Religious and Cultural Appropriation in the Newspaper and the Courtroom

On the morning of June 30, 2009 a quadruple-murder case rocked the city of Kingston in Ontario, Canada. Four women were found dead, submerged in the Rideau Canal, in their Nissan Sentra. At first it seemed as though boaters had come across a teenage prank gone awry or the victims of a horrific car accident.

The family members charged with murder. Photo via the Toronto Star.

However, as the bodies were identified as Zainab Shafia, age 19, Sahar Shafia, age 17, Geeti Shafia, age 13, and Rona Amir Mohammad, age 50, a grim and heartbreaking story began to emerge.

The three teenage girls were the biological daughters of Mohammad Shafia and Tooba Yahya, while Rona Mohammad was Mohammad Shafia’s first wife in a polygamous marriage. Shafia, whose family is originally from Afghanistan, reported his daughters missing to Kingston police that same morning. Less than a month later, on July 23rd, Shafia, his second wife, Tooba, and their 18-year-old son, Hamed, were charged with four counts of first-degree murder and four counts of conspiracy to commit murder.

The trial, which began just last month, has spawned fierce cultural and religious criticism from local media outlets. The culprit here is jejunely labeled Islamic values, and the motive dubbed “honor killing,” with prosecutors strategically using the concept of honor killings and positing Afghan culture—used synonymously with Muslim culture here—against “Western” culture. The result is a media debacle affirmed by the use of provocative and stereotypical verbiage in reporting on the trial.

In a statement exemplary of the types of sweeping strokes used to paint Afghan and Muslim culture throughout the trial—by the prosecution, defense, and local media—the Toronto Star’s columnist, Rosie DiManno undeniably ostracizes immigrant members of the Canadian Afghan community saying,

There’s a reason why the Justice Lady is blindfolded. It depicts objectivity—fairness and equality for all before the law. A disregarded concept in Afghanistan; a core value in the Canadian court system. Let us state the obvious: Canada isn’t Afghanistan. That culture is not our culture and their attitudes towards females are totally alien to ours.

Her numerous chronicles of the trial read like a distasteful orientalist novel with opening lines like, “Raise curtain, lift the veil, and step into the 12th century” (emphasis in original, so we don’t miss it), which trivializes the tragic deaths of four Canadian women in her futile attempt to artfully speak about murder—yes, let’s not forget we are speaking of  murder here.

As if the media coverage of the trial weren’t grotesque enough, what seems to be unfolding in the courtroom is a theatrical display of outlandish finger pointing on all sides. The Crown Attorney seems to be prosecuting, not a murderous man and his female accomplice, but a Muslim man and his Muslim wife, and their cultural traditions which demand that they, in defending their honor against the threat of their daughters’ “un-Islamic” and” un-Afghan” behavior, carry out honor killings. In doing so the prosecution has drawn a huge divide between Afghan and Muslim culture and “Western” values, contributing to the growing Islamophobic sentiments surrounding the coverage of the case.

Even more damaging, these types of arguments require the prosecution to substantiate the “un-Islamic-ness” of the daughters, a scheme that has translated into vilified scrutiny of the eldest daughter,  Zainab, and has raised extraneous questions of what it means to be a “good” Muslim woman, igniting the age old misappropriation of dress as a piety signifier.

Unfortunately, the Crown is not alone in stooping to new lows. The defense is also playing culture and religion cards, exploiting loose interpretations of Islamic values by accepting them as a way to put shame on those who failed to uphold them—a shame on the three daughters for failing to preserve their Islamic values, or shame on the father and mother if they failed to murder their daughters to preserve their honor. Whatever way you look at it, this type of sensational defense, justifying a criminal act on the basis of indecorous interpretations of cultural and religious values, is a foul embezzlement on the part of the defense, or as DiManno calls it, “a kind of inherently buffering otherness.”

Adding to the onslaught of religious misappropriation are the tactics of another Muslim party to this case.  RCMP Inspector Shahin Mehdizadeh, a Farsi-speaking Iranian Muslim was called to interrogate the suspects. In his interrogation of Yahya, the Inspector coaxed and persuaded the woman to confess by appealing to religion. He says about her husband,

I don’t think he’s a bad Muslim who would go and have an affair…If they were uncontrolled kids, especially Zainab, if she was doing something to make your husband go mad, which a girl shouldn’t, especially an Afghan girl or a Muslim girl…’

Mehdizadeh even pleads with Yahya to confess by reminding her of her duty as “a good Muslim woman.”

Yahya’s defense lawyer capitalizes on this strategic invocation of religious commandments, saying that given Mehdizadeh’s “knowledge of Middle Eastern customs” if he was really concerned about Yahya’s being “a good Muslim woman,” he should have observed “cultural niceties” such as, having a third party present in the interrogation room. He tactfully uses this point to argue that Mehdizadeh’s “un-Islamic” interrogation methods would have made Yahya feel uncomfortable and intimidated, putting her under duress, thus making her confession null.

