One of the hardest truths about domestic violence is that the chance of homicide spikes when a victim summons the courage to leave. That’s what happened to Elana Fric-Shamji, the Toronto doctor who was murdered by her husband of 12 years in 2016, just two days after she filed for divorce.
Intimate abuse is about control, and Mohammed Shamji made one last, fatal attempt to exert it. On Monday, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, which carries an automatic life sentence.
A woman is killed every 2.5 days in this country, and Dr. Fric-Shamji is one of 57 Canadian women murdered by their partners in 2016. She’s the only one whose violent spouse was a neurosurgeon, though, one who performed operations the day after dumping his wife’s body in the Humber River. And so she’s the only one whose death made a magazine cover, and drew a courtroom full of spectators.
Someone so highly regarded is rarely exposed as so horrific, but the spectacle around this particular spousal homicide also betrays a social stereotype. Stories littered with the words “brilliant" and “Yale University” display the instinct to see this wealthy family’s dysfunction as unusual, leaving intact the common framing of domestic violence as an offshoot of poverty, an unseemly bad habit to be ignored.
Colleagues of the victim, female doctors and other women expressed disgust on social media as this week’s headlines focused on the murderer’s credentials. Brighton, Ont., physician Michelle Cohen was one of many demanding that Dr. Fric-Shamji’s own accomplishments not be ignored.
“When you emphasize his career, you are saying that it’s shocking that a powerful man could be an abuser,” she wrote on Twitter. She later e-mailed me to say that she’s helped patients of “all socioeconomic levels" cope with violent partners. "Dr. Fric-Shamji is also not the only woman physician I know who was abused by a physician husband,” Dr. Cohen wrote.
Four years ago, when I wrote about the reverberating effects of Jian Ghomeshi’s career disintegration, I got a slew of e-mails from survivors of gendered violence. One woman said she once believed that domestic assault didn’t happen between “well-educated professional people” until, after more than a decade of marriage, it began to happen to her.
Her husband’s high income meant they could afford private school, like the Shamjis. Like Dr. Fric-Shamji, she took years to leave, reluctant to disrupt her child’s life. “The fallout would be a criminal record, and he would never work again in his profession,” she wrote, adding that the fear of losing his income once led her to beg police not to lay charges.
It’s a theme echoed in Big Little Lies, the Australian novel that became a hit HBO series. Nicole Kidman plays one of three women concealing dirty secrets, hers hidden in the huge, gorgeous house that she shares with her rich, gorgeous husband, who buys her jewellery to apologize for the bruises.
“There is a degree to which women in privileged positions feel compelled to hide what’s happening, particularly if their abuser is powerful or prominent,” said Dr. Cohen, some of whose patients have also expressed the need to protect their partner’s career.
Of course poverty makes the experience of violence worse. One of the 67 women in Canada killed by their partners in 2014 was Zahra Mohamoud Abdille, who lived in Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood. Like 67 per cent of spousal homicide victims in Ontario between 2003 and 2017, Ms. Abdille tried to leave, spending three weeks in a shelter with her two children.
She got an apartment and was fighting for custody, but rent was high and she couldn’t afford a lawyer. Rather than lose her kids, she went back to her husband. Soon, they were all dead.
Money does bring the ability to move more quietly, without involving police or social agencies. But even if wealthy victims usually don’t show up in statistics, they exist.
Dr. Fric-Shamji’s death isn’t notable because of her murderer’s past accomplishments. It’s notable because Canada has lost another daughter, another mother, one who also happened to be a successful family physician, university professor and emerging policy analyst.
Like the other 56 women killed by their partners in 2016, she was a person who was loved. And, like many of them, she had her life stolen just as she was trying to take it back.