The verdict of first-degree murder in the so-called honour killings of four girls and women near Kingston, Ont., is a just society’s best answer to an incomprehensible act of barbarism.
But it is not a complete answer for preventing similar, preventable murders within families. Child-protection authorities failed utterly to protect Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, ages 19, 17 and 13, and a public inquest or other form of inquiry is necessary to understand why that deadly failure occurred after the three sisters raised alarms with a teacher, child-protection workers and police.
The first-degree murder verdicts bring a mandatory penalty of life, with no parole eligibility for 25 years. Some may find that inadequate in expressing society’s revulsion and horror at a father, mother and brother, all Afghan-Canadians, who killed to protect the family name. Some may feel that broad statements of community values (“no stoning of women”) need to be thrust, in the style of Hérouxville, Que., at new immigrants. Others may propose that newcomers be made to watch videos about national values, as they are in the Netherlands.
The best weapon Canada has against the medievalism of honour killings is that justice is certain, swift and severe, though still respecting of life’s sacredness. No educational video will stop people like Mohammed Shafia, his wife Tooba Yahya and their eldest son, Hamed, from killing because of a twisted mix of cultural, religious and personal reasons. Social workers from school boards or children’s aid may try to help immigrant parents deal with cultural clashes with their children, but not everyone will accept that help. The rule of law speaks loudest and sends the clearest message.
Honour killings need to be denounced head-on because they are rooted in a community’s support for premeditated murder of women and girls who violate cultural or religious norms. Family violence and murder can be found in all ethnic groups, but honour killings are a direct challenge to the notion that laws should protect women. Thankfully, they are rare in Canada. But any Afghan-Canadian or other community in which honour killings are found need to confront the attitudes that lead to the murder of children and women.
The rule of law is the antithesis of the medievalism that – we can have no illusions about this – exists to some extent in this country. Murder is never a private matter within families. Zainab, Sahar and Geeti were under the protection of all Canadians – and that protection failed. Canadians have a right to know why the authorities did not do a better job, and whether they will be up to the challenge the next time.