A young muslim journalist discovers that when it comes to the coverage of honour killings in Canada, truth is often the first casualty
It’s May 2012, and I’m visiting my grandparents in Karachi, Pakistan. Though it’s spring, the city has been hit with a heat wave. Luckily, there haven’t been any power outages in the past few hours; my hair is off my neck in a loose bun at the top of my head, and I can feel the light breeze from a ceiling fan. Still, my thin cotton clothes stick to my skin. My mother and I are seated with my grandparents at the dining room table that has served my family for four decades. It’s covered in a blue batik cloth, stained with age but freshly starched.
My grandmother calls in a boy in his late teens to clear our plates and bring the dessert. It’s his first day working at my grandparents’ house, and as he walks to the wooden cabinet cluttered with antique dishes to retrieve ice cream bowls, a memory comes to mind from a time when I was nine years old. I was being taught how to play cricket in the front yard by a different boy, Shahbaz, who worked for my grandparents at the time. I ask my grandmother what happened to him, while serving myself some of my grandfather’s homemade vanilla ice cream. It takes her a few moments to place the name, but then she remembers and tells me, bluntly, that he had slept with the girl who worked in the house across the street and gotten her pregnant. Shahbaz skipped town without saying goodbye, and the girl was swiftly taken to have a secret abortion. My mother and I stare at my grandmother in shock. In Pakistan, premarital sex is a crime punishable by prison time, and abortions are illegal, except to save a woman’s life. I ask why the neighbours didn’t send the girl home after she had been abandoned, so that she could make a decision about the pregnancy with her family. My grandmother says that was out of the question, as it would have ruined the girl’s reputation and, consequently, her family’s honour. “If the neighbours had sent her back to her village unmarried and pregnant,” she says, “who knows what her family would have done with her.”
Though my family is originally from Pakistan—where, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, almost 1,000 women were victims of honour killings in 2011, the highest rate in the world—I’ve never lived there. I was born in New York and raised in the States until I was 14 years old. We moved from California to Dubai, and since relocating to the United Arab Emirates, I’ve made regular trips to Karachi. In 2009, I started studying journalism in Canada, a country that, in recent years, has also seen honour-based crimes—crimes that take place due to the view that women must remain chaste before marriage and obedient to the men, mostly fathers and husbands, who control their lives. If females in the family stray from these restrictions, they suffer the consequences.
When I first came to Canada, I noticed a general Muslim mistrust of the media. My observation was reinforced after I spoke to academics within the Muslim community about the coverage of the Aqsa Parvez murder and, later, the Shafia massacre. As a journalist-in-training, I’ve learned that reporting the facts is a priority—sensitivity less so. But as a Pakistani and a Muslim, I can’t bear seeing my culture and religion take the blame for the sadistic insanity that leads to murder for the sake of honour. “Shafia trial a wake-up call for Canadian Muslims,” claimed a headline in The Globe and Mail. “Dad charged after daughter killed in clash over hijab,” I read in the National Post. “Clash between traditional values, modern culture may be behind teen’s death,” reported CBC.ca. All of a sudden, I was part of an “honour culture,” in the words of The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente, and my first reaction was irritation. Irritation that educated journalists seemed to take the easy, simplistic route to reporting, framing the tragedies as a clash of cultures, thereby provoking culture smearing and stereotyping. Though their writings are laden with sympathy for the victims of honour killings, in between the lines lies a more sinister tone, one that insists honour killings are cultural practices and challenges what I see as a trademark of Canadian society—multiculturalism. Seeing these headlines and reading the stories raised some complicated questions. What was it about the coverage of the two cases that instigated an outcry from members of the Muslim community? How would the writers defend their work? And, overall, was the coverage fair?
