Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Family honour often prized more highly than life, Shafia trial told

Tooba Mohammad Yahya, husband Mohammad Shafia and son Hamed Mohammed Shafia are escorted to court in Kinston last month.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

So-called "honour killings" are rooted in an ancient patriarchal need to control women's sexuality, and sometimes immigrants from regions that embrace such a code cherish it more dearly than those who stay home, a murder trial has heard.

The keenly anticipated testimony came from Shahrzad Mojab, an Iranian-born University of Toronto professor of women's studies who has lectured and written on the topic for many years. She told the trial of three Afghan-Canadians charged with murder that in some cultures, family honour is prized more highly than life.

In traditional, male-dominated societies where honour killings take place as a means of "cleansing" a family from disgrace, honour resides within the female body, and that translates into a ruthless control system that polices and constrains women's every move, Dr. Mojab told the packed courtroom on Monday. And women often participate, she added.

Story continues below advertisement

Dr. Mojab was the final prosecution witness in the murder trial of Afghan-Canadian businessman Mohammad Shafia, 58, his second wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 41, and their son Hamed, who turns 21 this month.

The defence will begin its case on Thursday, and in a highly unusual move, its first witness is expected to be Mohammad Shafia.

Honour killings – of which there are thousands worldwide each year, the United Nations has reported – don't need be prefaced by actual deeds, Dr. Mojab told the trial as the three defendants stared at her stone-faced.

"Even the assumption [of non-marital relations]is seen as a huge violation of the family honour," she told the jury. "It doesn't need to be actual. Even a rumour can cause the killing of a young woman."

But it is wrong to blame religion, Dr. Mojab testified, because honour killings predate all the great faiths.

The practice "doesn't have any definite connection with religion at all," she said, listing Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity among the major religions, along with Islam, that have provided a rationale for such murder.

Each accused faces four counts of first-degree murder in the June, 2009, drowning deaths of teenaged sisters Zainab, Sahar and Geeti, whose bodies were found in a car at the bottom of a Rideau Canal lock, just east of Kingston.

Story continues below advertisement

The fourth victim was Mohammad Shafia's first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, who lived with the family in Montreal in a secret polygamous marriage.

Mohammad Shafia, his two wives and his seven children – all born to Ms. Yahya – had been returning from a vacation in Niagara Falls when what the defendants described as a terrible accident took place overnight at the Kingston Mills locks.

Police suspected murder, and the prosecution alleges the chief motive was restoring the "honour" of the Shafia clan, supposedly stained by the victims' "immoral" conduct, in particular the dating habits of Zainab and Sahar, aged 19 and 17.

Worldwide, honour killings are on the rise, Dr. Mojab testified, but in North America they remain extremely rare. In 1989-2008, just 13 were identified in a 2009 article in the Middle East Quarterly cited by defence lawyer Patrick McCann, and only two took place in Canada.

And they differ from other types of domestic murders in two ways, Dr. Mojab said: A range of male relatives – fathers, sons, husbands, uncles – often take a role; and in some circles the phenomenon retains a certain acceptance among the killer's peers, who understand that the family's reputation hinges on the behaviour of its female members.

But among Middle Eastern expatriates in the West, including those of Afghan origin, by far the commonest perspective is one of "outrage," she said.

Story continues below advertisement

Earlier prosecution evidence has showed that the concept of family honour was precious to the three accused.

"Even if they hoist me up on the gallows, nothing is more dear to me than my honour," Mohammad Shafia is heard to say on a wiretap a few hours before the arrests. "Let's leave our destiny to God."

Nor did Mr. Shafia appear to have any regrets about events.

"Even if they come back to life a hundred times, if I have a cleaver in my hand, I will cut him/her to pieces," he said on another intercept, while Ms. Yahya opined that their daughters' behaviour had deteriorated after arriving in Canada.

"I am sure they were not like this there [in Dubai]" she said in reference to the daughters' reluctance to wear the hijab, the Muslim head scarf. "I didn't see them doing that."

Morality also seemed important to Hamed Shafia, the jury has heard.

"Traditions and customs are to be followed to the end of one's life," he wrote in a Montreal high school essay. "Most people forget their traditions once [they're]far from their country."

Emigrants who settle abroad sometimes display strong old-country values because they fail to evolve with the homeland culture, Dr. Mojab told the court on Monday, her years in academe reinforced by research in Kurdish Iraq and Turkey. "There can be a sense of 'frozen in the moment' culture."

It is not just young women's unsanctioned relationships that can bring retribution, she said. Disobedience, aspirations to work, attend school or to travel, the stated desire for a divorce – all such signs of independence can create the perception of familial disgrace.

And there can be an economic component too, she testified.

"If a man cannot control his household, he cannot be trusted in any other public matter, including economic relations."

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author

At The Globe and Mail since 1982, in assorted manifestations, chiefly crime reporter, foreign correspondent and member of the Editorial Board, Tim is now retired. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.