By: Tazeen Inam in Toronto, ON
One woman is murdered in Canada every six days, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation. This statistic belies what's been happening in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) since the beginning of 2018: there has been a dramatic increase in female homicides, with five women killed in a span of six days.
Three were from the Peel Region, one from Halton and another from the Hamilton Region; all at the hands of their male partners.
Sharon Floyd, Executive Director of Interim Place in Mississauga, calls it “horrific” and says that there is “no specific cookie cutter that can tell what abuse looks like.”
“Women are murdered because they are women, they are not valued in their families and their voices are not heard,” she added.
In the midst of volatile situations, many women often turn to the shelter system which provides a safe haven for thousands annually. And although it may seem like a viable option for many, a lack of resources can force many shelters to turn away prospective residents in need.
The thought can be alarming, considering that in Ontario, 65 per cent of female shelter residents were fleeing emotional abuse and 46 per cent were escaping physical abuse.
Immigrant women more vulnerable
For women who have immigrated from countries that do not share the same gender-neutral values, abuse can manifest itself at even more alarming rates. Studies show that "immigrant women may be more vulnerable to domestic violence due to economic dependence, language barriers, and a lack of knowledge about community resources."
Canada is fraught with examples of this exact scenario and Samira Farah (name changed to protect victim's identity), a Bengali immigrant, endured many forms of abuse before finally finding access to the resources needed to remove herself from a potentially dangerous situation. Following an arranged marriage in Bangladesh, Farah immediately migrated to the U. S. before settling in Canada with her husband. Throughout their 10-year marriage, she was bombarded with emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse.
Her husband asked Farah to obtain money ($50,000) from her father to pay-off his own debt, but she refused. Instead, she resorted to jobs as a salon worker in a failed attempt to raise money.
Even through emotional abuse and intimidation by her in-laws, Farah gave birth to a baby boy in 2003. Despite the trauma she had experienced, which included multiple miscarriages, positive thinking allowed her to find solace in her newborn.
However, her husband did not share her joy. With an eye on Farah's inheritance, he tortured her with threats of murder in isolated barren areas. Going as far as physical abuse with a knife in the presence of their then three-year-old son, she knew she had to make a change.
Farah struggled in silence to improve her marriage by opting for marriage counselling. Her counsellor suggested she call the police and later referred her to a shelter home.
“I didn’t want my son to grow in this violent environment, I want to teach him respect for women and that’s when I decided for divorce,” Farah says bravely.
[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Canadians spend roughly $7.4 billion annually to deal with the aftermath of spousal violence alone[/quote]
Every victim is different, however, their aspirations are revived when “they hear that they are not alone”, explains Floyd, who runs a crisis centre for women. “With some initial counselling they learn that it’s not their fault and women are not to blame; this is more of a societal issue.”
Farah initially started her mobile beauty spa to make ends meet. But in the process, she has met women from diverse cultures who have been through varied kinds of trauma inflicted by their intimate partners.
She believes that sharing stories with others has helped many alleviate the trauma they have endured.
“I am not the only person who has gone through this, [there are] worse stories out there, but that little bit [of] light of hope can change a lot of things,” Farah says.
Working in different sales and marketing departments, she has now been able to gradually regain her self-esteem. With the support of her co-workers, instructors and mentors she has even followed through on previous plans to further her studies by enrolling in a College program.
“Besides taking action on divorce and get[ting] out of that relationship, I am capable of doing anything that is possible in life,” she says with new confidence.
A woman's self-worth
Generally, it takes a woman 6-7 attempts before she actually pulls away from a relationship because they are not sure of the abuse.Especially when the perpetrator is controlling, it’s important to note that a woman’s security risk doubles when she decides to leave.
Nancy Gibbs, a professor of Community Social Work at triOS College, suggests that education, information and a safety plan must be readily available. Working with victims for over 25 years, she maintains that only through greater public awareness will there be more consistency on what actually constitutes abuse.
“Advertising, blasting social media with what is available to women and what abuse looks like,” she explains, are great ways to spread the word. “It’s important to educate [a] woman [on] her own personal value.”
