Shafia murder trial casts shadow over Canada's Islamic community
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, January 30, 2012 11:50AM EST
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 7:18AM EDT
The Shafia murder trial has cast a shadow over Canada's Islamic community, further tarnishing an image that has not yet recovered from the events of 911.
Muslims across the country, however, say the revelations in a Kingston, Ont., courtroom have shone a light on problematic aspects of their culture and illuminated new ways to tackle the issues.
For months Muslims say they've recoiled in horror at testimony alleging three members of the Shafia family plotted the deaths of four others in what prosecutors describe as an attempt to restore family honour.
The crown alleged three teenage Shafia sisters were killed after bringing shame upon the family by dating, shunning traditional religious garb and skipping school. The fourth victim, the family patriarch's first wife in a polygamous marriage, allegedly endured years of abuse and feared for her life in the weeks before she died.
Justice Robert Maranger, who presided over the case, noted Sunday how difficult it is to conceive of a crime more "despicable," "heinous" and "honourless."
"The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your completely twisted concept of honour...that has absolutely no place in any civilized society."
Crown attorney Gerard Laarhuis suggested the verdict is a reflection of Canadian values and ultimately a rejection of those where freedom is denied.
"This verdict sends a very clear message about our Canadian values and the core principles in a free and democratic society that all Canadians enjoy and even visitors to Canada enjoy," he said.
Rona Ambrose, Canada's minister for status of women, took to Twitter to comment: #Shafia. Honour motivated violence is NOT culture, it is barbaric violence against women. Canada must never tolerate such misogyny as culture."
While many Muslims blanch at the term "honour killing," believing it to be a misrepresentation of the faith they practice, they say the deaths of the four Shafia women reveal the need to take a stronger stand against domestic violence in the community.
Days before Mohammad Shafia, his son Hamed and his wife Tooba Yahya were each found guilty of four counts of first-degree murder, one Ontario city launched a program meant to stop such slayings from taking place in the future.
The Family Honour Project, launched by the Muslim Resource Centre for Social Support and Integration in London, Ont., is an initiative specifically targeting the sort of violence that allegedly took place in the Shafia home.
Centre board member Saleha Khan said plans for the project were afoot long before the case came to trial, but said the story has given the initiative even more urgency.
Despite the fact that honour-based violence occurs in many different cultures besides Islam, the stereotypes revived by coverage of the Shafia trial could further isolate Muslim women, she said.
"It's really turned into an us vs. them," Khan said in a telephone interview. "It's basically created that kind of divide where...now, because of the kind of savagery that's been painted on that, people who possibly would be victimized won't come forward."
The program aspires to end honour-based violence by providing culturally tailored support for the victims and changing the behaviours of the perpetrators. The local initiative forms part of a broader call to action that went out coast to coast late last year.
Islamic religious leaders banded together last December to denounce honour killings from the country's mosques and educate Muslims about the call for gender equality at the heart of their faith.
Syed Soharwardy, a Calgary-based imam who founded the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, said the Shafia case galvanized the community to address uncomfortable issues that too often get swept under the carpet.
Despite the fact that "honour killings" are explicitly condemned in the Qur'an, Soharwardy said such values sometimes take root in remote regions of Muslim countries where education is limited and scriptural doctrine is misinterpreted.
Imams were forced to speak out not only to protect their female followers from harm at home but to defend their religion from unjust vilification in the rest of Canada, he said.
The actions of one misguided family single-handedly revived stereotypes of violence and intolerance that have dogged the community since 911, he said.
"(Domestic violence) is not an epidemic. Once in a while we come across this," he said. "It puts a bad name in Islam, it creates a very negative image of Muslims, and it provides opportunities to Islamophobes to reignite hate against Muslims and badmouth our religion."
Community-based efforts, such as those launched by the imams, are the only effective way to combat honour-related crimes, according to one sociologist.
Aysan Sev'er, a professor at the University of Toronto specializing in the study of violence against women, said crimes involving a family's reputation must be treated differently from more conventional slayings.
Honour-based violence is communal in nature, she said, since it involves deep-rooted social traditions and extensive collaboration with others.
"There's a community component both in terms of putting pressure on the people and later on trying to justify, whitewash it, reduce the severity and so on," she said.
Experts agree the issues raised in the Shafia case have touched off dialogues that could have long-term benefits for the Muslim community.
Soharwardy said the trial's silver lining has come through conversations with women and youth that may once have been taboo.
"It motivates me to reach out to youth and women and those who are oppressed in their home," he said. "It gives you hope as well that after such tragedies, people do learn some lessons."