying ideology – patriarchy – is the same. And patriarchy, which places women in a position of subordination and inferiority, exists in Western cultures as well. Even if one argues that the effects of patriarchy are greater in non-Western cultures, one cannot blame the culture itself but must rather look at the issue within post-colonial analyses. What effect has the racist and misogynist ideology of European colonization had on the culture in question? How has this colonization of the not-so-distant past impacted patriarchy of today? Because you can be sure it has. See here for an explanation of feminism and post-colonialism,

Rogan’s depiction of multiculturalism and immigrants as problematic within the Canadian context is an offensive and not to mention dangerous one. Throughout her piece Rogan repeatedly portrays immigrants, specifically South Asian and Muslim immigrants as threats to Canada.

But there is growing concern that recent waves of Muslim immigrants aren’t integrating, or embracing our liberal values. Aqsa’s death—coming in the wake of debates about the acceptability of sharia law, disputes over young girls wearing hijabs at soccer games, and the arrest of the Toronto 18—stoked fears about religious zealotry in our midst. Is it possible that Toronto has become too tolerant of cultural differences?

Rogan uses three examples to show that Muslims are not integrating. Three examples would hardly meet any empirical criteria. Honour killings, as Rogan calls them, are so rare in Canadian society that they warrant media attention when they do occur. Parent/child conflicts are common in immigrant families just as they are in non-immigrant families. If honour killings really were a part of South Asian/Muslim culture then many more than one would be occurring. One incident is hardly an epidemic to indicate lack of integration. The example of women wanting to wear hijab at soccer games does not indicate lack of integration in the least. If anything, the opposite would be true as it demonstrates a young Muslim girl’s ability to integrate her religion and her Western environment. Finally, the Toronto 18, which is now the Toronto 11, is again just one example of extremist thinking. What about the approximately 250,000*** other Torontonian Muslims who would never engage in such thinking? Three inadequate examples do not suggest that Toronto has become “too tolerant of cultural differences.” Three inadequate examples do not mean that non-Muslims and non-immigrant Canadians should fear all Muslim immigrants.

Rogan continues the story by talking with Aqsa’s friends at her school who tell the reader about Aqsa, what she was like, what she liked to do, who she was to them. They also give their reason for Aqsa’s murder – that she didn’t want to wear the hijab. At this point what one needs to remember, or be reminded of perhaps, is that Aqsa’s friends are young teenage girls. Although from their standpoint this may have been the reason and as such cannot be faulted for saying as such, Rogan, being a journalist, has done a great disservice to her readers by misrepresenting the opposing viewpoint – that the issue was not hijab but rather cultural conflicts and patriarchy. She briefly explains

The majority of Muslim leaders, however, insisted that Aqsa’s murder was not an honour killing. Mohamed Elmasry, who heads the Cana­dian Islamic Congress, and Shahina Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Social Services Association, described the death as a teen issue and a case of domestic abuse.

To present a balanced view, it would have been helpful to present the side of the friends of Aqsa who felt that the hijab was not the reason but rather cultural clashes.

Aqsa’s friends describe, what appears to be a cultural conflict in Aqsa’s life. Conflicts between parents and teens are common. Add in the conflict of having to deal with two different cultures and inevitably problems will get amplified. I do not wish to trivialize the tensions and problems which arise as a result of biculturalism. However, Rogan does not paint Aqsa as a young girl who was trying to simply balance between two cultures. Rather Aqsa is shown as someone who was trying to shed her “oppressive” South Asian Muslim culture and embrace a “liberating” Western one. It is this juxtaposition which is problematic, offensive, and not to mention inaccurate. Patriarchy and misogyny exist in all cultures. To assume that one is not ignores the experiences of oppression faced by women in the Western context.

However, Rogan successfully paints South Asian culture and Islam as the problem. She quotes Aqsa’s friends as saying “She didn’t turn her back on her culture…She just wanted to have freedom; that’s all she wanted” suggesting that adhering to South Asian cultural practices would have meant lack of freedom.

This article also suggests that the more religious a Muslim is the more they will condone, or even engage in, violence against women.

Some progressive Muslims, such as Tarek Fatah and Farzana Hassan of the Muslim Canadian Congress, saw her murder as evidence of rising Islamic fundamentalism in Canada.

Again, one isolated case cannot determine anything substantial. It is an unfortunate tragedy but hardly a case of rising fundamentalism.

Aqsa Parvez lived in two worlds. Devout Muslims reject any division of life into the religious and the secular. By the time she was killed, she knew her father was never going to accept her decision to travel back and forth across the two.

This suggests that to mix religious and secular life, at a personal level, is problematic, when the truth is that many Muslims can do so very successfully. This statement simply demonizes those Muslims who place an importance on their religion. Being devout does not mean, as seems to be suggested here, that Muslims cannot integrate into Canadian society.

Rogan relates a Muslim sociologist’s view on the issue:

…when a Muslim child disobeys her parents, the emotional stakes are higher than for other kids. “It’s a religious issue. You’re not just violating your parents’ rules; you’re violating God’s rules. This will affect you in the hereafter.”

This explanantion still does not explain killing one’s child. As mentioned before, many Muslim and immigrant children and parents experience conflicts but never before this have we heard of such a case. If Muslim parents really feared this retribution from God, would we not see such horrific acts occuring more often? The connection is faulty at best and fear-mongering at worst.

The broad generalizations and dangerous stereotypes perpetuated through this article takes the attention away from the very serious problem of violence against women. Additionally, this story ignores the diversity of Muslim women, all of whom want different things and live their lives in different ways. The story creates a xenophobic and Islamophobic atmosphere that does nothing to bring justice to Aqsa Parvez, but rather simplifies the complexity of her life.

Here is another interesting analysis of the story.

*In Canada every week one to two women are murdered by a current or former partner. That’s 52 to 104 each year in Canada alone. And how many women are victims of attempted murders? One could argue that all women who are physically abused could potentially be killed by that violence.

** I use this term in referring to the non-immigrant Western culture.

*** This is as of the 2001 census. Most likely the number has increased greatly since then.

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