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Tooba Yahya is escorted during a lunch break at the Frontenac County courthouse in Kingston, Ontario, on Jan. 27, 2012. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press)
Tooba Yahya is escorted during a lunch break at the Frontenac County courthouse in Kingston, Ontario, on Jan. 27, 2012. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press)

Exploring the Shafia matriarch's motives Add to ...

Anyone who believes in the equal rights of women cannot ignore the deadly role a woman played in the Shafia family tragedy. This feminist can’t at any rate.

Whether you want to call it “femicide” or “honour-killing,” wife and mother Tooba Yahya’s conviction of the first-degree murders of three of her vibrant teenage daughters and of her husband’s other wife in a polygamous family, raises the curtain on a deeply troubling but compelling truth.

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In a culture and society in which women are forced to be inferior and powerless, whether it’s mandated by a twisted understanding of religion, by custom, or by an out of control patriarch, women will slug it out to achieve whatever power they can grasp, often in deadly ways.

That’s what occurred in the Shafia family, as The Globe’s Timothy Appleby reported yesterday in his portrait of Rona Amir Mohammad, Shafia’s “long-suffering” first wife, who helped raise, love and protect the seven children born of second wife Tooba in this highly dysfunctional household. With no money of her own and no outside support network, Rona was shunned and emotionally brutalized by her husband Mohammad Shafia and Tooba, and descended to competing with Tooba as to who would receive the most jewellery from their shared husband.

Rona might have been travelling, as police reports stated, with $23,000 worth of jewellery on that last fatal road trip, but she had already acknowledged the nightmare of her situation in her diary, writing, “Tooba used to say, your life is in my hands.”

Not in Shafia’s hands, but in Tooba’s. It makes sense. Tooba was the ultimate Mean Girl in a rigid domestic hierarchy, partly because she too had no outside power, and was subjected instead to the daily rages of her honour-obsessed husband and policed by her eldest son Hamed, who was also convicted in the murders.

That doesn’t make her any less culpable, but it’s worth exploring why she took that route.

Tooba, as Asra Q. Nomani writes in The Daily Beast, is part of a pattern of women in her world who target other women: “Across the world, in traditional Muslim culture and other traditional communities, older women routinely harass, punish, and sometimes even beat Muslim girls into submission. They are the aunts, mothers, and older women in the community who insist – right along with the men – that girls behave modestly. Girls often call these older women in their community their ‘aunties.’ Now they're earning a new name: ‘vigil-aunties.’”

Ms. Nomani makes the obvious but essential point that by monitoring other women in their culture for morality infractions, and then emotionally terrorizing and reporting them, these vigil-aunties are repeating a pattern of abuse they themselves grew up with, “suffocating under the same rigidity and dogmatism they are now trying to enforce upon the next generation. “

Of course there are many women in the Muslim culture who act as kind guides and supporters for their daughters, helping them to achieve in some poignant cases the independence and freedom the older women missed out on.

Sound familiar? In Western culture, wives and mothers who fought for equal rights and participation in all public spheres also acted as guides for a younger generation of women so they would never know the demoralizing feeling of having certain doors closed to them because they were female.

In the wake of this trial, there have been calls for social service agencies, police and schools to be more alert to the lethal nuances of an honour-driven ethic. But how can today's feminists help change a brutal and sometimes deadly female dynamic within such a culture? They can drive home the point that in all religions and cultures, women’s rights are human rights, and equality must be a given.

But equality doesn’t have to be gained by tearing a young woman away from her culture or religion or family, by advocating for only one cultural norm. Being modern doesn’t automatically mean they’ll all dress like JLo or hook up with guys. Older women can feel threatened by this type of freedom. But Western girls, after all, make a wide range of choices in how they partake of their culture, some eschewing early sex, some deciding there are fun ways to dress that don’t so forthrightly display their attributes. The difference is, it is up to them.

Feminists everywhere, male and female, need to act as compassionate but unrelenting ambassadors for freedom. Religions and cultures have to be refashioned – and then monitored – to ensure women gain and then maintain an equal voice.

When you are a woman with real power, you are neither a vigil-auntie nor a victim. You are not Tooba Yahya, killing your rebellious daughters and a pesky rival because they offend an inhumane sense of family honour that literally could not survive in a world where women are equal to men.

You are not Rona Amir Mohammad, with nice jewellery and no future. You are you, educated, free, you have your own income and your own choices. You have a world of possibility and real power available to you. Isn’t that what every girl – in every culture – deserves?

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