“Honour Killings” and “Canadian Values”

Three family members have recently been charged in the deaths of three teenage sisters and a female relative.  The three girls–Zainab, Sahar, and Geeti Shafia–and their father’s first wife, Rona Mohammed, were found dead in a car that had been submerged in the Rideau Canal.  Innaa lillahi wa innaa ilayhi raaji`oun (to God we belong and to God we will return.)

An old picture of the three sisters. Image via the CBC.

Because the three accused of the murder are the parents and older brother of the girls, and because the family, although currently living in Montreal, is originally from Afghanistan, it was inevitable that all of the media coverage of the case would involve speculations about “honor killings.”

No matter how you talk about it, the story is heartbreaking.  The three girls were only 19, 17, and 13, and their deaths, as well as that of Ms. Mohammed, are tragic regardless of the circumstances and the politics.  May Allah grant them all peace and justice.

My focus here is on the media responses, not because it’s more important to focus on media than to consider the tragedy of the case, but because this blog exists to discuss media representations of Muslim women.  Unfortunately, I’ve too much academic work on my plate this weekend to be able to do as extensive an overview as I’d like of the articles and opinion pieces that have arisen in response to the arrests.  See here, here, here, and here for some of the stuff that’s been said, and draw your own conclusions (I’m not linking to the extra-offensive articles, because I don’t think that “Muslims are all violent and hate women” is really a useful perspective in any of these debates.)  This article has some interesting comments from members of Montreal’s Afghan community condemning the murders.  For background on the use of the term “honor killing,” see these two previous MMW posts.  I’d be interested in seeing some of your reactions in the comments section of this post.

What I do want to highlight here is one article in particular that, I think, starts off by doing a good job of criticizing the simplicity and selectivity of the knee-jerk reaction of “wow, those Muslims/Afghans are so barbaric and oppressive, unlike us peaceful and tolerant Canadians.”  (As I’ll discuss later, the ending of the article is less impressive.)  It begins:

Police reticence to attribute a motive in the Shafia family case has tempted some people across Canada to jump to the conclusion that these were “honour” killings. The victims were female, the family is from Afghanistan, it’s hard to imagine any other motive, so what more proof could be needed?

The Gazette has received a number of letters denouncing this as a crime of religion and/or primitive culture and tarring the whole Muslim population. Many Canadian Muslims now dread a backlash, from hard looks to overt prejudice, vandalism, or even violence.

Charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy indicate that police and the Crown believe they can prove their case. Motive will be part of that. But until the trial, those eager to defend the “Canadian value” of equality for women should remember that our values also include the presumption of innocence. And they exclude guilt by association. Nobody should forget that the great majority of Canadian Muslims are honest, peaceful, and law-abiding.

The article is actually an editorial from the Montreal Gazette, which made me extra impressed with these paragraphs, since they represent the newspaper’s official position against jumping to conclusions and using stereotypes to label entire communities.  It even demonstrates an awareness that a newspaper has a responsibility not to feed into the widespread fear-mongering that can arise in response to stories like this.

Moreover, the point that it makes is important: that those who berate Muslims for their supposed incompatibility with “Canadian values” are in fact violating other “Canadian values” in the process, namely those of “presumption of innocence” and avoiding “guilt by association.”  And that if people truly think that “Canadian values” are worthwhile, then it’s hypocritical to hold some up on a pedestal, while letting others fall to the wayside, depending on what is most convenient.

That said, the article takes a turn for the worse towards the end, and concludes with:

The debate demonstrates how little the rest of us know about the realities of Muslim life here. No doubt that reality varies widely. But it’s hard to believe that women in this and some other cultural communities truly share the protection enshrined in equality rights.

Women enduring or fearing domestic violence often find it nearly impossible to seek official help. This is even more true, no doubt, in male-dominated cultural communities. In this context it’s worth noting that the very first recommendation of Quebec’s Bouchard-Taylor Commission was more government support for “organizations with a mandate to inform and protect citizens,” notably the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse.

Seeing into insular cultural communities is a real challenge. Immigrants can incarnate generations of cultural assumptions, which are not easily shed. We don’t know what happened in the Shafia family, but we do know that the process of inculcating respect for Canadian ways needs more attention than it has been getting.

First of all, the assumption seems to be that the newspaper is speaking from, and to, the perspective of “the rest of us,” meaning non-Muslims, and that Muslims are people to be talked about, rather than forming part of the conversation.  I’m also bothered by the repeated reference to “cultural communities,” which suggest that mainstream white/non-Muslim Canadian communities are not “cultural,” and not “male-dominated,” or that it is only immigrants who carry “generations of cultural assumptions.”  That’s all just plain inaccurate–I don’t even know what else to say about it.

Last, the idea that “respect for Canadian ways” is the answer–when some of the less-positive “Canadian ways” include, for example, pathetic levels of female participation in government and disgusting levels of neglect towards violence faced by indigenous women–reinforces the Canadian superiority complex and the idea that Canada’s values are necessarily preferable to those of any other country or community.  Despite a promising beginning (posing a challenge to those who have “[tarred] the whole Muslim population” in their reactions), the article ultimately suggests that “Canadian” values are indeed better than those found in Muslim communities (where “it’s hard to believe that women […] truly share the protection enshrined in equality rights”), and in doing so, tars Muslims with a pretty similar image to that which it supposedly denounces.  Apparently humility and self-reflexivity don’t figure so strongly among the “Canadian values” that this editorial is attempting to promote.

Edit from Krista: I’ve seen some reactions on Facebook to this post that criticise it for dodging the fact that the evidence does point overwhelmingly to these murders being motivated by a desire to control the women who were killed, and that regardless of what the circumstances were in this particular case, Muslim communities do have issues of violence against women that we need to deal with.  This is true, and my original goal for this post was actually to use this article as a starting point for trying to figure out how to have these conversations about violence within Muslim communities, in ways that address the violence properly and fully, without feeding into perceptions of Muslims as all uniquely violent/patriarchal/oppressive in ways that other religious and/or cultural communities aren’t.  I wanted to come back to a question of how to engage with some of the more problematic media representations without ignoring the actual problems that are happening.  I ended up getting carried away with a different analysis, which, although important, doesn’t really reflect what I feel are the most important things to say right now in response to these horrific murders.  That’s my fault, and I apologise for it.

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