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October 9, 2012
CALGARY, AB, Oct. 9, 12/ Troy Media/ – As police services across Canada begin to explicitly address ‘honour’ crimes, some people fear that this may lead to prejudice or profiling of particular communities. But we must foster meaningful discussion of such uncomfortable subjects if we are to protect Canadian values concerning human rights and gender equality in our highly diverse society.
One of the most high profile cases of an ‘honour’ killing was the Shafia family murder of three adolescent daughters and the father’s first wife at the Kingston, Ontario, locks.
The trial was notable for the sustained media and court attention to the defining ‘honour-based violence’ characteristics of the case, such as: the joint planning of the murder by the girls’ mother Tooba Mohammad Yahya, father Mohammad Shafia, and their son Hamed Shafia; the response of the Afghan community and the many character witnesses the defense brought forward; and the intimidation, threats, and later ostracization of extended family members who courageously testified for the prosecution.
This case also sparked a broader public conversation about ‘honour killings’ and more generally about the pressures on young women whose parents cannot adapt to the freedoms available in Canada.
Much of the coverage linked the case to religion and women’s inequality, but the crucial feature is culture. Some commentators feared that the sensational media coverage of the ‘honour violence’ could lead us to overlook the fact that this case is fundamentally one of violence against women or to stereotype whole communities, countries or religions. But avoiding talk of the defining features of ‘honour violence’ for fear of engendering prejudice is no solution.
In fact, the Shafia case resulted in scrutiny of the Quebec child protection system as details of abuse came out during the proceedings. An assistant principal testified that Sahar Shafia, when 17, told her that she tried to commit suicide because of family problems. A teacher told the court that Geeta Shafia, then 13, complained of verbal, emotional and physical abuse and repeatedly requested that teachers and child protection authorities remove her from the family home.
Yet the girls remained with their parents. Did we fail the Shafia sisters? Was it an anomaly or a marker of a flaw in the child protection system?
As the Shafia case demonstrates, there is a practical utility to understanding the cultural basis of behaviours which harm women and girls- and sometimes young men as well – in order to effectively prevent abuses. Aruna Papp, a long-time counselor for the South Asian community in Toronto, echoes this sentiment. She has seen increased demand for her workshops on culturally-based violence which aim to help police officers, social workers, educators and community activists recognize, prevent, and address the problem.
Calgary Police Service has gained a national reputation for addressing ‘honour’-crime. New recruits receive training on ‘honour’ violence to assess risk and to look for early warning signs, and police working in school liaison are increasingly aware of ‘honour’ violence threats.
Has the police approach led to profiling of particular communities, or to prejudice? While we expect risk factors to target certain communities, Sergeant Simon Watts of the Domestic Conflict Response Team in Calgary says that ‘honour crimes are not linked to a single religion or ethnicity’ and that the service is actively engaged in building trust with diverse communities.
The Sheldon Chumir Foundation’s latest book, Gender, Culture and Religion: Tackling some difficult questions, covers topics such as ‘honour killings,’ sex selective abortion, forced marriage, and cultural and religious expression. These are subjects which Canadians may be reluctant to address because they are emotional, divisive or uncomfortable – even taboo – topics.
But we must be willing to engage with each other on these controversial issues if we are to make progress on dealing with tensions between gender equality and cultural and religious diversity.
The book is intended to help us to collectively grapple with questions about what values need to be protected – such as gender equality – and what cultural or religious practices ought to be accommodated or not, and thus advance the public conversation – even if it’s a difficult one.
Heather MacIntosh is program director with the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership. She is a contributor and editor of a book, Gender, Culture and Religion: Tackling Some Difficult Questions, to be released at a Calgary event with guest speaker Aruna Papp on October 10. www.chumirethicsfoundation.ca
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