In January 2012, Québec residents Mohammad Shafia, his second wife, Tooba, and their son Hamed, then 20, were found guilty of four counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to prison for 25 years for killing the couple’s three daughters and Mohammad’s first wife, who were found dead in a car submerged in the Kingston Mills Locks on June 30, 2009. The month before she died, Zainab, 19, had married her boyfriend, but the marriage was annulled because her father didn’t approve of a Pakistani son-in-law joining their Afghan family, and had only agreed to the marriage to draw Zainab home from the women’s shelter she had run to. Sahar, 17, had a boyfriend from Honduras, and her brother Hamed had found photographs of her posing in a bikini. Geeti, 13, regularly stayed out past her curfew, had been caught shoplifting and earned bad grades at school. The eldest victim, 50-year-old Rona Amir Mohammad, had been deemed useless by her husband because she was infertile, and had been treated like a servant for years by him and his second wife. After the four bodies were found, police noticed signs of foul play. They wiretapped Mohammad Shafia’s minivan, and in a conversation with Tooba and Hamed, he was recorded referring to his dead daughters as “treacherous” and “whores.” Unfortunately, the horrifying mass slaughter was not the first honour killing case to take place in Canada’s Muslim community.
Two years prior to the Shafia murders, another young woman lost her life. Aqsa Parvez was a 16-year-old student in Mississauga, Ont., who was having a difficult time following her conservative family’s rules. In many Muslim households, daughters are not permitted to date, wear revealing clothing or lead completely independent lives, and in Aqsa’s family, wearing the hijab was compulsory. She ran away from home twice, living in youth shelters and spending nights at friends’ houses.
On December 10, 2007, Aqsa was found in her bedroom, strangled. Her brother and father, Waqas and Muhammad Parvez, both pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and were sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 18 years.
The facts seem straightforward. But according to many critics, they were manipulated to support a more complicated plot, one that intertwines the Muslim community with stereotypes of violence and oppression. I speak to a variety of feminists and academics who voice similar frustrations with how the Parvez and Shafia stories were told. Undue emphasis was placed on Islam and South Asian principles of honour, they say, causing honour killing to be written off as an issue associated with the religion and inherent to the culture. They also claim there are important details of the cases that were overlooked and unreported by the media, because they didn’t fit the mainstream storyline—one that places tolerant Canada on one side and dangerous Muslims on the other, according to Eve Haque, associate professor in linguistics at York University.
Haque believes that the hijab is an icon that is repeatedly used to manipulate this narrative. Shahnaz Khan, professor of women and gender studies, and global studies at Wilfred Laurier University, agrees. “[The media] is obsessed with it,” she says. In most of the stories that emerged from the slaying of Aqsa Parvez, journalists wrote that her rejection of the head scarf was the cause of her death. “I’ll never forget the cover headline in theToronto Sun that in giant letters read ‘HIJAB TEEN,’” says Haque. “They just leached the personhood out of it—this young woman becomes defined by what is on her head.” Though Aqsa’s refusal to wear the head scarf added fuel to her father’s fury, it wasn’t the sole reason for her murder, argues Richelle Wiseman, former executive director of the Centre for Faith and the Media in Calgary. “It was only a tiny piece of the whole thing. The fact that she ran away from home was much more of a provocation to her father, and a bigger deal in the long run than the hijab,” she says. Court documents reveal that prior to running away from home, Aqsa was fighting with her father because she wanted to get a part-time job. This detail, however, didn’t make it to any newspaper headlines.
Muhammad Parvez may have forced his daughter to wear the hijab because he believed his religion decreed it compulsory. But most Muslim community members agree that his decision to take her life was by no means Islamic, and they fear readers and viewers will walk away from the news believing that honour crimes are permissible in the religion. In coverage of the Shafia trial, “Muslim” was used as a loose and convenient identifier, since the family wasn’t religious, points out Sheema Khan, the author of the book Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman. She followed the trial closely and wrote about it for The Globe and Mail. “[The Shafias] didn’t even know where the mosque was. Their allegiance to Islam was pretty minimal,” she says. Nor did Mohammad Shafia want his children fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, because he thought it would stunt their growth. Though honour killings have also taken place in Canada’s Sikh and Hindu communities, the Shafia murders were portrayed in a more racist manner because the family was Muslim and Afghan, says Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW). She emphasizes that the Shafia victims were all Canadian residents and that social service agencies and the police knew about their unhappy home situation, since phone calls from the girls and their schools had put up red flags, but treated the case differently because they didn’t know how to deal with the culture. Yet this fact didn’t generate much concern in mainstream reports.
