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Sheema Khan

The shame of honour crimes Add to ...

Between 2001 and 2004, Haideh Moghissi, Saeed Rahnema and Mark J. Goodman of York University conducted an extensive study of about 2,000 immigrants to Canada from Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories and Jordan.

Not surprisingly, immigrants experienced a clash of cultures, including tension between individual rights and community loyalty. Another key area was gender equality: Immigrants believed women had more independence and rights in Canada than in their country of origin. Female immigrants believed this to be a good thing; the men weren't so sure. Unsurprisingly, gender equity was found to be a primary source of tension between spouses. The study did not probe the cultural schizophrenia experienced by immigrant youths, or how families retained cohesiveness in the face of these tensions. This analysis is essential, given the recent murders of young women by family members for pursuing individual choices contrary to tradition.

Between 2006 and 2009, at least three women have been killed in Ontario for breaching family "honour." Recently, a Montreal-area Afghan-Canadian woman was charged with attempted murder of her 19-year-old daughter, apparently after she came home late. While these unproven allegations are shocking, more so are the roles alleged to have been played by victims' brothers.

In 2006, Khatera Sadiqi, 20, and fiancé Feroz Mangal, 23 were shot to death in Ottawa by Ms. Sadiqi's brother. Ms. Sadiqi's father did not approve of her fiancé; brother Hasibullah sought to "restore" the Afghan family's honour by killing her. He received a life prison sentence.

In 2007, 16-year-old Aqsa Parvez's brother and father murdered her in their Mississauga home for allegedly "shaming" the Pakistani family with her preference for Western norms. Family members told police that retribution was the price to pay for violating cultural and religious boundaries. Each man received a life prison sentence.

In one other case that has yet to go to trial, so none of the allegations are proven, Zainab Shafia, 19, her sisters Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, and their father's first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 50, were found dead in a car submerged in the Rideau Canal. The parents and brother of the girls were charged with first-degree murder. Police hinted they believe "honour" was the motive.

Misogyny over gender equality, tribalism over individuality, control over freedom. One would think that the younger generation would shed old customs in favour of new ones. But according to University of Toronto professor Shahrzad Mojab (who served as an expert witness on honour killing at Hasibullah Sadiqi's trial), members of diaspora communities tend to cling to their traditions tenaciously in order to preserve a distinct identity. In cultures where control of women represents male control over the family, an individualistic female "tarnishes" a male's reputation and "shames" the family in the eyes of the community. Honour is "purified" by killing the source of shame.

Combined with the York University study, this analysis makes it seem that Canada's spate of honour crimes may continue. Cultural tensions, male domination and instant social messaging are ingredients for disaster. Indiscretions can be instantly broadcast to the world, leaving young women vulnerable to retribution.

We must act quickly before more blood is shed. These barbaric acts should be clearly designated as honour crimes, making it clear that such customs are unwelcome and will be severely punished. There should be wide publication of the long prison sentences recently meted out.

Community leaders must unequivocally condemn imported misogynous practices and attitudes. They should deal with the root causes of gender-based violence head on, rather than blaming the media for image problems. It's time for a critical examination of violence rooted in religious and cultural tradition.

A comprehensive effort must be made to reach vulnerable families in communities that value family "honour" above all else. This must include social programs directed to violence-prone males, such as the Cease Fire program in Chicago, which has successfully reversed gang violence. Its basic elements could be adopted to help prevent gender-based violence. The program uses a public health approach to address at-risk communities and individuals by using street-level outreach, public education, community organizations, faith leaders and the police to change community norms.

Women are dead as a result of breaching family honour. Who knows how many live under the threat of violence? It's time to take off the gloves of political correctness and stop the importation of this murderous custom.

Hasibullah Sadiqi received a life prison sentence. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version.

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