What one person would call abuse, another may refer to as just normal behaviour. Gibbs concludes that creating consistency in what is considered acceptable behaviour, stands as one of the first steps to eliminating abuse and ensuring a safer Canada for all.
At least one Canadian is on a so-called global hit list of bloggers put out by Bangladeshi jihadist group Ansarullah which has vowed to take action against those it deems to have denigrated Islam.
The group named Raihan Abir editor of the Bengali-English blog Mukto-Mona, which has other Canadian contributors writing under pseudonyms among its stable of 300 writers from around the world.
Mukto-Mona started as an online discussion circle, but has now evolved into a social movement through blogs, activism and research. In English, the literal dictionary translation of "Muktomona" is freethinker.
Prominent in the list is Bengali author Taslima Nasreen, who is presently staying under police protection in India, after fleeing Bangladesh 21 years ago in the face of death threats and fatwas from fundamentalists.
The list includes names of Abdul Ghaffar Choudhury (London), Dawood Haider (Germany), Banya Ahmed (US), Asif Mohiuddin (Germany), Ananya Azad (Germany), Omer Farooq Luqs (Germany), Farzana Kabir Khan (Germany), Naastiker Dharmakatha (Germany), Foring Camelia (Germany), Qamrul Hassan (London), Sushanta Dasgupta (London), Arifur Rehman(london), Ajanta Debroy (London), Maneer Hassan (Birmingham), Shantanu Adeeb (London), Nijhoom Majumdar (London), Rumala Hashem (London), Raihan Abir (Canada) and Nirjhar Majumdar (Sweden).
[quote align="center" color="#999999"]There have been reports in the media recently that Ansarullah activists are trying to cross over from Bangladesh to India to target Taslima Nasreen.[/quote]
At the bottom of the list, the extremist group Ansarullah has issued the following chilling threat: "Enemies of Islam and madrassa education, atheists, anti-Islamic apostates, Shahbagi bloggers, acting on behalf of India, are trying to set obstacles in the path of establishment of Islamic caliphate. We demand that the Bangladesh government cancel the citizenship of such enemies of Islam, otherwise we will liquidate them wherever we find them across the world. Our jihad will continue, Inshallah. Amen. - Ansarullah Bangla Team".
There have been reports in the media recently that Ansarullah activists are trying to cross over from Bangladesh to India to target Taslima Nasreen.
Ansarullah believes in the ideology of Anwar Al-Awlaki, a Yemen-based al-Qaeda activist, and has been involved in the gruesome murders of at least four Bangladeshi freethinkers and bloggers including US-based Bengali writer Avijit Roy and blogger Washiqur Rahman.
Taslima Nasreen tweeted: "Ansarullah Team that killed B'deshi atheist bloggers just published global hit list of bloggers. My name is in the list." She has attached the photo of the hit list.
Police have linked Ansarullah Bangla Team to the recent murders of five secularist bloggers in Bangladesh, and arrested seven of its members, Dhakar police joint Commissioner Monirul Islam said.
He said there was little threat to society within Bangladesh, where more than 90 per cent of the 160 million people are practising Muslims, Asia Times reported.
Fear for the future
Many intellectuals, especially among the Bangladeshi diaspora, do fear for the future however, and worry that the South Asian country could be seen as a safe destination for radical Islamists if the blogger killers are not caught and prosecuted.
Four of the bloggers were killed this year alone.
Bangladeshi-born U.S. writer Avijit Roy was hacked to death by unidentified assailants on February 26 when leaving a university book fair in Dhaka with his wife.
Oyeshekur Rahman Babu, an atheist writer, was chopped to death in central Dhaka on March 30, after he criticized Islam, followed by the killing of science writer Ananta Bijoy Das in a similar attack in the north-eastern city of Sylhet on May 12.
The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who campaigns for secularism beside Islam as a state religion, was criticized for requesting local bloggers and activists “not to cross the limit” over sensitive religious issues after blogger Niladri Chattapadhay was killed in another gruesome murder in Dhaka on August 7.
Writers around the world chime in
For critics, the government’s stance seems like double standards.