Social services may have kept their distance from the victims’ family life because their culture seemed foreign, but many members of the Toronto Muslim community believe that culture had nothing to do with it. One woman, who requests anonymity, tells me that neither the Shafias nor Parvez died because of their cultures, but because of power struggles with men. “These men exercised that power ultimately in a deadly way, using culture as a crutch to lean on,” she says. After reading stories about the murder of Aqsa Parvez in the news, she wrote a blog post about why culture cannot be blamed for honour killings. Her first sentence reads: “Aqsa Parvez is a Canadian tragedy—not an immigrant tragedy, or a Pakistani tragedy, or indeed a Muslim tragedy.” She goes on to list similarities between herself and Mohammad Parvez. They were both born in Pakistan, both relocated to Canada, and both raised to value honour. What makes them different, she tells me, is their interpretations of honour. “While I understood culture and honour to mean respect your women and to never lay a hand on them, which is what my father taught us, [Parvez’s] understanding of culture meant that he could kill his daughter,” she says. Her own understanding of culture, she believes, allows her to fit into Canadian society perfectly.
Women’s rights and gender equality are embedded in the ethos of the contemporary Western world, and although women in Canada are supposedly treated with respect, much of the coverage of the Aqsa Parvez and Shafia murders was controversial in that it disrespected the victims by prying into their personal lives. Photos of Aqsa Parvez posing in front of her bathroom mirror were taken from her Facebook profile, while pouty images of the Shafia sisters were acquired from their mobile phones, fished out of the Kingston Mills Locks, and used as evidence to support the clash-of-civilizations narrative, explains Haque. A particularly outrageous example was the 2008 Toronto Life cover with an illustration of Aqsa from the neck up, head provocatively cocked to one side, lips pursed, with no clothing visible except for one skinny strap. “I think they could have chosen a photograph that’s more respectful to the dead,” says Farrah Khan, a counsellor at the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic in downtown Toronto and a founder of AQSAzine, a publication created for and by young Muslim women in the community soon after Aqsa’s death. Khan points out that a year later, Toronto Life published an article about a white murder victim, Stefanie Rengel, who was killed by her ex-boyfriend. “Inside the issue, the only image of Stefanie is this pencil drawing of her looking angelic,” she says.
When my grandmother first tells me the story of the servant girl in Karachi, I’m disturbed. I excuse myself from the table and sit upstairs in my room, envisioning her alone in an unsanitary clinic with no family or friends there for support. I had always thought close relationships, especially those between children and parents, to be a hallmark of my culture. Framed photographs of my own family hang on the walls around me. I see my dad outside his college campus in London, my uncle giving his daughter a piggyback ride through a park in Missouri, and my grandmother and me with the Queen of Hearts at Disneyland in California.
The servant girl’s story has me shaken, but I think of the countless Muslim families who practise Islam, are well integrated into society and lead lives that are balanced, conventional and honourable. At a friend’s wedding recently, her father was in tears at the ceremony, and he recited a prayer asking that her husband treat her with compassion. Another friend, whose family annually performs the Islamic pilgrimage of Hajj, and whose mother wears the hijab, went to the Maldives with her parents and siblings last summer and enjoyed a beach vacation complete with jet-skiing and sunbathing.
Parvez and the Shafias were not as lucky, but their deaths should not be considered representative of a clash of cultures. The photos that appeared in the media in the days following their murders—pictures of the girls in bikinis, intimate photos sent to boyfriends, a sexualized Toronto Life cover image of Aqsa—imply that they were rejecting their families’ cultures and embracing Western values. However, taking self-portraits in the bathroom mirror or while in the car on the way to a special outing is hardly a Western habit. Take it from someone who has lived amongst Middle Eastern women—vanity is a universal quality in females. The difference is that in Islam, modesty is imperative, and most Muslim women would feel violated if those pictures were made public.
