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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Our daughters in peril Add to ...

She is a beautiful and vividly articulate 18-year-old who lives somewhere in Toronto. She ran away from home three years ago because she was afraid of her abusive father, who used to hit her and her sisters repeatedly. "I knew it was hard for my dad to change," she says. He is used to the way things work in Pakistan, where they lived till she was 10. She has a close friend who also fears her father. He has beaten her viciously, and has threatened many times to kill her.

Two and a half years ago, another Toronto-area teenager named Aqsa Parvez was strangled after her father allegedly threatened to kill her for ignoring his wishes. Her father and brother have been charged with her murder. When the second girl discussed this tragedy with her father, he told her, "You kind of girls and girls like her deserve whatever happened to her. "

The story of two friends is featured in a riveting new documentary called In the Name of the Family, which premiered this week at Hot Docs in Toronto. Its director, Shelley Saywell, is a gifted filmmaker whose work has been acclaimed around the world. Her specialty is venturing into places where others fear to tread - and she found this particular place right here in Canada, in high-rise apartment buildings and suburban homes. It is a world where the abuse of teenage girls is all too common, sometimes even fatal.

"This is a lot more prevalent in North America than I had thought," says Ms. Saywell, who, through her other work, is on familiar terms with the shame-and-honour culture that is often brutal to women.

Intense conflict between conservative immigrant fathers and their modern daughters is nothing new. But this kind of violence - often premeditated, and condoned by the community - is driven by a cultural belief that fathers ought to be able to control their daughters. Daughters who act immorally - by talking to boys, or going to the mall, or wearing immodest clothes - bring shame and humiliation onto their entire families. Whatever punishment they suffer is widely thought to be their fault.

"This is the dirty laundry of the community," says Ms. Saywell, who worked closely with female researchers from Canada's Pakistani and Afghan communities to make this film.

In the film, we see the first girl urging her friend to leave home for good. "Your dad is scary," she says. "One day, something really bad is going to happen, and he won't stop. What if he tries killing you, what are you going to do then? You can't leave your house, right?"

"No," the second girl says.

"So what are you going to do?"

"I don't know."

A few days later, the second girl picks up a cellphone message from her dad. " 'The way you are acting, God will never forgive you,' " she translates. " 'You are going to die in fire …' " She breaks off. "I can't listen to this."

After Aqsa Parvez was killed, Facebook was full of comments from girls who wrote, "That's my story. That could be me." The second girl also identifies with Aqsa. Her father once woke her up in the middle of the night and asked her - "but it was nicely - he asked me, 'You don't want to wear the hijab?' and I said no. And he asked me why and I told him that I don't feel ready. And then he asked me again, and I said no. Then he asked me a third time and I said no again, and then he just took a pillow and put it over my face … and he started suffocating me. I was holding my breath and I couldn't scream, and I was trying to scream. And everyone was sleeping. And then my sister finally came in the room and started crying and then my dad stopped. I went back to my room and I remember I did try telling my mom but he kept denying it and my mom believed him. And even today if I bring it up he denies it."

Girls like these have few good options. If they leave, they'll be estranged from their families and their community. They will lose their mothers, who virtually always side with their husbands. There are no safe houses, as there are in parts of Europe, where girls in danger from their families can stay until they're old enough to live on their own.

The film recounts the wrenching stories of Aqsa Parvez and other girls who were brutally, sometimes fatally, attacked. One young Afghan woman, Fauzia, describes how she was stabbed over and over by her brother. (In a parallel interview, her brother, now serving 10 years in prison, insists that if only she'd behaved herself, he wouldn't have done it.) But one of the most troubling scenes unfolds at Aqsa's community mosque in Mississauga. A group of high-school students, under the watchful eye of the imam, are discussing the impact of her death. They insist that Islam is a religion of peace, and complain that Muslims are once again being victimized by Islamophobia. "She shouldn't have done that," one girl says. Not a single one stands up for Aqsa.

Ms. Saywell was concerned that she too might be accused of Islamophobia. She was right. A short review in Now magazine (by a well-known local feminist) panned the film for being anti-Muslim. But Shahzrad Mojab, professor of women's studies and adult education at the University of Toronto, calls it a well-documented treatment of a subject that hasn't been taken seriously. Even though the stereotyping of Muslims is a serious problem, she says, timidity in the wider community has created a culture of silence around this issue. "We don't want to be seen as racist. We want to be nice," she says. "But then we ignore violence." As for Muslims, she says, "The community has to come forward and propose ways of dealing with these issues that can go beyond this film."

"I'm a woman, and their community is mine too," insists Ms. Saywell. "And we have to stand up for everyone in it. We can't allow the mainstream of society to isolate the problem, and we can't allow the community to isolate itself."

This week, the film was screened for several hundred high-school students at a local movie theatre. Ms. Saywell hopes it will be widely shown in schools. Prof. Mojab hopes it will be a wakeup call for teachers, counsellors, social workers, the media, police officers and the legal system.

The young women we meet in the film were extraordinarily brave to go on camera with their stories. Why did they do it?

"They want to be seen as strong, not victims," Ms. Saywell says. "And they want to help other girls. They want them to know that they've survived, and that there are ways out of this."

After the screening for students the other day, a girl came up to Ms. Saywell and told her she needed to talk. "This is my story too," she said. The two friends have already begun to make a difference.

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