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

Margaret Wente

The immigration debate we don't want to have Add to ...

After the sensational 2007 murder of Aqsa Parvez, the 16-year-old girl who disobeyed her traditional family, many Muslim girls in Canada discussed the story on Facebook. "That's my story too," some of them wrote.

This week, Aqsa's father and brother pleaded guilty to strangling her in the basement of their Mississauga home. Although such crimes are rare in Canada, the culture and belief system of the Parvez family are not. That is why this tragedy raises some extremely troubling questions. What happens when large groups of immigrants cling to values and beliefs that diverge so sharply from the mainstream? And can we still rely on the passage of time to smooth the differences away?

The Parvez family history is not uncommon. Aqsa's father and her oldest brother arrived in Canada in 1999 as refugees from Pakistan. In those days, it was easy to buy a ticket to Canada, claim refugee status at the airport and be accepted. The Parvez males came from a backward rural town with strict Islamic values and a culture of domestic violence. They brought these values with them. They also set off a wave of chain migration that continues to this day.

In 2001, Aqsa's father, Muhammad, brought over his wife, Anwar Jan, and their seven other children. Aqsa was the youngest. All the older children were eventually married off to first cousins back in Pakistan, in unions arranged by their father. All the spouses have emigrated to Canada. Thirteen people lived in Aqsa's house, including three sisters-in-law. Her father's rule was absolute. The women wore traditional dress. None went past high school and none worked outside the home. They were completely dependent on their husbands.

Aqsa didn't want to live like them. She wanted to wear Western clothes, go to the mall with her Western friends and get a part-time job. She left home many times, and had left again when she was intercepted by her brother, taken home and killed.

In rural Pakistan, and many other Muslim parts of the world, defiance of male power is as serious as defiance of Allah. Aqsa's father and brother both told people they were justified in killing Aqsa simply because she was embarrassing the family in front of the neighbours. "This is my insult," Muhammad told his wife. "My community will say you have not been able to control your daughter. She is making me naked." As Aqsa's mother explained to the police: "This is the way it's done in Pakistani culture. Either they kill the girl or turn her out of the house." Aqsa's older sister, Shasma, told police that Aqsa had disrespected both her father and her religion, and that whoever did this to her sister should not go to jail.

Aqsa's entire family was dedicated to resisting Western values, not adopting them. They were determined to cling to the ways of rural Pakistan. They believed that their community in Mississauga would understand what had been done. And they were right. At the local mosque, where kids of Aqsa's age attend Islamic class, the kids agreed that she'd largely brought it on herself. The imam did not disagree with them.

Decades ago, illiterate Italians also immigrated to Canada, bringing with them a harsh, patriarchal culture where religion dominated all. But they didn't marry cousins imported fresh from the old country. And so they began to raise their children differently.

In her new book, Nomad, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the brave critic of Islam, has a lot to say about families like Aqsa's. "Muslim women have to contend with much greater family control of their sexuality than women from other religious communities," she writes. "This, in my view, is the single biggest obstacle to the path of successful citizenship - not just for women, but also for the sons they rear and the men those sons become."

The "problem family," she warns, will become more and more common unless Western democracies understand better how to integrate the newcomers into our societies - and how to turn them into citizens.

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