Pakistani activist and media consultant Raheel Raza believes that sensitivity is too much to ask for from journalists, because they don’t have time for it. Raza has written for theToronto Star and The Globe and Mail, as well as a few Dubai-based newspapers. She is also the author of Their Jihad… Not My Jihad: A Muslim Canadian Woman Speaks Out. “I don’t think it’s fair to expect every journalist or reporter to understand how the Afghan community works, or how the Sikh community works—this is a lot of homework,” she says.
So I meet with a handful of journalists who wrote about Aqsa Parvez and the Shafias, to hear how they dealt with that homework. I start with a columnist who was recently chastised for plagiarizing in her past columns, though her honour killing writings appear to be her own words. I’m referring, of course, to the controversial Margaret Wente, branded “one of Canada’s most admired but offensive writers” by Wente Watch, a blog dedicated to refuting the claims she makes in her columns. We meet at a crowded Starbucks in downtown Toronto, and as soon as I enter, I see her—a well-dressed, middle-aged white woman in a white blouse, cream-coloured pants and large, brown speckled glasses, sitting in a brown leather chair.
Wente has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail since 1999, and wrote about both killings for the paper. The clichés and stereotypes about Muslims, Arabs and South Asians so often used in the media are what provoked me to embark on this story—it was her columns, printed out and annotated in angry red pen marks, that cluttered my desk. She speaks confidently and altruistically about the need to save girls in Canada from their patriarchal cultures. “There are thousands of girls in this country who may not get murdered, but are fighting the same kinds of battles with their families every day—how to fit in with Canada but also whether being Canadian is at all compatible with the family values that have been brought with them,” she tells me.
When news broke about each of the murders, Wente was shaken at first. “I was shocked because it’s not something that is supposed to happen here,” she says. “But it’s just part of the multicultural fabric. It’s the downside of that fabric.” I would argue honour killings are a result of the fanatical behaviour of specific families and individuals rather than a snag in Canada’s multicultural fabric, but Wente claims honour killings are impossible to understand without understanding the culture they stem from, and that often they are approved or tolerated by the community.
Critics would likely consider Wente’s holier-than-thou perspective to be part of what Haque calls the “moral panic” that engulfed the media and public as soon as the crimes were reported in the news. “It’s only in death that civilized society cares about these young women,” Haque explains. “It reconfirms a missionary thinking, which is that we are civilized, we are tolerant and we will rescue.”
The columns of Jonathan Kay, National Post comment pages editor and author of Among the Truthers, a novel about 9/11 conspiracy theorists, suggest that this is a natural reaction for the Canadian public. “The desire to protect women in immigrant communities is completely rational,” he tells me. In his National Post column “Assessing the state of Islamophobia in Canada,” Kay makes one point that I’ve never considered. “Gestures and cultural habits that project an aura of isolation and standoffishness, the burka or niqab being obvious examples, will turn Canadians off, regardless of how many upbeat pro-Muslim features are run in the mainstream media,” he writes.
Kamal Al-Solaylee, a Ryerson University journalism professor and author of Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, explains that journalists are not always to blame when it comes to the representation of minorities in the media. “The Arab and Muslim communities are not as actively engaged in civic society as others. They’re enclosed and silent, and are letting other people write their narrative for them,” says the former Globe and Mail theatre critic. Al-Solaylee grew up watching Arabic films, and honour was a regular theme. “The country girl who goes to the city and loses her virginity to a man and then the family comes in and kills her—that was a cinematic motif I was very familiar with, growing up in the Middle East,” he says. “Even if the family member who kills the girl eventually gets arrested, it’s presented as if the girl is the one who broke the rules.”
The rigid view of honour ingrained in Eastern popular culture has perhaps contributed to the Western media’s perception that honour killings are a common and accepted cultural practice. Some journalists, however, went beyond the mainstream narrative.
