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The Globe and Mail

We have failed to protect Muslim women under threat

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


Any Muslim worth his or her salt will feel a sense of justice over the guilty verdict handed down this week in the Shafia murder trial in Kingston. A father, a mother and a brother callously eliminated four of their own clan to protect the family's "honour." That in itself deserves the harshest of penalties the Canadian legal system can prescribe.

But any Muslim worth his or her salt will also need to do some serious soul-searching. For years, Muslim communities – in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. – have approached honour crimes as something alien to Islam. They point out the obvious: Killing in the name of honour has nothing to do with their faith. And they are right, of course. They have also pointed out that many non-Muslim societies around the world tacitly condone the victimization of women to protect a man's honour. This, they have implied, clears Muslims of responsibility for dealing with misogynist behaviour in their community.

Others have argued that all cultures are infected by misogyny, thrusting honour killings into the same domain as domestic violence. In a 2010 Globe commentary, Gerald Caplan pointed out that "terrible things still happen to women everywhere, as the domestic violence figures for Canada demonstrate. No nation, religion, class or ethnic group has the monopoly on misogyny."

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But they are mistaken. The vast majority of domestic violence against women in Canada are acts of impassioned violence. They happen in the moment, in states of rage. Let me be absolutely clear here: This should not provide a defence against those crimes. But it does place them in another category, one that our legal system covers: manslaughter.

In our society, the murderer who meticulously plans and calculates his killing occupies one of two categories: the hit man or the psychopath. The hit man kills for money, the psychopath for the thrill of it, or for some deep-seated hatred of the objects of his murderous wrath. In the cases of honour killings that Canada has seen, there are frightening similarities between how the killers acted and psychopathic behaviour.

In the Shafia case: Hamed Shafia, the 21-year old son of his co-accused mother, Tooba Yahya, and father, Mohammad, scouted out bodies of water days in advance of the murder, places where, presumably, the soon to be killed bodies of his stepmother and sisters could be disposed of. That is chillingly cold, remorselessly calculated.

And another case: the gruesome murder of five-year-old Farah Khan in 2000, killed by her father, Muhammad Arsal Khan, because he suspected she was not his biological daughter. Her murder was planned before she even arrived in Canada. Muhammad Khan, now serving life in prison, is alleged to have bought surgical instruments in his native Pakistan that were then used to dismember Farah's tiny body prior to disposing of it, in different locations, along Toronto's waterfront.

Acts like these are the acts of psychopaths, not of enraged husbands or fathers, and this is the distinction that must be made. Yet, men like Hamed Shafia and Muhammad Khan are not psychopaths. What to us appears to be psychopathic behaviour is accepted, and often encouraged, in their homelands.

I was in southern Pakistan this past summer, in the province of Sindh, which is considered the honour-killing capital of the world. I was there to follow up on an honour crime case I'd written about in 2006. I'd hoped to find some progress in Pakistan's struggle against the culture of ownership of women – their treatment as property – that leaves hundreds, potentially thousands, dead every year. What I found instead was that nothing had changed. It had, in fact, gotten worse.

The Pakistani community in Canada, the Afghan community also, and Muslims in general, must face up to the fact that this sort of thing is happening in their homelands, and it's not getting any better. And as more and more people emigrate to Canada, from places where killing a woman for honour is as simple as taking out the garbage, it is up to them, the communities themselves, to ensure that new arrivals are made aware of the monstrous errors they are making.

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That since 2002, 12 people have died in Canada as a result of honour – the majority of them Muslims – is unacceptable. Less known is the fact that an untold number of young Muslim girls face the kind of oppressive domestic lives the Shafia girls were forced to endure, living in a state of fear, forced to be something they are not.

These are the quiet tragedies playing out every day in the community. Canadian Muslims should bow their heads in shame, not because honour killing has anything to do with Islam, but because they have failed to protect women under threat, and to educate Muslims who arrive here carrying traditions with them that are not only an affront to Canadian values, but damage the honour of Islam itself.

Adnan Khan is a writer and commentator based in Kabul.

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