More than 150 writers from around the world, including Canada, issued an open letter this week to the Bangladeshi government after the killing of Ananta Bijoy Das.
[quote align="center" color="#999999"][F]reedom of expression is a fundamental right under Bangladesh’s constitution and one of the rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[/quote]
The writers including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel and Colm Tóibín, in the letter said freedom of expression is a fundamental right under Bangladesh’s constitution and one of the rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It called Bangladesh to provide protection and support to bloggers and other writers at risk in the South Asian country in line with Bangladesh’s obligations under national and international laws.
Lux said the death list was nothing new, and warned that the extremists could also strike others.
Like others who received it by email, he has taken precautions, he said, and is under German police protection.
The role of the government
Religion and secularism have frequently clashed in Bangladesh’s recent history.
Secularism was one of the basic principles of Bangladesh’s constitution when the Muslim-majority part of the then Pakistan (East Pakistan) became independent after a bloody war in 1971.
[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Whatever the official status of Islam, the individual’s freedom of expression must be protected, says Arifur Rahman, a writer living in London.[/quote]
But military-chief-turned-president Ziaur Rahman began the process of Islamizing the constitution after the assassination of Bangladesh’s founding president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975. Ziaur Rahman gave way to the Islamists, especially the Jamaat-e-Islami party which opposed Bangladesh during the war.
Military dictator Hussein Muhammad Ershad, who took over shortly after Ziaur Rahman’s murder in 1981, formalized Islam as the state religion in 1988.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Mujibur Rahman’s daughter, brought back secularism in the constitution in 2011, while keeping Islam as the state religion.
With the political stakes high in Bangladesh’s sharply divided politics, analysts say Hasina would never put her popularity at risk by repealing the state religion.
Whatever the official status of Islam, the individual’s freedom of expression must be protected, says Arifur Rahman, a writer living in London.
The government had a duty to “create an atmosphere where everyone can express their opinion without fear,” he said.
Re-published in partnership with Asian Pacific Post.
Honour on Trial: The Shafia Murders and the Culture of Honour Killings – by Paul Schliesmann, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2012, 207 pages
Without Honour: The True Story of the Shafia Family and the Kingston Canal Murders – by Rob Tripp, HarperCollins, 2012, 348 pages
It’s been a year since the Shafia trial concluded in Kingston, sending an immigrant father, mother and their eldest son to prison for killings in the name of “family honour”. They were found guilty of the murders of three girls from the family and another woman who turned out to be the patriarch’s second wife.
This was a trial that riveted the attention of Canadians, who were caught up with this immigrant soap opera: A successful businessman from Afghanistan, his two wives, chic daughters, a domineering brother, and a value system that seemed to emphasize honour above life. Two award-winning journalists who covered the trial, Rob Tripp and Paul Schliesmann, have captured the story in very different books.
Tripp offers the far more textured and graphic story, focusing less on the crime itself and devoting his research and interviewing skills to situating the lives of Zainab (19), Sahar (17), Geeti (13) and their father’s first wife, Rona (50). The fact that the girls had a difficult transition to high school life in Canada is beyond doubt: they had an overbearing brother in Hamed; their largely-absent father Mohammad was given to fits of rage and cursing in Dari; and their mother Tooba came across more as a bystander than a parent in the family.
Schliesmann’s is the more reportorial endeavour, the straight story told with essential detail, and based largely on court proceedings. It is hence a quicker read, and very helpfully, has a section on other honour killings in Canada and a chapter titled “The lessons…” about how institutions in Montreal (where the Shafias lived) were ill-equipped to deal with the extremely raucous household in their midst. Had they acted, these deaths could have been avoided.
Here is just a sampling of the kind of situations this Afghan immigrant family faced during the two years they were together in Canada (before June 2009): school authorities informing the parents that the kids were late to school, performing poorly or routinely absent; the children running away from home and seeking shelter elsewhere; the kids calling in child protection service officers and then recanting their stories of physical abuse and intimidation in the presence of their parents; and finally, a girl deciding to get married and then changing her mind right after and pronouncing “talaq” (the Arabic word for divorce) in front of the very same Muslim cleric. Amid this maelstrom of immigrant life, the two elder girls – Zainab and Sahar – had blooming love relationships, sometimes texting naughty nothings to two boyfriends simultaneously.