In February 2012, while working for Sun Media Québec, Ryerson journalism graduate Brian Daly told a different side of the Shafia story. He compiled a broadcast story titled “Failing the Shafia Girls,” about Centre jeunesse de Montreal, a youth protection agency that admitted it could have intervened. “They knew a little bit about the allegations that life was difficult in the Shafia home, but they didn’t take it to the next level of getting police involved,” he tells me.
In September 2011, National Post columnist Barbara Kay (Jonathan Kay’s mother) wrote “A westerner’s guide to honour killings,” in which she shows evidence of honour killings occurring in the West, amongst communities that are neither South Asian nor Muslim. She writes that the Bible tells the story about the first honour killing in Judeo-Christian civilization. She also explains that up until 1991, honour killings, specifically adultery-motivated wife killings, were considered non-criminal in Brazil; in England, adultery was a legal defense for men who killed their wives until 2009.
Similarly, in the documentary Ces crimes sans honneur, which premiered at the 2012 Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, Montreal-based journalist and filmmaker Raymonde Provencher shows that in Western immigrant communities, Muslim women are not the only ones subject to emotional and physical abuse. She interviews Toronto social worker Aruna Papp, a Christian South Asian who endured 18 years of oppressive abuse, to show that this type of violence occurs irrespective of religion. But later in the film, a seemingly random 20-second clip shows women walking in the streets, each clad in a hijab. The well-meaning Provencher tells me that she included a Christian victim because honour killings are not unique to Muslims, but by invoking the symbol of the hijab, she nevertheless connects oppression to Islam.
It’s one of the last summer evenings of 2012, and Doug Saunders, international affairs columnist at The Globe and Mail, is discussing his new book, The Myth of the Muslim Tide, at the Toronto Reference Library, along with Jonathan Kay and TVOntario journalist Steve Paikin. Described by Kay as “a good antidote to fear mongering,” Saunders’s book challenges the belief that Muslim immigrants are a threat to democracy and to Western civilization. He explains that at one point in history, there was a Jewish tide and there’s even been a Catholic tide, and they triggered similar alarmist responses from host communities. Immigrants from Poland and Ireland were often seen as “religiously extreme” members of an alien civilization in America, much like the way Arabs and South Asians are perceived by some today.
Saunders studied surveys from European Muslims, and found that there is little support for honour killing. He cites statistics showing that French, German and British Muslims who approve of honour killing number only two percent, one percent and one percent, respectively. Saunders explains to the crowd of about 300 that honour killings are not a mainstream custom, but rare acts by insane murderers. “Religion becomes an excuse for insanity,” he says. “You could point out that more Christians were killed in Ontario by botched exorcisms in the last 10 years than Muslims killed by honour killings.”
In 2011, the Department of Justice commissioned Dr. Amin Muhammad, psychiatry professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, to compile a report on honour killings in Canada. He found that there have been 13 in the past decade, including the Parvez and Shafia murders. The collective hand-wringing after these deaths triggered a terminology debate—when news of Aqsa Parvez’s murder first broke, many news outlets used the phrase “honour killing” without reserve, while others, like the
Toronto Star and Global News, referred to the murders as possible cases of “domestic violence.” Kay believes “honour killing” is an appropriate term. “When a family thinks its honour is at stake and the participants in the plot even use that explicit terminology, I see no problem with calling it an ‘honour killing,’” he says, explaining that domestic violence cases tend to be different—typically, drug abuse, alcoholism and mental illness are factors. “When there’s an honour killing case, it’s not like someone gets drunk and says, ‘I’m going to honour kill you,’” he says.
Wente says that debating the terminology is “a total academic dead end.” But some activists want to eliminate the use of the term “honour killing” and replace it with “femicide.” When I first call CCMW’s Alia Hogben to discuss the issues around media coverage of honour killings, she tells me, “I won’t answer if you keep calling it ‘honour killings.’”
