ANALYSIS | Ethnic communities questioning 'honour' crimes

The ongoing Shafia murder trial, involving the death of four female members of an Afghan family, has prompted a re-examination of the obsession with honour that exists in a number of ethnic and religious communities in Canada, writes CBC News correspondent Nahlah Ayed.
A Pakistani woman holds a placard during a protest against honour killing in Multan on Oct. 27, 2004. Pakistan passed a bill making the death penalty the maximum punishment for those convicted of killing a person in the name of family honour, but so-called honour killings still go on not just in Pakistan but in some religious and ethnic communities in Canada as well. (Asim Tanvir MK/LA/Reuters)

If Aisha's father had his way, she would have been married long before she was 18 and well on her way to having children of her own.

But Aisha rebelled and walked away from a marriage arranged by her family. By doing so she "shamed" them, and she earned a death sentence that may never expire.

"Going back home would be the end of me," she said in an interview. "I know his threat; he can't control his anger. I know he hasn't forgotten, and he would take action.

"He told my mom if he ever finds me or finds out where I am, he will kill me."

(Aisha is an assumed name. To protect Aisha's real identity, we are also withholding information on her age, country of origin and current whereabouts.)

Beatings, forced marriage

Aisha's nightmare began in Canada at the start of her teenage years. As she began going out with friends, and dating, her father became violent, beating her up, sometimes badly, for breaking his rules.

Later, while in the family's country of origin, the control became even tighter: Aisha was locked up in the family house, her passport taken away, her phone rights restricted. She was prohibited from going to school and forced to get engaged to a relative.

Social workers say her story is not unique in Canada, where a growing clash over honour is pitting parents who adhere to traditional cultural or religious practices against daughters raised in this country.

"Honour killing" is just one tragically dark manifestation of an obsession with honour that exists within a number of religious and ethnic communities. Experts on honour killings, such as Amin Muhammed from Memorial University in St. John's, say the phenomenon is distinct from domestic violence because it is often planned well in advance and involves more than one family member and the victim, who is, in most cases, a young woman believed to have strayed from family, cultural or religious codes.

Raheel Raza is an outspoken activist who has long been advocating equality between the sexes in Islam. She is pictured in her Mississauga, Ont., home in February 2006. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

(Let's dispense with the argument over the semantics right here: I think we can all agree there is nothing honourable about so-called honour killings, but it is the problem itself, not the correctness of the term describing it, that is at issue in this article.)

Social workers and activists say countless women in several religious and ethnic communities here are also victims of honour-related violence and restrictions that, while many shades removed from murder, are also about control of women and their behaviour.

"[It's] young women being forced into marriage, young women being told they can't go out, young women being told that they must follow the tradition of the family, whether it's right or wrong, young women being told that the West is going to corrupt them," says longtime women's activist Raheel Raza.

"There are cultures in which the honour of the woman is constantly held up for the public, and everything depends on that. Many of them are terrified. They are afraid of speaking out."

Shafia trial highlights issues at stake

The ongoing Shafia trial, in which a father, mother and son, originally from Afghanistan, are accused of killing four female family members, is forcing communities to re-examine and discuss honour killings and other crimes committed in the name honour.

An artist's drawing shows Rajinder Atwal in the prisoner's box as Justice Catherine Wedge sentences him for the second-degree murder of his daughter, Amandeep, in Vancouver on June 22, 2005. Amandeep was 17 in July 2003 when her father decided to end her life after discovering she had been having a secret relationship with a schoolmate. (Jane Wolsack/Canadian Press)

On Dec. 9, dozens of imams delivered a Friday sermon denouncing honour killings as un-Islamic.

"There is no honour in any form of violence or any form of killing," Imam Yusuf Badat said at the Islamic Foundation mosque in Scarborough.

He ended his speech by encouraging women at risk to seek help.

His was a message as much about defending a religion often fingered in honour-killing cases as it was about educating Muslims themselves.

"There are many people in our communities who are not educated with the relevant proper understanding," he said in an interview afterward. "So, our job as imams and leaders is to educate and give the proper perspective … so our communities can be educated."

Some community activists have been going even further.

'To what extent are we going to allow cultural practices that diminish someone else's liberty?'— Baldev Mutta, Mississauga Punjabi Community Health Centre

For many years, Baldev Mutta of the Punjabi Community Health Centre in Mississauga has given courses that help men in the community deal simultaneously with issues of addiction and family violence. When it comes to treatment of girls and women in the community, he is blunt about the need for change.

"To what extent are we going to allow cultural practices that diminish someone else's liberty?" he asks. "If you do not hold the democratic principles of democracy as core in your heart, then this is not a country for you. You stay where you are. Do not come here, then oppress someone and justify that oppression by your culture."

Justice officials look to improve prosecution of honour cases

Several of the social workers and activists CBC spoke to say that the onus to act is on the government as much as it is on the communities in question.

The federal government commissioned a study on honour-related violence in Canada whose findings were released to the government in October 2010. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department said the impetus behind the study was to improve the justice system's ability to "prevent, investigate and prosecute" such cases but would not say whether any legislative changes were coming in the near future.

Others insist that the government must change its attitude toward ethnic and religious communities and stop being so afraid of offending them. Homa Arjoman, a social worker and advocate against honour killing, is especially vocal on that front.

"It's wrong to be sensitive towards a tradition which belongs to the seventh century," she says. "Don't be sensitive towards their traditions, don't be sensitive towards their culture, who cares about all these things. Consider a child a child. A woman a woman. A man a man, and that's it."

Honour killings are on the rise in the West, and given recent immigration trends, experts say Canada is not immune. Activists are concerned there are too few services for women and girls at risk here, and police, teachers and doctors must be trained to see signs of their distress so they can act to protect them before clashes turn bloody.

"Many Canadians consider this the problem of 'the other'," says Raza. "I find that very troubling, because unless we accept this as a Canadian problem … we're not going to be able to handle it.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.