The Shafia case is a tragedy, all around. But the way this case has been used to promote some of the most casually xenophobic and Islamophobic commentary in Canada yet only makes it more difficult to honor these women and their lives. As many commentators have already pointed out, the rush to condemn the Shafia murders as part of a minority culture that has nothing to do with “Canadian values” perpetuates the familiar narrative of us vs. them, of the clash of civilizations, of shining White Canadian virtue against dark, Muslim violence. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that gendered violence is as much a part of Canada’s cultural fabric as it is almost anywhere else. While violence against women manifests itself differently across different cultures, at the end of the day it is always about power and control, and it is almost always culturally and socially learned and normalized.
Immediately after the Shafia trial verdict was announced – resulting in first-degree murder convictions for all three defendants – Canadian Justice Minister Rob Nicholson stated: “[s]o-called honour killings are barbaric and unacceptable and have no place in Canada,’ adding that “[t]his government is committed to protecting women and other vulnerable persons from all forms of violence and to hold perpetrators accountable for their acts.” Wary of being left out, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney tweeted: “Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, ‘honour killings’… or gender-based violence. Those guilty of these crimes are severely punished under Canada’s criminal laws.”
In a country that can’t even be bothered to keep a tab on exactly how many Aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing in the past few decades (some estimates put the number as high as 3,000), its hard to know whether to laugh or cry at such hyperbolic statements coming from men in power who should clearly know better. It’s as if these ministers only seem to remember the issue of gendered violence when it is being perpetrated by “other” people from “other” cultures.
According to Statistics Canada, over a quarter of Canadian women (29%) have faced spousal violence and more than half of all reported physical assaults on adult women are by family members, half by their spouses. In a single day (April 19, 2006), nearly 5,300 victims of sexual assaults or other violent offences requested assistance from victim service agencies across Canada. Of these victims, 2,488 (47%) were victimized by a spouse, an ex-spouse or an intimate partner, 9 in 10 of which were women. On average, every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner (Beattie, Sara and Cotter, Adam. Homicide in Canada 2009. Juristat, Vol. 30, Number 3, Statistics
Canada, page 14.). And in a survey of spousal homicide from 1975-2004, Statistics Canada found that an average of 72 women were killed every year due to spousal and/or family violence.
This litany of statistics is not meant to excuse the seriousness of the Shafia deaths. It is simply to point out the obvious: if Canada is so vehemently opposed to “barbaric cultural practices,” if we are so concerned with protecting women from “all forms of violence,” how is it that the majority of these victims go unreported in the national or even local press? In a country where over 2,000 women have been killed by their spouse or family members in the past three decades, what allows men like Nicholson and Kenney to make statements such as the ones above, as if violence against women had just suddenly reared its ugly head in shiny, pristine White Canada? We live in a country where over 80% of sexual assaults aren’t even reported to authorities. So when Rona Ambrose, the Status of Women Minister, tweets that “honour-motivated violence is NOT culture, it is barbaric violence against women’ and that ‘Canada must never tolerate such misogyny as culture,” is she unaware of the facts that surely must be found in her own portfolio? Or does she think that violence against women in Canada isn’t culturally learned or doesn’t “count” unless it is being committed by the barbarous hordes invading this “great land”?
One of the saddest aspects in all of this is that the lives of these four women, Rona, Zainab, Sahar, and Geeti, have gotten lost on the political battlefield; as if their real deaths were not horrifying enough, it is now almost as if their bodies have been posthumously trampled upon in the rush to fit them into one clashing narrative over another. Even in attempting to contextualize this case, I have had to compare their deaths to the deaths of so many other women. No one wants their loved ones to be remembered by a reductive statistic, but how do we actually remember and honor the dead? How do we remember the complexities of their lives and refuse to let their deaths be the only significant occasion of their lives?
The Toronto Star’s main dispatch on the case had three simple adjectives to describe the young Shafia sisters: “gorgeous,” “sultry,” and “rebellious.” Is this really the best we can do? Is it possible to see the tragedy of their lives as anything other than another red herring in the so-called “Islamicization” of this country? And is it possible to remember their lives without reducing them to three pathetically offensive adjectives? I don’t know if the mainsteam media is capable of such nuance, but I hope more people start to ask more difficult questions than the ones they have been fed these past few months.
Asam Ahmad, 26, is pursuing studies at the University of Toronto.