"You have each been convicted of the planned and deliberate murder of four members of your family. The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your twisted notion of honor, a notion of honor that is founded upon the domination and control of women, a sick notion of honor that has absolutely no place in any civilized society." Ontario Judge Robert Maranger, delivering the verdict in the Shafia murder case.
On Sunday, January 29, 2012, the Ontario Superior Court imposed mandatory sentences of life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years, on Mohammad Shafia, 58, his younger, second wife Tooba Yahya, 42, and their son Hamed Shafia, 21. The polygamous Shafia family had come to Canada from Afghanistan. The accused had strong defence lawyers; and the jury deliberated for 15 hours before coming to a unanimous verdict.
The trio were all found guilty of four counts of first-degree murder. Canada does not impose death sentences and will not extradite people within its borders to jurisdictions that order capital punishment.
The story of this crime began in 2009. Three sisters – Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13 – and Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, the older and childless first wife of Mohammad Shafia, were found dead in a black Nissan Sentra at the bottom of the Rideau Canal at Kingston Mills, Canada. The court determined that they had been drowned, then placed in the vehicle, which was pushed into the canal.
The Shafia case elicited what seemed to me an inappropriate – and un-Islamic – reaction among Canadian Muslims. Debate focused on whether the crime was a so-called "honor" murder, rather than the unspeakable suffering and deaths of the victims.
Some Muslims shied away from the spectre of so-called "honor" murder, seeking to downgrade the slaying of four innocents to problem of "teenage adjustment" or an example of "domestic violence."
Let us be clear. Domestic violence is abominable, and so-called "honor" murders are the most dreadful form of domestic violence. Neither should be permitted in any society or within Islam.
Few Canadian Muslims addressed any means to protect Muslim women from such a fate. The main defendant, the "patriarch" of the family, repeatedly cited "honor" as an obsession – which he shares with many Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kurdistan, Saudi Arabia, and other Islamic countries.
To some, it seemed as if the alleged "honor" of the main killer was more valuable than the denial of honor to the victims. Perhaps "dignity" is a more accurate concept than "honor:" the four dead were unarguably denied the right to, and dignity of, a peaceful life and death. The three girls and the first wife were dishonored by being murdered; not the homicidal, fanatical father. That is how a normal and sane Muslim should view this case.
Mohammad Shafia declared, "This is my word to you: Be I dead or alive, nothing in the world is above your honor... I am telling you now and I was telling you before that whoever play(s) with my honor, my words are the same... There is no value of life without honor."
The Qur'an, the Islamic scripture, follows explicitly the judgment of Jewish law by stating, in verse (aya) 5:32, that God "dictated to the House of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless in retaliation for a killing or corruption of the people – it is as if the murderer had killed all of humanity. And whoever saves one from death – it is as if the person saved all of humanity."
So-called "honor" murders, as in the Afghan and Kurdish Sunni Muslim cultures, appear to predate Islamization. But Muslim clerics have failed in their religious duty to prevent them. This raises serious questions about the value of a Muslim woman's life in such an environment.
Domestic violence, often culminating in so-called "honor" murders, is not limited to the Muslim communities of the world. In Britain and the U.S. the perpetrators of some would deem a variety of "crimes of passion" include every ethnic group in society.
Among Muslims and Hindus living in the West, so-called "honor" murders typically involve "punishment" of young women for refusing to conform to retrograde customs, rules, and oversight. In the Shafia case, the Afghan father considered his daughters "too Westernized."
Other cases involve independence of thought and action by those who are then slain, or disapproved gender mixing, leading to ostracism, hysteria by parents, and bloodshed.
Men from Afghanistan and other Muslim countries are convinced they are guardians of women's virtue, and are obliged to control their wives, daughters, and even their mothers to enforce the "code of honor."
In another cultural stream marked by social pathology, members of youth gangs increasingly kill rivals or uninvolved bystanders because they feel "disrespected." The psychology is identical: both the so-called "honor" murderer and the gang member deserve no respect from the rest of society, especially not from people of religion.
Muslim women caught in this paradigm of stagnant pseudo-morality may first be warned, then attacked, with acid thrown in their faces or other mutilations, before they are finally battered to death. This twisted sense of "honor" may induce family members to conspire, as in the Shafia case, to commit these crimes, because "honor" is defined by group responsibility rather than individual worth.
In some countries, so-called "honor" murders are not stigmatized. The perpetrators are acclaimed as heroes.
According to a United Nations report, 4,000 women were killed in Pakistan in the name of honor between 1998 and 2003. In a study of female deaths in Alexandria, Egypt, 47% of the women were killed by a relative after the woman had been raped. In Jordan and Lebanon, 70 to 75% of the perpetrators of so-called "honor murders" are the women's brothers. Further, part of Article 340 of the Royal Jordanian Penal Code states, "he who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds, or injures one of them, is exempted from any penalty."
Paradoxically, for too many decades, even centuries, the concept of the "crime of passion," as well as the original doctrine of "temporary insanity" or "diminished responsibility" functioned similarly in Western law to protect the murderers.
Muslims need to find positive ways to deal with this blot on our faith. Communities must educate male leaders about respecting equal rights for women within the religion as well as obeying the guarantees in the constitutions of many countries.
Immigrants must be informed of the legal requirements of a responsible newcomer to a country that seeks to protect women and children. Traditionally, prospective Muslim emigrants to non-Muslim lands were warned, in the words of Muhammad himself, that a Muslim in a non-Muslim country must obey the laws and customs of the country to which the Muslim moves, or return to a Muslim country.
But women – Muslim women – must first take the initiative in defending their right to personal security. In many countries of the world the law provides means to do so. Elsewhere the struggle for legal protection as well as social enlightenment has just begun.
We must hope that the verdict in the Shafia trial will contribute to clearer understanding of the nature of so-called "honor" murders.
Raheel Raza is author of "Their Jihad – Not My Jihad" and a women's rights activist living in Toronto. This piece was commissioned by the Center for Islamic Pluralism.