15 Nov 2008

A war of words over honour killings

National Post - Canada
November 14, 2008

by Craig Offman | National Post

It is the grizzled face on a Wanted poster that usually catches the eye, but as the FBI realized late last month, the words matter, too.

In its initial poster seeking fugitive Texas cab driver Yasser Abdel Said – sought for the double homicide of his teenaged daughters – the bureau said he disapproved of their dating non-Muslim boys and stated that they were murdered "due to an ‘Honour Killing.'"

Though family members speculated that the father's Islamic belief motivated the crime, the use of the phrase "honour killing" incensed the local Muslim-American community, who argued that the accused's religion should not be linked to the double homicide, which left his two daughters dead in the back of his taxi.

After a public outcry, the FBI struck the offending words three weeks ago.

A Bureau spokesman explained that unlike a hate crime, there is no legal definition of an honour killing. "It's not our job to label this case anything other than what it is, what is from a criminal perspective," he said, apologizing that the writer did not see "the misunderstanding" the wording would create.

The girls' great aunt, however, was not satisfied." Everyone knows this is an honour killing," she told Foxnews.com. "But even our law enforcement and the FBI succumb to the pressure?"

Whether these kinds of crimes take place in Texas, Europe or even in Mississauga, Ontario – where the father and brother of teenager Aqsa Parvez will soon appear in court charged with killing her last December – the term itself is already on trial, a topic that speaks to the extreme hair-trigger sensitivities of multicultural balance.

Critics argue that the term is inherently racist and distracts the conversation from the main issue: Domestic violence. But others argue that gagging the discussion by making this topic off limits is counter-productive, undermining a community's ability to acknowledge this particular abuse and eradicate it. The debate raises questions about whether any consideration of what motivates crimes like this is unfair and even culturally biased, or whether, instead, it is critical to gaining an understanding of motive.

Honour killing is the phrase used to describe a crime committed by male family members who feel that their spouses, daughters or even sisters have brought shame to a home. It typically targets spouses suspected of infidelity or even being the victims of sexual assault. Young women sometimes can be victimized if they are seen as embracing outside cultures.

Womens' rights advocates, academics, and religious leaders say that such crimes point to a much wider, pervasive problem: The patriarchy. When there is white-on-white violence, they say, we do not ascribe Christianity or Judaism to the incidents.

"It really makes a whole people guilty," said Farhat Haq, an expert on the topic, who teaches at Monmouth College in Illinois. "It's either honour killing or genital mutilation: all these strange ways of looking at the Muslim world."

The origins of the crime are difficult to pin down, she said, adding that they are more cultural than religious -- nowhere in the Koran, for example, does it say that a family can kill a daughter if she dishonours its members.

In Canada, there have certainly been cases where the cultural overlay is key to understanding crimes. In British Columbia, the argument about ethnicity and violence against women reached its peak more than a year and half ago, following a vicious spate of spousal violence that shook the Indo-Canadian community, spurring the province's attorney-general (Wally Oppal, an Indo-Canadian) to describe the incidents as "a cancer" and to observe that there were a disproportionate number of domestic assaults in the South Asian community.

But that heightened cultural sensitivity may also be responsible for ascribing an honour killing motive to textbook cases of domestic abuse. Consider the case of Shemina Hirji, a 40-year-old school principal who died in her Burnaby townhouse less than a week after she married 34-year-old Narinder (Paul) Cheema. Her husband was the prime suspect in the case that was described in numerous reports at the time as an honour killing.

He committed suicide and was never charged, but considerable evidence emerged to show a broader criminal motive, including a recent history of bank fraud, financial troubles, and a past criminal record with convictions for forcible confinement, uttering threats and kidnapping related to a previous fiancée.

Experts insist there is a key difference between the broader category of domestic violence and the sub-set considered honour killings.

Dr. Amin Muhammad, of Memorial University, who has examined Pakistani men accused of honour killings, said that religious, cultural and personality issues influence this kind of violence, and unlike the cases of domestic abusers, an underlying psychopathology should not be ruled out. In others words, honour killers might suffer from paranoia, for example, and would require medication.

"By treating these two groups as though they were the same, you would be doing the patient a disservice," he said.

Others believe that societies ignore this underlying motivation at their own peril.

"For all these lefties who have formed alliances with Islamists, I accuse them of racism of lower expectations," said Tarek Fatah of the Muslim Canadian Coalition.

He said the case of Ms. Parvez, for example, who allegedly was entrapped by family members and killed in her house last December, was something that bears little relation to the common arc of a domestic dispute.

"Domestic abuse is usually about a dispute between partners. Child abuse is different, and [the Aqsa case] is about a girl who did not want to cover her head and did not want to live in the lifestyle imposed on her by her brothers and fathers," said Mr. Fatah. "We also know that one of the brothers who didn't want to live in these conditions and he left home. But didn't they kill him."

The girl's father and brother have both been charged with murder but the evidence has not yet been tested in court. However, just weeks before the case begins its pre-trial hearings -- where the Crown will present its evidence for the first time -- the magazine Toronto Life stepped into fray, creating a wave of protests on the Web site Facebook, thinkfests on CBC Radio, and earlier this week, a press conference -- all of it aimed at vehemently protesting the way the crime, and the case, was characterized.

Calling Ms. Parvez's strangulation "Toronto's first honour killing" on its cover, the magazine featured a story describing how her cab-driver father, Muhammad, insisted that his daughter maintain her modesty before he allegedly participated in her death.

For critics of the story, the story amounted to a extreme sensationalism, especially since evidence has not been established in court.

"The assertion that Ms. Parvez's murder was because she was Muslim or due to Islam is both racism and Islamophobia," said Farrah Khan, an organizer of last Tuesday's conference in downtown Toronto and member of a group for young Muslim women, Our Collective Dreams.

"The sad truth of the matter is that violence against women is a worldwide issue," said her colleague, Idil Hyder, "and if the media would care to look at the murder for what it was, rather than taking on the status of Western cultural superiority, they would see that violent acts such as this one occur much more in their own backyard in Canada."

Later in the discussion, Michelle Cho of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, said that the article will only further inflame racist rhetoric. "This article feeds into fear-mongering driven by an us-versus-them mentality suggesting that embracing diversity is like a runway train leading to the death of liberalism as we know it."

After three questions and almost no interaction between the audience and the assembled panel, a Remembrance Day silence was held in honour of all victims of violence, a meditation on what to do to end all wars: the war abroad, the war in our communities, the wars in our homes.

There was no mention of a war of words.

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