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Some people deeply dislike the way the word "honour" kept being dragged in to describe the terrible Shafia murders (even though Mohammad Shafia himself could not shut up about it). These crimes weren't "honourable" at all. Besides, why single them out as something special and culturally specific? Men murder women every day. This was just another form of domestic violence, which exists in every culture. "It's unfortunately something that could be anywhere," Saleha Khan, a board member with a Muslim social-services group, told the Toronto Star after the verdict was announced.

Oh, no, it couldn't. Yet many people still argue that it's wrong to attempt to draw links between cultural values and violence against women. Adeena Niazi, executive director of the Afghan Women's Organization in Toronto, told CBC Radio on Monday that Afghan culture really has nothing to do with this case, and it's unfortunate that some people try to argue otherwise. "It has nothing to do with culture – none of the culture approve violence and killing," she explained. Instead, the proper way to judge the murderers – Mohammad, his wife Tooba Yahya and their oldest son, Hamed – is as individuals acting on their own.

But of course it's impossible to understand this crime without the culture. And it's important to understand honour crimes for exactly what they are. They are not ordinary acts of domestic violence carried out in a fit of rage. Instead, they are carefully premeditated acts that are designed to remove the stain of a wife or daughter's sexual misconduct (real or imagined) from the family name. They are often approved or tolerated by the community. Wives often condone these crimes against their daughters, or even help commit them. And the perpetrators are invariably convinced of the rightness of their deeds.

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We usually associate honour crimes with the poor and unsophisticated. Mohammad Shafia was rich and worldly, which is partly why this case is so shocking. His obsession with his daughters' sexuality strikes us as pathological. But it's not unusual in Afghanistan and large parts of the Middle East. In Iraq, after the American invasion, a common form of revenge was to have your enemy's teenaged daughter abducted and perhaps raped. That would guarantee the ruin of the entire family, which would sometimes kill her for disgracing them. Many girls and their mothers assured me that while this was unbearably cruel and unfair, it was necessary.

These attitudes have been moderated but not entirely extinguished by contact with Canadian life. They are a problem in some South Asian communities, too. In Britain, police dealt with an estimated 3,000 honour-related crimes in 2010, including threats, abduction, acid attacks, beatings, forced marriage and mutilation, as well as the occasional murder. In Canada, such horrors are mercifully rare. But many of our schools and social-service agencies tread gingerly when faced with the challenges of cultures that treat boys and girls in such strikingly different ways. Schools and social workers are caught between conflicting demands to accommodate multiculturalism and also to safeguard the best interests of children who may be enduring intolerable conflict at home. It's not surprising that they sometimes fail.

For girls like the three sisters who died, finding the safe place between the mosque and the mall isn't always easy. Talking more plainly about culture – what attitudes are acceptable and what are not, and what values must absolutely be respected – will help all of us to help girls like them. If their terrible tragedy makes it any easier to do that, then some small good will have come of it.

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