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Flowers sit near the Kingston Mills locks on the Rideau Canal where three teenage sisters and their father's first wife died on June 30. It has been suggested that the women's death was an honour killing. ((Sunny Freeman/Canadian Press))

To some, the term "honour killing" muddies the issue of domestic abuse with religious connotations. For others, it's an important designation of a cultural phenomenon distinct from domestic violence.

Believed to have originated as a patriarchal tribal custom, so-called honour killings — killings aimed at restoring a family's or community's reputation — are today a worldwide problem. Though often associated with Muslim cultures, they also happen among Sikhs and Hindus.

A 2000 report by the United Nations Population Fund estimated as many as 5,000 women and girls are killed each year by relatives for dishonouring their family. Many of the cases involve the "dishonour" of having been raped.

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Mourners gather to remember Aqsa Parvez in Mississauga in 2007. The teen was found strangled in her family's Mississauga home, and her brother and father have been charged with first-degree murder. ((J.P. Moczulski/Canadian Press))

Though often linked to sexual issues such as adultery and premarital sex, the perceived "offences" that have prompted honour killings have come to include a woman's push for independence. 

Alleged honour killings in Canada

It's unknown how many cases of honour killings have happened in Canada, but the following is a selection of deaths reported as such:

Farah Khan, 5

Her father beat the Toronto girl to death and dismembered her in 1999 while her stepmother watched. The father is said to have killed the little girl because he believed she wasn't biologically his.

Jaswinder Kaur Sidhu, 25

The B.C.-born woman was found dead in 2000 after moving to India to live with her new husband, who was also beaten a day earlier. Her mother and uncle were among nine people charged in India with conspiracy to kill Sidhu.

Amandeep Atwal, 17

Her father was convicted in her stabbing death in 2003 in B.C. He apparently disapproved of her relationship with her high-school sweetheart, who was from a different ethnic group.

Khatera Sadiqi, 20

Sadiqi and her fiancé were shot to death in 2006 while parked in a car outside an Ottawa shopping plaza. Her brother was found guilty of murdering them. He told the court that he wanted his sister to respect their father.

Aqsa Parvez, 16

The teen was found strangled in her family's Mississauga home in 2007. Her brother and father have been charged with first-degree murder. Parvez's friends said she'd been having arguments with her father about wearing a traditional hijab.

The Shafia family

The Shafia sisters — Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, — were found dead in a submerged car in Kingston, Ont., on June 30, 2009, along with their father's first wife, Rona Mohammed, 50. The sisters' parents and 18-year-old brother have been charged with four counts of first-degree murder. Although police have not released an official motive for the killing, they have hinted at cultural undertones in the case and are investigating the possibility that the deaths were honour killings.

In Canada, the issue was most recently raised when police in Kingston, Ont., revealed that they are investigating the possibility that the deaths of three teenage girls and a woman found in a car submerged in a Rideau Canal lock were a case of honour killings. 

The parents and 18-year-old brother of the girls have been charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the deaths. The family had recently moved to Montreal after living in Dubai for 15 years but originally heralded from Afghanistan, the majority of whose population is Muslim.

At a press conference, Kingston police Chief Stephen Tanner acknowledged he'd received an email from a likely relative of the older victim claiming it was an honour killing. Though tight-lipped about a motive for the killings, he alluded to cultural undertones.

"These three teenagers were Canadian teenagers who have all the freedom and rights of expression of all Canadians," he said. "So, whether that was a part of a motive within the family based on one of the girls' or more of the girls' behaviour is open to a little bit of speculation."

Characteristics of an honour killing

Debate rages over whether honour killings are simply cases of domestic abuse by another name. Many Muslim groups say the term "honour killing" is a misnomer that stigmatizes their religion and are quick to denounce the label.

Writing in the spring edition of the U.S. policy journal Middle East Quarterly, American feminist writer Phyllis Chesler argues that honour killings are distinct from domestic violence. 

(The journal is published by Middle East Forum, the think tank of controversial U.S. scholar Daniel Pipes. The forum lists its mission as promoting American interests in the Middle East, which in its view include "fighting radical Islam.")

In her article, Chesler accuses law enforcement officials in the U.S. and Canada of too often mistakenly chalking deaths up to domestic violence when they are, in fact, the result of honour killings.

"The frequent argument made by Muslim advocacy organizations that honour killings have nothing to do with Islam and that it is discriminatory to differentiate between honour killings and domestic violence is wrong," said Chesler, a professor emerita of psychology and women's studies at the Richmond College of the City University of New York

She listed several distinctions between the two forms of violence:

  • Planning — Honour killings are planned in advance. The perpetrator's family may repeatedly threaten the victim with death if she dishonours her family. Domestic abuse cases tend to be spontaneous.
  • Family complicity — Domestic abuse cases rarely see more than one family member involved in the killing whereas honour killings can include multiple family members, even brothers and cousins.
  • Stigma — Where domestic abusers are often ostracized, perpetrators of honour killings don't face the same stigma.

Chesler says the idea of honour killing needs to be recognized by governments, police forces and Islamic organizations so society can begin to tackle the problem.

Obscuring real motives

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Mohammad Shafia, left, and his wife, Tooba Mohammad Yehya, have been charged, along with their 18-year-old son, with killing their three daughters and Shafia's first wife in Kingston, Ont. ((Peter McCabe/ Canadian Press))

Amin Muhammad, a psychiatry professor with Newfoundland's Memorial University who studies honour killings, agrees that the term needs to be acknowledged.

"I think everybody is scared of this term, but I think it is important to accept that this term is there," Muhammad told CBC Radio's The Current. "I would say, never dodge the difficulties: meet, greet and defeat."

He stresses, though, that the label can cause other complicating factors, such as financial issues and mental health troubles, that might play a role in a killing to be overlooked.

Others, though, would like the term obliterated.

"I get really distressed by the idea that a really terrible violence that has been done to girls and women is now getting framed as a kind of hate fest, something about Islam and Muslims," says Sherene Razack, professor of sociology and equity studies at University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Razack says the term also detracts from the real issue, which, in the end, simply boils down to violence against women.

With files from The Current