Mohammed Shafii, Tooba Mohammed Yahya, Mohammed Shafia
Mohammad Shafii and his wife Tooba Mohammed Yahya on July 3, 2009.  

Honor Killings in Canada Reignite Cultural Debate

July 28, 2009 09:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
On June 30, four women were found dead inside a car submerged in the Rideau Canal near Kingston, Ontario. Family members who mourned the deaths are now chief suspects.

Parents and Son Arrested for Murder

Police identified the bodies pulled from the canal as three sisters Zainab Shafii, 19, Sahari, 17, and Geeti, 13, and the first wife of their father, Rona Amir Mohammed, 50.

When police discovered the car and bodies, a seemingly grief-stricken Mohammed Shafii, the father of the girls, told police his eldest daughter, who did not know how to drive, had taken his car without permission, the National Post reported. He also initially told police that Mohammed was his cousin, only later did he admit that she was his wife.

Relatives and neighbors are now labeling the deaths “honor killings,” a term that originates from Islamic law or Sharia, where those who bring shame to a family are condemned to a fatal punishment. Police arrested Shafii, his second wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, and the girls’ brother, Hamid Mohammed Shafii, on July 23. 

The Shafii family immigrated to Canada from Afghanistan two years ago after living in Dubai for several years, reported United Press International. Wali Abdali, brother of the deceased Mohammed, told the Kingston Whig-Standard that Shafii had beaten his sister and refused to let her divorce him.

Abdali recalled a phone conversation with his brother-in-law where he said he was angry about the western clothes his daughters were wearing, and told him his sister had “gone very bad,” reported the UPI.

The eldest daughter Zainab’s relationship with a boy had also created tension between her and her father, reported the Toronto Star. She ran away for a few weeks, and also called Montreal’s child protection agency to the house on three occasions.

Police who will not comment on a motive, say that they can prove that the suspects were at the crime scene along with the family’s second car, reported the Post. All three suspects were charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder on July 23, and remain in jail. Yahya and Shafii’s other three children have been sent to Quebec’s youth protection service.

Background: Honor killings and Sharia law

In 2002, Hillary Mayell, a writer for the National Geographic, catalogued the supposed transgressions that have precipitated honor killings in the past: “Marital infidelity, pre-marital sex, flirting, or even failing to serve a meal on time.” In one case, a woman in Turkey was killed in the town center after a love song was dedicated to her on the radio, recalled Mayell.

Cinnamon Stillwell, a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, noted other offenses to family reputation under Islamic law: “refusing to wear a hijab (or headscarf), … rejecting arranged marriages, aggressively seeking employment and education, and, more than anything else, attempting to assimilate into Western culture.”

Stillwell recalled the death of two teenage sisters, Sarah and Amina Said, shot in Texas, allegedly by their Egyptian father, Yasser Abdel Said—whom police are still searching for. According to relatives, Said felt the girls were growing morally corrupt and did not want them to date non-Muslim boys.

In 2005, Ontario’s Premier Dalton McGuinty defeated a proposed law that would have allowed Sharia to govern divorce and child custody settlements in Muslim communities. After the ruling, McGuinty declared, “There will be no religious arbitration in Ontario. There will be one law for all Ontarians.” According to the BBC, which cited a 2001 census, there are over 600,000 Muslims in Canada.

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Opinion & Analysis: Honor Killings: What's religion got to do with it?

Tarek Fatah a writer for the National Post, political activist and TV host, says he’s fed up with the standard response from the Muslim community to incidents like these. When he brought up the murder of the Shafii sisters and their father’s first-wife on his radio show, one caller told him, “This has nothing to do with Islam.” Fatah disagrees.

According to Fatah, honor killings are responsible for 5,000 deaths in South Asia and the Middle East each year. And while the Koran does not directly support honor killings, Sharia law, which appears to be imbued with “divine status,” maintains that a woman can be killed if she has sex prior to marriage or outside of her marriage.

Fatah continued, “Honour killings take place because some Muslims have been convinced by their mullahs that the burden of their family’s honour and their religion is vested in the virginity of their daughters and sisters.” Vigilante acts will continue to occur as a means to right supposed wrongs to the family’s reputation until Islamic leaders change their message, said Fatah.

Widney Brown, an advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, told the National Geographic that the tradition of honor killing “goes across cultures and across religions.”

In India, instead of celebrating their weddings, approximately 5,000 women are killed each year because their dowries are deemed insufficient, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.

In Latin America, “crimes of passion” are ignored or given light punishments. “It’s a community mentality,” said Zaynab Nawaz, a program assistant for women’s human rights at Amnesty International told Mayell.

National Geographic writer Hillary Mayell argued that when women accept and even take part in incidents like these, it reinforces the belief that the violence is permissible within families and that women are truly the possession of their fathers and husbands.

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