The man fixing an old VCR at the suburban Montreal electronics shop throws up his hands at the mere mention of the word “Shafia.” But instead of signalling a reluctance to talk, the gesture sets off a torrent of words.
“Do you know we are a calm people, in reality?” says Amin Ashpari, a Kabul-born father of four Quebec-born daughters, ages 8 to 14.
The premeditated murder of four women at the hands of family patriarch Mohammed Shafia, along with his accomplice wife and son, has Canada’s Afghan community as bewildered and outraged as the rest of the country. The trial that ended last weekend has left many Afghans feeling that they, too, are being judged.
Mr. Ashpari, 49, says he has never raised a finger against his children. He doesn’t drink booze like some Muslim believers, but sees no veils in the girls’ future. His grandmother and two mothers didn’t cover their faces when he grew up in Kabul in the 1970s. Why would his daughters?
That isn’t to say an Afghan father does not have a major adjustment to make when he arrives in a far more permissive land. Mr. Ashpari admits he struggles to understand why his 14-year-old wouldn't rather only have girls as friends, and he doesn't want her dating. (He recalls that even in liberal 1970s Kabul, eye contact with a girl was taboo.) And negotiating a curfew somewhere between “stay home” and midnight is a weekly challenge.
Still, Mr. Ashpari points out, is there a father in Canada who would not prefer his teenage daughter to dress properly, avoid getting drunk, delay sex and concentrate on studies? “There are a lot of Afghan families suffering with these issues. But it causes normal family conflict – not Shafia,” he says. “You give them a good start by giving them more love, by adjusting, by giving them trust and freedom. Not handcuffs.”
The Shafias lived for two years in a Montreal's Afghan community, which numbers about 5,000 people scattered in several pockets of the city and suburbs. They are Uzbeks, Tajiks, Pashtuns and Hazaras who speak different languages (and are now often split between French and English). They come from different branches of Islam but all were driven out of Afghanistan by 30 years of war. To them, the Shafia killings represent something beyond belief.
“I don’t care who you are, what your religion is, you have to have a heart of stone and be completely crazy to do something like this,” says Nasir Zaheer, a 54-year-old clerk in an Afghan grocery store in the Montreal suburb of Brossard. A former Kabul police officer who fled during the Taliban rule, he is the father of two sons and a daughter studying at the University of Quebec at Montreal. “If you come here believing freedom is just for the man, it’s not the place for you,” he says.
Many Afghan Canadians say they can’t stress enough just how much of an anomaly the Shafias are. The millionaire 10-person family lived in several countries before buying their way into Canada as “immigrant investors.” They may have been the only Afghans to use that program during that year, according to federal records. Hundreds of Afghans arrive as asylum seekers or join family in Canada each year, often bringing little or nothing with them.
If Mr. Shafia had been born in Canada, nobody would use him as an example of mainstream Canadian thinking, argues Adeena Niazi, a godmother to the burgeoning Afghan community in and around Toronto. She wryly points out that nobody suggests convicted sex killers Russell Williams and Paul Bernardo represent Canadian culture.
Now nearing 60, Ms. Niazi arrived in Canada as a refugee in the 1980s and has played a leading role in making the Toronto area so welcoming for the Afghan community that maybe 80,000 live there, according to community sources. As executive director of the Afghan Women’s Organization in Toronto, she has sponsored the immigration applications of at least a couple of thousand. Her group has helped integrate tens of thousands more by helping them settle into social services, apartments and English-language lessons.
There’s no denying that the ravages of war have spawned a serious gender divide. When Ms. Niazi was a young woman, she was a skirt-wearing PhD candidate who lectured to classes of men. When she visited Afghanistan during the Taliban era of the 1990s, she did so under a veil.
“It has gone backwards. When I went back in 1997, it seemed to me the country had gone backwards for a century,” she says. But, she says misogyny is less embedded in the fabric of Afghan society than it is a byproduct of generations of war. “It has nothing to do with culture,” she says. “The more weakened and isolated and vulnerable women are, there’s more risk of being abused.”
“It’s power against powerlessness,” she says. “It’s because of lawlessness and impunity that it happens a lot.”
So, in Toronto, the group employs female counsellors who can go toe-to-toe with male fundamentalists in arguing what the Koran says about women’s rights. Its English classes are also forums to teach women the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Montreal has few such Afghan-specific services, although a new community group was recently launched. On July 1, a group of a couple dozen young Afghan women joined in the Canada Day parade through downtown Montreal. They danced in brightly coloured traditional Afghan dresses, their hair flowing freely in the sun – the way Afghan women often dressed in the days before war and the Taliban.
“You can’t make a girl growing up in Brossard understand the ways of the old world, for good or for bad,” Mr. Ashpari says. “All you can do is talk and talk, talk to the end.
“You give them freedom and hope they will be strong. And try to be strong yourself.”