I sit stunned on the other end of the line as she goes on. “You are being the media, and it doesn’t matter that you happen to be a Muslim.” Though our conversation makes me question whether I’m doing a disservice to my community by referring to the crimes as “honour killings,” I decide that I’m not doing any harm. The intention behind the murders was, after all, to protect a “completely twisted concept of honour”—a fitting combination of words used by Justice Robert Maranger when sentencing Mohammad, Tooba and Hamed Shafia to life in prison.
I’m back in Karachi in August 2012, this time to spend Eid, the Islamic holiday at the end of the month of Ramadan, with my relatives. At lunch, I fill my plate with biryani and cucumber yoghurt while listening to the elders discuss the sorry state of Pakistan, ruled by corrupt governments and influenced by misled extremists. The conversation was inspired by a local news story about an 11-year-old Christian girl with Down syndrome who has been charged with blasphemy and is being held in jail, after being found rummaging through garbage with burnt pages of the Qu’ran in her hand. “Our country is such an embarrassment,” says one uncle. Replies another, “Very backward.”
My family is not an ultra-modern minority in Pakistan. Our values are typical of the middle class, a group usually devoid of honour killings and other crimes falsely assumed to be cultural. Nor is our open-minded outlook a result of any recent wave of Westernization. Washington, D.C.-based journalist Beenish Ahmed wrote a piece for National Public Radio in August 2012 titled “Picturing Pakistan’s Past: The Beatles, Booze and Bikinis,” about how the nation was once a liberal hot spot. But to writers like Wente, this is irrelevant, since it doesn’t aid their argument that honour crimes are ethnically endorsed. “My job is to frame the issue the way I think it ought to be framed,” says Wente. “Social workers—their job is to be sensitive. A journalist’s job is to report clearly.”
That may be so, but circulating sexualized images of Muslim women is unwarranted. So is exploiting victims—making poster girls of the deceased to fight a presumed plague of cultural patriarchy.
Patriarchal systems are a part of my culture. But that doesn’t mean there are no warm, loving and peaceful patriarchies—I, like the majority of my friends and community members, am a product of one. Our fathers may sit at the head of the household, and our brothers may have later curfews and are less sheltered by our parents, but if we disobey rules, we don’t pay with our lives. Though media coverage may have implied otherwise, Aqsa, Zainab, Sahar, Geeti and Rona were not victims of a rigid religion, “Muslim Rage” or a stifling South Asian culture—they were victims of ruthless patriarchs with an inflamed sense of honour.
I come from a country with a complicated culture, where honour crimes, though neither sanctioned nor tolerated by religion, still take place amongst the less educated and enlightened of us. Fundamentalists use culture to justify confining the women of their households with ultra-conservative customs.
Most Western journalists seem to be driven not by racism or a hatred of Muslims, Arabs or South Asians, but simply by a duty to call out these callous mindsets. And that’s fair.
Raza explains that while Muslims are quick to blame the media for bashing them, journalists often feel that Muslims are not forthcoming. “Since 9/11, Muslims are under the spotlight, a reality we must accept,” she says. “We should take it as an opportunity—let’s clean up our act!”
Cleaning up after misguided Muslims, like those found guilty in the Parvez and Shafia cases, is a lot to ask of the community, and for those of us disgruntled with the way that honour killings are portrayed, it’s just the first step. Often, the media and the Muslim community seem diametrically opposed—the media’s hunger for scandal is at odds with Islam’s inherent modesty and conservatism.
We need stories that reflect the true character of Muslim communities, not just the acts of a few deranged individuals. But bridging the divide would require journalists to sacrifice sensationalism when covering murders of girls and women in Muslim communities, and that’s not likely to happen.
It seems like my community is always in damage control mode. Constantly defending ourselves from the “culture clash” stereotypes plastered all over the media is tiresome, but if speaking frankly about honour crimes helps build awareness and prevent another parent-approved strangling or stabbing in my community, then it’s a small price to pay. It’s a shaky compromise, but one I’ll have to make peace with.
by Hafsa Lodi
Arielle Piat-Sauvé was the Spring 2015 Senior Editor of the RRJ