In the most obvious display of racism thus far, one of Shafia’s lawyers repeatedly uses the racial slur, “Paki,” in questioning a family witness about the Pakistani man Zainab had rebelliously married.

The trial seems to revolve around sustaining religious and cultural stereotypes, with both the defense and the prosecution referring to the murders as a way to avenge Muslim family honor. Perhaps the worst part is that these three young women are being maligned even in their deaths, reduced to playing the part of stock characters in this ugly melodrama.

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  • Yasmin

    Thank you for introducing us to this shocking trial that is unfolding in Canada!

  • C. S. Cano

    I think your indignation is mis-directed here. Are you suggesting that pointing out the facts of this case should not be done if it shines a bad light on Islam or Muslims or Afghans? It very much looks like these three defendants murdered their four family members. They did it because of what they believe, as Afghan muslims. The disgusting “honour” that Mohammed talks about. The control and fear of Hamed. The disgusting attitude of Tooba saying that Shafia had wanted to kill “just the one” daughter — like that makes it look any better.

    Defend the victims — not the murderers. Not the bronze age culture / religion that says it was OK. Shame on you.

  • A McKay

    Quite frankly, I think the differences between the cultures of Canada & Afghanistan are precisely why this murder trial is so shocking. Why are we trying to be so nauseatingly so politically correct? Other than the “Paki” comment by one of the lawyers, I believe that all other references are facts pertinent to the case. “Profiling” is what the RCMP / FBI do based on known behaviours, human behaviours, cultural behaviours. Certainly, the deep rooted cultural values are key factors in this murder trial. Lastly, although I understand that statements given under duress are often rightly challenged, the woman is ‘seemingly’ lying and the inspector is trying every trick in his book to coerce information from a very unwilling and uncooperative person. When you are being charged with murder(s), we take it very seriously in Canada. Not only should it be mandatory in Canada to learn about our customs and laws, it should be respected. Respected like the war veterans who fought and died for this fine country and the very freedoms they afforded us. Immigrants would also be far better off by learning about the country that has taken them in. May the 3 young ladies and the first wife rest in peace and no longer be held and treated worse than prisoners.

  • JEC

    Check your facts. Inspector Mehdizadeh is not a Muslim. I realize that Rosie Dimanno said he is in her column…but he is not.

  • diana

    @ C.S. Cano:

    No, I am not “suggesting that pointing out the facts of this case should not be done if it shines a bad light on Islam or Muslims or Afghans?” What I am, however, stating is that the local media, in speaking on the case, has used Islamophobic and orientalist rhetoric that is superfluous. Substantiating the daughters’ “un-Islamic-ness” in order to show how this is a case of “honor killing” is also a tactic that is unnecessary, not to mention, it further victimizes and denigrates these women in their deaths.

    “They did it because of what they believe, as Afghan muslims.”

    They murdered because of what they believe as Afghans, as Muslims, or simply as people with horrifically flawed selves? While I do think a motive needs to be established here, it becomes dangerous when we automatically name religion or culture as the culprit. Even more dangerous is when we blur the lines between religion, culture, or individuals and categorize the actions of individuals as responses to religious or cultural values, or paint members of a religion or culture with a broad brush, which is what has been done here by the prosecutors, the defense, and the local media.

    So, I am not defending the murderers. And I am certainly not defending a culture or religion that says murder is okay. I am defending the victims who seem to be sidelined or slandered by these cheap type of tactics.

    Do we really need to build a case against Islam, or against the behavior of the four women, or against Afghan culture to argue that murder is wrong and punishable by law or to agree this is a horrific tragedy?

    @ A McKay:

    “Quite frankly, I think the differences between the cultures of Canada & Afghanistan are precisely why this murder trial is so shocking.”

    Really? So the fact that four women were killed seemingly at the hands of their parents and husband is not enough to make this shocking?

    It is murder. It is always shocking when people act in a legally and morally reprehensible manner. End of story.

    “Certainly, the deep rooted cultural values are key factors in this murder trial”

    As, I already said, a motive needs to be addressed in any case. However, when people (the media, the prosecutors, the defense) fail to distinguish where these “values” come from, the religion, the culture, or simply the individual, then we walk into dangerous territory.

    I agree with you fully when you say that laws should be respected and followed, but again I pose the question: Do we really need to build a case against Islam, or against the behavior of the four women, or against Afghan culture to argue that murder is wrong and punishable by law or to agree this is a horrific tragedy?

    • A McKay

      @ diana
      Of course, 1000% the key issue of the trial is the horrible fact the 4 women lost their lives at the hands of their parents, sibling, husband – THAT IS A GIVEN.

