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Mohammad Shafia (right), Tooba Yahya (centre) and their son Hamed Shafia (left) are escorted into the Frontenac County courthouse in Kingston, Ont. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Mohammad Shafia (right), Tooba Yahya (centre) and their son Hamed Shafia (left) are escorted into the Frontenac County courthouse in Kingston, Ont. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Canada looks for ways to prevent honour killings in wake of Shafia trial Add to ...

British Crown lawyers are trained in bringing perpetrators of “honour crimes” to justice. Immigrant boys in Sweden perform in plays against domestic violence. Muslim interest groups who challenge such violence have formed in the United States.

This is all taking place because young, immigrant women were so gruesomely sent to their graves by male relatives that people in these countries banded together to say “never again.”

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And now, observers are asking which long-term lessons Canada will learn from the Shafia trial. How will police, teachers, social workers, and immigrants join forces to prevent any more women from meeting horrific fates?

“The lesson for me in this very sad story is, if we want to keep the legacy of Sahar, Zainab, Rona, and Geeti alive, we have to look at the issue as a national issue – a national project,” said Shahrzad Mojab, a University of Toronto expert who served as a prosecution witness.

Sunday’s first-degree murder convictions in the quadruple-homicide case have been eye-opening for Canadians – not least because the three perpetrators and four victims all came from the same nuclear family. The trial not only aired the facts of the crime, but also glaring deficits in Canada’s ability to safeguard vulnerable women and children.

Missed signals and squandered opportunities are, tragically, recurring themes in “honour” killings. When family patriarch Mohammad Shafia began threatening the lives of his daughters and first wife, the victims did not know where to turn. Some eventually sought help, only to encounter skeptical officials who failed to grasp the gravity of their peril.

Authorities in Canada are brainstorming ways to address the issue. In October, for example, government lawyers and academics met to discuss responses to honour-based violence.

“The need for training materials was central to these discussions,” Justice Canada spokeswoman Carole Saindon said in an e-mail. Pressed as to when federal authorities might actually circulate manuals, she said only that “discussions are continuing.”

Agencies in other countries, such as the Crown Prosecution Service in Britain, are further ahead.

Three years before the 2009 murders of four members of the Shafia family in Kingston, a Kurdish woman was strangled with a shoelace and stuffed in a suitcase near London. Banaz Mahmod, 20, had left a violent marriage and had told police several times that she was terrified of her relatives.

Responding to the fallout from the murder, Britain created a class of police and prosecutors who specialize in preventing and prosecuting honour killings. Social-services agencies, schools and other institutions have been looped in and encouraged to help. The strategy appears to be working. “In the U.K. there has been a greater awareness,” Aisha Gill, a researcher at Roehampton University in London, said in an interview Tuesday.

Sweden has also learned lessons. In 1999, a 19-year-old woman of Kurdish ethnicity was shot in the back. When her sister and mother tried to take her to a hospital for treatment, her assailants – all male relatives – finished her off with a bullet to the head.

The slaying of Pela Atroshi prompted Sweden to route millions of kronor to social programs – including telephone hotlines and funds for shelters for at-risk girls. Bureaucracies – health, immigration and schools – helped spread messages about equality and awareness to immigrants.

The steps have had a lasting impact in Sweden, says Ms. Mojab, the U of T researcher. “I even saw a group of young male members of different Muslim communities doing a spoken-word performance against violence in the family,” she said. “It was so encouraging.”

Some responses have been more organic. In 2008, a Pakistani immigrant in Buffalo stabbed his wife 40 times and beheaded her after she tried to divorce him. Aasiya Zubair Hassan’s murder was a rallying point for many American Muslims who went on Facebook to urge their imams to use their Friday sermons to denounce domestic violence.

“It did galvanize a zero-tolerance policy, issued from Muslim Americans, to say there is no validity for these types of actions,” said Wajahat Ali, a U.S.-based writer, in an interview. “The community said, in that moment, ‘Never again will a tragedy like Aasiya occur under our watch.’ ”

Mr. Ali, who has been following the Shafia trial in Canada, wants awareness to grow on both sides of the border. “I’m hoping what happens in Canada results in a similar response.”



With a report from Stephanie Chambers

Follow on Twitter: @colinfreeze

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