The Shafias’ ancient, twisted code

The Shafia trial isn’t about religion, but who controls a woman’s body

An ancient, twisted code

Photograph by Vincenzo D’Alto; Crown Exhibit

An ancient, twisted code
Photograph by Vincenzo D'Alto; Crown Exhibit

In his final hours as a free man—unaware that wiretaps were recording his every word—Mohammad Shafia stuck to a familiar theme.

“We lost our honour.”

“I don’t accept this dishonour.”

“Even if they hoist me up onto the gallows, nothing is more dear to me than my honour.”

“Isn’t that right, my son?”

During her stint on the witness stand, Shahrzad Mojab didn’t discuss those specific conversations. In fact, she didn’t once mention the shackled trio sitting in the courtroom prisoners’ box: Shafia, his wife, Tooba Yahya, and their eldest son, Hamed. But in a case that is all about culture and tradition and the fragility of a family’s reputation, Mojab’s expert testimony could prove most damning for the accused. Few have spent more time studying the one word that Shafia couldn’t stop saying—the one word that allegedly justified a mass execution.

“Honour, and its translation in different societies, has brought about many forms of violence against women,” said Mojab, a University of Toronto gender studies professor who has authored dozens of papers, and one book, about honour killing. “The mere perception that a woman has dishonoured her family is sufficient to warrant an attack on her life.”

More than two years have passed since Shafia’s three daughters (Zainab, 19; Sahar, 17; and Geeti, 13) were found at the bottom of the Rideau Canal, floating inside a sunken car with Rona Amir Mohammad, their father’s first wife in the polygamous Afghan clan. Over the past six weeks, prosecutors in Kingston, Ont., have laid out their chilling theory for the jury, alleging that mother, father and brother plotted to drown the immigrant sisters because their increasingly westernized behaviour—makeup, revealing clothes, secret boyfriends—had so disgraced the family name that only death could reverse the shame. (Rona, it appears, was a throw-in, the victim of a years-long rivalry with her fellow wife.)

But it was Mojab, the Crown’s final witness, who provided a crucial history lesson on this ancient honour code: how it works, who makes the rules, and how even the slightest infraction, real or imagined, can trigger bloodshed. For Canadians transfixed by this twisted trial, including those who packed the gallery for Mojab’s appearance, her evidence was nothing short of a wake-up call. “Honour killing is on the rise, and has transgressed the borders of the regions where it usually takes place,” she testified. “It is all about the control of women’s bodies, women’s behaviour and women’s sexuality.”

But is it a Muslim phenomenon? Not necessarily.

During those intercepted conversations, Shafia proclaimed that “God punished” his daughters because they were “whores” who “betrayed Islam.” But Mojab told the jury, more than once, that the concept of honour “definitely predates religion” and “doesn’t have any connection to religion at all.” Although some Muslims have certainly invoked the Quran as justification for honour killing, she said the crime is not exclusive to Islam. “We see it among Hindus, and we see it among Jews and Christians,” she testified. “It is not being sanctioned by Islam.”

It is sanctioned, she said, by patriarchal cultures that equate family honour with the obedience of its females. Misogyny, not divinity, is the common denominator.

Still, the evidence disclosed so far, including Shafia’s tape-recorded rants, has been shocking enough to convince many prominent Muslims to speak out. In a joint statement, dozens of organizations, imams and activists from across the country denounced domestic violence—and honour killing in particular—as a violation of “clear and non-negotiable Islamic principles.”

For Canadians glued to this case, such unequivocal words are a welcome message. It was Shafia, not the media, who dragged Islam into court, and it’s up to fellow Muslims to explain if, and how, he had it all wrong. Unfortunately, it will take much more than a press release and a united message from the mosque pulpit.

As Mojab told the jury, there are immigrants in Canada not named Shafia who subscribe to the same unwritten honour code that allegedly killed Zainab, Sahar, Geeti and Rona. “The hope is that the more advocacy, the more education, and the more public outrage we see against this form of violence, the more it will make those who want to commit this type of violence to think twice,” she said. “Is it happening with the pace we’d like to see? I think we have a long way to go.”

The outcome of this trial could be the biggest step yet.