At one level, this was a highly successful immigrant family. They were already millionaires and were building a 6,000 sq. ft. home in the exclusive Montreal suburb of Brossard at the time of the horrific deaths in the Rideau Canal. The kids had been schooled in English and French. Despite their erratic attendance and lacklustre grades at school, one has to only read transcripts of the testimony of one of the four surviving Shafia children who was 15 at the time of the deaths (Tripp calls him “Zafar,” although they cannot be identified given their age) to see how they could come across as well-adjusted and confident. [It is logical to ask, then, why they did not squeal on their parents.]
To wit, this young man, 17 at the time of his testimony, had this exchange with a prosecutor, as reported by Schliesmann –
Prosecutor: “Where do you draw the line on manipulating people and telling lies?”
Zafar: “When it goes too far, I guess.”
This response and several other similar smart-aleck retorts earned this observation from the lead prosecutor: “Where your memory has improved, it’s all to the benefit of your mom and dad and Hamed. Where your memory hasn’t improved are [the] things that aren’t helpful to your parents.”
The two books make clear that the convictions were won on the basis of compelling circumstantial evidence, conflicting statements to the police and testimony by the accused and the theory that the Shafia household believed in “honour killings” to redeem their family reputation. The notion of “honour killings” was central and it is therefore no coincidence that both the authors use the word Honour in their titles – it is the convenient label that intrigues Canadians, a concept so alien and so loathsome that most Canadians would agree with the verdict of the 12-member jury.
Yet, like all short hand, it is simplistic. There are nuances one can glean from the books that make the Shafia family dynamic a highly complex immigrant situation, one that defies easy characterization. Here are some of them –
· Their cultural mores were not driven by their Muslim faith. They did not attend mosque and had trouble finding a priest to conduct their daughter’s hastily-arranged wedding.
· Although they had relatives in Montreal, the Afghan community there is divided over whether these were indeed honour killings. Essential to the notion of honour is the need to “save face” from the community. They weren’t really connected to the small Afghan community there given that the father was away most of the year.
· Tooba, the mother of all the children, did not wear a hijab (veil).
· Canada was home-country number five, after Afghanistan, Pakistan, Dubai (U.A.E.) and Australia. Shafia’s business was based in Dubai, so why did he choose to have his family in a liberal country like Canada, and more specifically, the laissez-faire province of Quebec?
· It does not look like the parents were against dating. Even before they arrived in Canada, the parents had told the children that they were not allowed to date or marry until they finished school. It is unclear whether that meant high school or university.
· From all accounts, Shafia appeared to be an indulgent father. He was away most of the time and his son Hamed took charge of things while he was away. This, despite the constant conflict in the household.
· He and his wife couldn’t have been unaware that his girls wore figure-hugging and revealing clothes and were attending co-ed schools. In Dubai, the elder kids had attended an English-medium American school, hardly the most conservative option available there. (According to the Tripp book, Zainab, Sahar and Geeti attended the Al Sadiq Islamic English School in Dubai.)
· Shafia himself claimed he did not believe in “honour killings” and several of his family members said in court that they had never heard of the practice until the Kingston deaths. In his own defence, Shafia said during testimony at the trial: “For me, anyone who kills a child or daughter, that person really becomes shameless… I don’t call that honour.”
Both Tripp and Schliesmann do a commendable job laying out all the evidence, describing the tensions within the Shafia household and providing the backdrop for this self-incriminating nugget from the family patriarch during a family coversation: “There is nothing more valuable than honour. I am telling you now and I was telling you before that whoever play[s] with my honour, my [answer is] the same … There is no value of life without honour.”
We don’t know what Shafia really believes, but surely, we have not heard the last from him or his wife or his son. We still don’t know how exactly the murders were committed. As the Shafias appeal their 25-year life sentences, we can expect Schliesmann and Tripp to follow the case and continue informing us about the cautionary tale that this family engenders for Canadian immigration.