Opinion Column

System fails victims of 'honour killings'


Three teenaged sisters and a woman were found dead inside a car submerged in the Rideau Canal in Kingston, Ontario on June 30, 2009. At first it was believed to be a tragic accident, but the investigation revealed a more sinister story.

The deceased girls' father and woman's husband is Mohammad Shafia, a 59-year-old immigrant from Afghanistan. He, along with his wife and eldest son, are now on trial for the murder of their four family members.

It's believed these were honour killings. In other words, they were murdered because they behaved in a "dishonourable" way - by acting like normal Canadian teenaged girls. All the Shafia girls wanted was to have the same freedoms as their peers.

Honour killings are not unheard of in Canada. Twelve have been reported since 2002.

The Shafia case could bring that number to 16. In some cultures honour killings are a condoned practice, with murders being punished lightly or not at all.

Honour killings and other forms of cultural violence have always been an uncomfortable issue among feminists and women's advocacy groups because these issues put them at odds with support for multiculturalism and support for women's equality. The two are of course not mutually exclusive, but it forces people to acknowledge there is a cultural element to this type of violence against women.

This perhaps explains why women's advocacy groups are often strangely silent when it comes to cases of honour killings, or why they would prefer to use language like "domestic violence" to describe them. They are scared of being called racists for acknowledging that culture played a part in murder.

Honour killings are not just cases of domestic violence.

The system that protects children failed the Shafia girls. They had reportedly spoken with social workers about their oppressive and frightening situation at home.

The same was true for Aqsa Parvez, the 16-year-old Mississauga, Ontario girl murdered by her father and brother in a 2007 honour killing. Parvez had desperately reached out to her teachers and anyone else who would listen for help.

Our system protects minors from abuse at home, but what about this kind of abuse?

The system cannot handle abuse that stems from a cultural background, and young women are falling through the cracks where they end up as tragic headlines.

We need to face the facts and invest in programs to protect young women at risk of this sort of violence.