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There is No Honour in Killing - VNC Statement on the Shafia Murders in Canada

February 2, 2012

Last week, a Canadian court found a Montreal couple and their son guilty of first-degree murder in the deaths of four female family members; Zeinab, Sahar and Geeta Shafia, as well as Rona Mohammad Amir. Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba Yahya and their son Hamed, were each handed an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.

The global campaign Violence Is Not Our Culture commends the court ruling, which rejects the use of ‘honour’ as a rational for murder. We call upon countries around the world to take heed and follow this condemnation of violence against women, in whichever form it takes. We urge governments to revise their legal statutes and practices that consider ‘honour’ or provocation on the grounds of transgressions to culture a partial or complete defence for violent crimes and to criminalise all abominable acts of femicide, regardless of cultural excuses.

We note with concern, however, the ways in which such a crime could have been prevented.  Trial evidence demonstrated that members of the community, including teachers, police, and social services, were exposed to repeated warning signs that the teenaged daughters of the family were at risk of life-threatening violence, and yet no action was taken. The case demonstrates the serious need for urgent, appropriate and diligent response by state authorities and relevant service providers to secure the lives of women and vulnerable children facing similar life-threatening circumstances. 

The Campaign is also disturbed by the tone of media reporting that has followed these murders. The Shafia case has sent shock-waves around the world as mainstream media sensationalize the story, branding the problem of ‘honour killings’ as a problem endemic to Muslim communities and immigrants and implying that gender injustice occurs in minority communities alone. The VNC Campaign considers such reports as obscuring the reality of a deep and ubiquitous culture of patriarchal violence that exists across all cultural and religious contexts; including ‘western’ cultures where so-called ‘crimes of passion’ and other forms of domestic violence are endemic. Murder in the name of ‘honour’ is an unacceptable and heinous crime, but one no more or less deserving of our attention and response than spousal-abuse, intimate-partner violence, wife beating, or child battery. According to official Canadian government statistics, from 2000-2009 an average of 58 women a year were killed as a result of spousal violence; in the same period 67 children and youth up to age 17 were murdered by their family members.

Some authorities claim that ‘honour killings’ are premeditated, while other forms of domestic violence and murder, such as crimes of passion, are not.  This argument perpetuates the misguided trope that ‘temporary insanity’, ‘fits of rage’ or ‘grave and sudden provocation’ are legitimate justifications for violence, and in particular femicide; excuses that have been legally sanctioned and codified to justify men’s violence against women in the criminal codes of numerous countries, throughout history and across the globe.

Indeed the British Penal Code, Napoleonic Penal Code and Roman Law have all included provisions which have excused a man for killing his wife, sister, or daughter for engaging in consensual sexual relations outside of marriage; relations which were branded ‘adultery’ and an affront to ‘men’s honour’. While some states have repealed or overturned such laws, in others they still abound.  In her 2002 report to the 58th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against women indicated that the penal codes of Argentina, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Peru, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela and the Palestinian National Authority all had provisions allowing for partial or complete defense in cases where ‘honour’ was presented as a factor in murder (E/CN.4/2002/83).

Across national and cultural contexts, draconian legislation and state-sanctioned practices continue to undermine the possibility of achieving gender equality and justice. From the war on women’s health in the United States and forced sterilization of transgendered people in Sweden to impunity for femicide in Mexico, the abuse of female protestors in Egypt, and lenient sentences for domestic violence globally, it is clear that there is no one country, context, or community that has a monopoly on gender-based violence perpetuated under the guise of cultural or religious mores.

After decades of struggle, women’s rights advocates have succeeded in overturning many laws that condone ‘honour killings’ and other forms of ‘culturally-justified’ violence against women.  VNC celebrates their achievements and stands in solidarity with those who are carrying the struggle forward, as there remains much more work to be done.

The deaths of Zainab, Sahar, Geeta and Rona Amir demand a deeper sense of justice; one that we as citizens regardless of our national or ethnic identity must strive to uphold.  To truly progress towards a world free from violence, we must recognize that we all have a stake in eradicating violence against women.

The VNC Campaign commends measures being taken by responsible sectors in Canada particularly the scores of Imams, community leaders, mosques and local activists who have taken swift and decisive action on this issue. We now call upon all states to:

  1. Repeal all national legislation that allows for ‘honour’ as a mitigating factor in abuse and murder;
  2. Legislate for the criminalisation of acts of gender-based violence being justified in the name of ‘culture’ or ‘traditions’;
  3. Provide training and adequate resources for protective services that would enable them to recognize the warning signs of domestic violence being perpetrated in the name of ‘honour’ or other ‘cultural’ excuses, and to promptly and appropriately heed the calls of women and girls who reach out for help.

There is no honour in killing, and there is never an excuse for violence against women and girls.  

 02 February 2012

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