Were The Deaths Of Four Canadian Women "Honor Killings"?S

On June 30, three teen girls and a 50-year-old woman were found dead in a submerged car outside of Kingston, Ontario. Now the girls' parents and brother have been arrested, and many are asking whether this was an "honor killing."

The girls (pictured, as kids) were Zainab Shafia, 19, Sahar Shafia, 17, and Geeti Shafia, 13. They and their parents, Mohammed Shafia and Tooba Mohammad Yahya, and brother Hamid Mohammed Shafia, lived in Montréal and were originally from Kabul, Afghanistan. The woman found in the car was Rona Amir Mohammed, who Mr. Shafia initially claimed with his cousin. However, an e-mail from her sister Diba Masoomi, who lives in France, said she is actually his first wife. Masoomi also suggested that the deaths of the girls and Mohammed were an honor killing.

The girls' parents described Zainab Shafia as rebellious, and said she and her sisters used to take the car out without asking. Police, however, say this is untrue. Mohammed Shafia said he first noticed the car was missing when the family stopped at a hotel following a trip to Niagara Falls. However, the position of the car makes it unlikely that it was driven into the canal accidentally. It appears to have gone in backwards, and would have had to get past several obstacles to reach its final destination. "You'd really have to do some manoeuvering to get out to this spot," said a constable. "It's a very difficult place to drive into, and there would be no need to do so."

On the question of whether the victims died in an honor killing, police chief Stephen Tanner says,

Some of us have different core beliefs, different family values, different sets of rules; certainly these individuals, in particular the three teenagers, were Canadian teenagers who have all the freedom and rights of expression of all Canadians. Whether that was a part of the motive within the family - based on one of the girls' or more of the girls' behaviour - is open to a little bit of speculation, but combined with other investigative issues as well.

Christie Blatchford of Canada's Globe and Mail is less subtle, using the deaths as an opportunity for some pretty stereotypical social analysis. She says:

Young Muslim men behaving badly may not be encouraged, but even in the most backward parts of the Islamic world, they aren't killed for dating a blonde or drinking a beer. Girls and women are punished for even more minor offences (disobeying, not marrying the old bag of bones daddy chose, appearing in public unveiled, etc.), often with death.

In these parts of the planet, women don't matter; they are less than men; they don't really count: Thus, as a man, you can do with them as you like.

It's true that Montreal's child protection agency had been to the Shafia home three times a few months ago, after Zainab complained about her brother. Police say he was "harsh and authoritarian" with the girls. However, a relative says the family were not strict Muslims. University of Toronto law professor Anver Emon supports judicial use of the term "honor killing" when appropriate, but cautions that it should not be overused. He says,

From a social perspective, you don't want to criminalize a community by associating them with a particular, heinous act of violence.

If the Shafias did kill their daughters, we still don't know if it was religiously motivated — if the girls' exercise of "the freedom and rights of expression of all Canadians" was really what caused their deaths. Though Masoomi's e-mail message may turn out to be accurate, it's still premature to assume that, just because the family came from Afghanistan, their tragedy must be the result of culture clash.

Image via CBC News.

Father, Mother, Brother Face Murder, Conspiracy Charges [The Star]
Canal Victims Killed By Family: Police [CBC News]
Four Bodies Found In Submerged Car [Globe And Mail]
Family Members Charged With Murder In Submerged Car Case [Globe And Mail]
Were Deaths Of 4 Women A Matter Of 'Honour'? [The Star]
It's No Accident That Victims Were All Female [Globe And Mail]