On Jan. 29, 2012, a jury in Kingston, Ont., found Afghan-born Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba Yahya Mohammad and son Hamed guilty in the 2009 murders of daughters Geeti, Sahar and Zeinab and Mr. Shafia’s first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad. It was a trial that repulsed our sensibilities: The women were killed to preserve family “honour.” The teenage daughters’ behaviour had become “too Western” for the parents to bear; the patriarch cursed them even after their deaths.
The four deaths pointed to a disturbing national trend. Research by University of Sherbrooke professor Marie-Pierre Robert indicated that 12 women have been victims of honour killings in Canada between 1999 and 2009, compared with three between 1954 and 1983. The average victim was 21; the killers were immigrants – usually male – and primarily of Sikh or Muslim background.
The past three trials have pointed to another troublesome pattern: direct participation by the victim’s brother in her murder. While there have been no honour killings recorded since 2009, community groups say the number of incidents involving honour-based violence has increased.
Such alarming trends should prompt a national policy to deal with the issue. But none has been officially forthcoming – aside from cosmetic changes to Canada’s guide to new immigrants in which honour killings are called “barbaric.”
According to University of Toronto sociologist Anna Korteweg, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain have crafted national policies of “prevention, protection and prosecution” to address honour-based violence. Canada, however, lacks a systematic approach.
To be fair, there has been a shift in legal policy, as the Crown has explicitly brought forth the motive of honour in its past three successful prosecutions. The 100-per-cent conviction rate under the Criminal Code suggests there’s no need for any amendment to specifically target crimes of honour.
A robust policy of prevention and protection should complement the legal successes, so fewer trials actually occur. Prevention and protection are inextricably linked, as community-based groups, social service agencies and law enforcement will have to work together to combat the problem.
This co-operative model is already in place in London, Ont., with last year’s launch of the Family Honour Project by the Muslim Resource Centre for Social Support and Integration (MRCSSI). Research has been conducted into honour-based violence, risk factors have been ascertained, and stakeholders have been brought together from the local community, law enforcement and social service agencies. A pilot program is set to roll out this year. The MRCSSI is co-ordinating its efforts with Chicago’s Cure Violence program, which addresses gang violence based on the paradigm of treating violence as a disease.
In terms of prevention and protection, the MRCSSI is building on its programs that help immigrant families. According to the MRCSSI, for example, there has been a 73-per-cent reduction in the number of Muslim children in local foster care since 2007, with no new cases in the past three years.
A key preventive component is the role of community leaders in speaking up against honour-based violence and all forms of domestic violence. The MRCSSI has galvanized local imams to broach this topic in sermons and community workshops; it’s also promoting a powerful video against honour killings, co-produced by the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM and UN Women.
This is also happening at the national level. Kingston imam Sikander Hashmi (a former journalist) has taken a prominent role in addressing this issue in Muslim communities across Canada. Muneeb Nasir, president of Toronto’s Olive Tree Foundation, has spearheaded the first White Ribbon campaign in the Muslim community, with hundreds of signatories pledging to stop violence against women.
Since 2011, mosques across the country have joined the dialogue on violence against women by devoting at least one Friday sermon to the topic. And community groups are organizing workshops to increase awareness.
Muslim communities are beginning to take responsibility in addressing this issue in a forthright manner and in seeking ways to co-operate with government agencies to find solutions. What will help move this forward is leadership at the federal level to craft a comprehensive policy on honour-based violence in partnership with all stakeholders.
Eds Note: An earlier version incorrectly stated that 16 women were victims of honour killings in Canada between 1999 and 2006. The author of the University of Sherbrooke study was also incorrectly identified