      Perhaps you can, for one moment, look from my perspective of being a 3rd generation Canadian whereby I am beyond aghast at what I see as culturally sanctioned murder. I’ll be the first to admit that I have little understanding of what being Muslim entails, nor what being Afghanistan is all about…..and in my Canadian eyes, the lines between the two are very blurry.

      I was raised in a home were women were treated equally and encouraged to get educated and break down the glass ceilings. I am 51 years old, with Irish, Scottish and English background. My father was a fighter pilot in WW2 and fought for the freedoms we enjoy in Canada today. My father (and mother who had equal voice in our home) would never allow hatred or racial intolerance in our home. THAT is what we were taught. As a child I played with children from many countries because my family sponsored them into Canada. My playmates fascinated me with their language, games, foods, customs, humour…..

      From a Canadian perspective, I have yet to speak with ANYONE who would even think to blame those women for acting un-anything. They had the right to simply live safely and freely PERIOD.

      With all due respect, I understand your need to ensure that Islam and Afghan culture are not to be brush painted by the media but in Canada honour killing is a totally foreign and horrifying concept. Absolutely horrifying. But, the cultures and the religion are a part of the whole story, the way Canadians see and understand it. Again, the reasoning behind ‘profiling’, is to identify certain aspects of the parts in the whole picture, so that, cases can be identified and understood in the future.

      How would you propose that us Canadians understand: honour killings, sharia law?

  • diana


    Thanks for this info! I was simply going off of Rosie Dimmano’s claims. Do you have a source for this?

    • JEC

      Yes…I had a chat with the Inspector who mentioned this to me. BTW…I am not with the media. I went to the court house one day as an intrested member of the public. All the headsets had been handed out (for translation) so I sat outside the court room and chatted with Inspector Mehdizadeh. It was social chitchat…about where he had grown up, when he came to Canada, etc. And he mentioned that he was not Muslim.
      I e-mailed Ms. Dimanno about this and she replied to me that after she wrote the column she too had a chat with him who told her the same info. She mentioned she would change this in the archives….whatever that means.

  • diana

    @ A McKay:
    You are veering off topic here. My job is not to explain shari’a law or honor killings to readers; there is plenty of scholarly literature on these topics. My job in writing this post was to critique the Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism surrounding this case; also to critique the way it represents Muslim women, namely the four women victims here. That is exactly what I did. This is what this site was created for. As you said, “… I understand your need to ensure that Islam and Afghan culture are not to be brush painted by the media…”
    With that said, as an American-Muslim I too find “honor killings” to be horrific as I reiterated in my post. Nothing I mentioned was to detract from the atrocious crime that was committed here. In fact, I criticize the prosecution and defense for accepting this notion of “honor killings” to argue their position because in doing so it requires the prosecution to substantiate the “un-Islamic-ness” of the four women and it allows the defense to uphold this “honor killing,” as you have, as a “culturally sanctioned” act. Both are distasteful arguments.
    While culture and religion might play a part in shaping the thoughts and actions of the murderers, to say that Afghan culture or Muslim culture sanctions this type of behavior is a bold statement that cannot be substantiated. Muslims and Afghans are individuals. You will find many Muslims or Afghans who, like I do, find “honor killings” abhorrent and do not believe it is sanctioned by religion. So, in making umbrella statements about Muslim culture or Afghan culture or Afghan women, all that is accomplished is a marginalization of these people and a contribution to an already growing anti-Muslim and Islamophobic sentiment.

  • eerie

    @Diana, thanks for writing about this. DiManno’s coverage of this case makes me so frustrated. She’s always been terribly Orientalist though, if you go through her past articles (if you’re willing to take the pain, try “My 9/11: There has been way too much blaming of the victim in the past decade”, or “Afghanistan hurtling into 21st century”). I think she had an eye-roll worthy piece for the prayer at school controversy too. And I second not taking what she presents as facts for granted. I wish there was a better place to look to for coverage, The Star has been really disappointing in this regard.

    I want to reply to other comments in this discussion in more detail, especially McKays, since it seems they might actually be interested in dialogue, but I’m at work and I don’t really have the energy right now for a full response.

  • Aisha

    This is not a case against Islam. This is a case against a dysfunctional family who had rigid views of how the women in the family should behave. It is ridiculous to suggest that the prosecution is somehow substantiating “the ‘unislamicness’ of the four Muslim women.” The Shafia family does that on its own. There are constant references by Mohammed Shafia, Hamed, and Tooba Yayah alluding to the “unislamic-ness” of their daughters. The prosecution has a duty to point this out to the jury, because that is precisely why these women appear to have been murdered.

    At no time has the defence suggested that the killings were culturally sanctioned. Instead, accused are denying that they were involved in the killing. Please check your facts before posting an opinion.

    Political correctness has no place in a murder trial, especially if there is a risk that the accused would be wrongly acquitted.

    • A McKay

      @ Aisha

      My sentiments exactly.

  • Sambil

    Rosi Dimanno needs to be sent where she belong – The Toronto Sun.