The Shafia family honor killings in Kingston, Ontario are yet another instance of cultural conservativeness taken to the extreme, with tragic outcomes. The killings also showcase a less acknowledged fact: Fanatic adherence to tradition has a tendency to amplify within immigrant families, often as a defense tactic in a struggle to maintain cultural ties to the societies they have left behind.
Being far from home arguably increases immigrant individuals’ need to assert that they have not assimilated to the culture they have immigrated into, that they have not forgotten their cultural roots despite being displaced from their origins.
Arguably, this defense strategy remains largely unsuccessful, creating generational rifts and increasing conflict within the family structure. Younger family members, especially women, find themselves caught between cultural traditions prevalent in the (Western) society they themselves know and have grown up in, and those conservative and often repressive values imposed and staunchly upheld by their immigrant families.
The Kingston honor killings are an extreme example of the cultural tensions within immigrant families. Mohammed Shafia’s three daughters—Zainab (19), Sahar (17) and Geeti (13), as well as his first wife Rona Amir Mohammad ,were found dead on June 30, 2009 in a Nissan submerged in the canal outside Kingston. Police later concluded that the family’s Lexus SUV had been used to push the Nissan into the canal.
In the trial that ensued, 59-year-old Mohammad Shafia, his 41-year-old second wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya, and their 20 year old and eldest son Hamed were charged with four counts of first-degree murder.
In their trial, culture barriers played an exceptionally significant role; the idea of honor killings is not only a foreign one, but also one that lacks global attention and awareness. In light of this, prosecution summoned Shahrzad Mojab as its final witness, to provide a cultural background for the trial.
Crown attorney Gerard Larrhuis found Mojab to be qualified “to give expert evidence on the culture, religion, patriarchy and violence against women in the Middle East,” as she has contributed to academic writing on the subject and has also advocated for women’s rights in these patriarchal societies. Mojab is herself of Middle Eastern descent.
Mojab gave the jury an explanation of the cultural logic behind honor killings stating that “a woman’s body is considered to be the repository of family honor… Honor crimes are acts of violence committed by male family members against female family members who are held to have brought dishonor onto the family.”
She added that in some cultures, family honor is prized more highly than life, as a means of “cleansing” a family from disgrace, since honor is thought to reside within the female body.
Although the Shafia’s defense lawyer Peter Kemp emphasized Mojab’s background as being feminist and thereby framed her explanation as biased, Mojab’s analysis is clearly relevant to understanding the killings.
The murdered women had attempted to break with their parents’ restrictive traditions by exerting varying degrees of independence in their daily lives. If they did not concretely break with their family’s values, they certainly challenged them. It was this opposition that Shafia found as “dishonoring” their family. Shafia further believed his daughters were “promiscuous” and “treacherous” for disconnecting from their parents’ religious and cultural subscriptions.
What exactly did the girls do, though?
Zainab exercised her agency by choosing her own husband, a Pakistani man who Shafia found to be unsuitable. It is unclear whether this judgment was based on the man’s different nationality or because Zainab refused to adhere to the Afghan tradition of arranged marriages. Often in this patriarchal culture a man is allowed to choose whom he marries, but a girl cannot: her family makes this decision for her.
The second daughter, Sahar, “dishonored” the family because she had a boyfriend. Being 17, and interacting daily with her Canadian friends who probably were also dating at that age, her relationship—which was completely acceptable and even encouraged in Canadian society—did not accord with the Shafia family’s severe social conservatism.
The youngest, Geeti, was “treacherous” because she shoplifted. Again, such petty crimes are arguably rebellious angst-ridden acts, not uncommon among adolescents of her age.
All three girls regularly dressed in conventional Western attire, which Shafia thought to be provocative, and evidence of the girls’ “promiscuity.”
Rona, Shafia’s first wife, reportedly lived a conventional Afghan life, allowing her husband full control over the family and its affairs. Unable to conceive a child, she urged Shafia to take a second wife, Tooba. This move subsequently led to Rona occupying an insignificant role within the family.
Rona’s death in this context seems unwarranted: She seems to have followed her husband’s wishes and indeed put his desires and needs before her own.
Shafia’s intensive focus on culture and tradition is evident in an earlier high-school essay by him, in which he writes “traditions and customs are to be followed to the end of one’s life, most people forget their traditions once [they are] far from their country.”
It is this notion of preserving one’s own cultural traditions that has the potential to end in tragedy. While honor killings are relatively rare in Western countries, UN reports have depicted such deaths on the rise in Middle Eastern countries.
Arguably, it is human nature to act in accordance with the cultural norm, if not to fully assimilate, then to at least be some part of the culture where one resides. Failing to do so carries social sanctions, most significantly being relegated to the periphery of society, a lonely spot.
The Shafia girls were teenagers just starting to construct their identities among their peers, within a Western society that their parents chose to have them grow up in. And it was that, a choice. This realization makes their deaths punishments for having merely acted in accordance with the culture they grew up in.
It is superfluous to state that honor killings are ruthless and inhumane, but there is a clear need for increased awareness of this phenomenon in Western societies. Perhaps the Kingston honor killings will help further social education with regards to these crimes.
In a country as multi-cultural as Canada, casting honor killings as an inherent part of Islamic, or Afghani society is not desirable, nor in any case would such a stereotype be correct. Increased monitoring and understanding of cultural differences and areas of potential violence will be a step toward preventing further deaths of this nature.