The latest incident of a Muslim teenager forcibly married off by her father came as a shock to the mainstream society in New Zealand. While such incidents are not rare in conservative countries like Pakistan, it is not what one would expect in the capital city of a western country.
Out of fear that his 17-year old daughter was seeing a Hindu boy, the father took her to the department of internal affairs and got her to sign visa papers. It turned out that the girl had signed on her marriage papers. She was then married to a distant relative who she had only briefly met.
Again, the girl was kept in the dark about the ceremony. It was only after the wedding that she discovered that she was forcibly married. She then spent two months under virtual house-arrest by her in-laws, where her every action was monitored.
She was courageous enough not to be resigned to her fate, and with the help of an NGO, Shakti, soon freed herself from the unwanted relationship. Her father threatened to kill her, before returning to Pakistan.
Not all girls are as fortunate to be alive as the Welllingtonian. In a recent judgement, a court in Canada has convicted a father for killing three teenage daughters and one of his wives.
All four were drowned inside a submerged car that was found in a canal in Ontario. The jury have found the father, Mohammad Shafia, his second wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya and their son Hamed guilty in what is now knows as the Shafia trial. Canada has reported 11 victims of honour crimes since 2005. Seven of these are young women.
However, the main problem lies in the labeling of such hideous crimes as ‘honour killings’, which almost justifies the brutality, and to some extent, makes it look acceptable, at least within the extremist groups, as one expert says.
Canada’s Memorial University of Newfoundland psychiatry professor Dr. Amin Muhammed has identified “lack of negative stigma” as one of the common factors in these crimes. The other two factors: these are planned attacks, and there is family complicity.
Dr. Amin Muhammed was called on by Canada’s Department of Justice to study the crimes in 2009.
These are not honour killings. These are not even spontaneous bursts of domestic violence. These are cold-blooded murders, often well-thought out and well calculated.
“The cases should not be seen or referred to by the controversial term, but simply as murders of women and girls,” says sociology student Saima Ishaq in an interview to Canada TV. She should know; the Pakistan-born girl wrote her thesis on the subject – honour killings.
“It’s like any other community. Violence against women exists across all cultures, they’re just given different names,” says Ishaq.
Untill the media and lawmakers acknowledge the crimes as such, we will struggle to come up with measures to effectively deal with such barbarous crime against women.
Thankfully, Canada’s minister in charge of women’s rights, Rona Ambrose, agrees. “Honour motivated violence is NOT culture, it is barbaric violence against women,” Ambrose tweets. “Canada must never tolerate such misogyny as culture.”
While on the one hand, Norway’s child welfare department has come under heavy criticism from Indian authorities for taking away two children from their Indian parents for reportedly “feeding the kids by bare hands”, the liberal Canadian department apparently did not do enough in the Shafia case. The girls, aged 13, 17 and 19, had contacted social services for help. But Quebec’s child welfare agency did not have enough evidence for intervention.
To achieve a balance between legal enforcement, safety of women, and cultural tolerance, mere law enforcement initiatives are not enough.
If the governments are following liberal immigration policies, then the social and criminal fallout, like in these instances, cannot be left to the enforcement agencies alone.
(Vaibhav Gangan is the managing editor of The Global Indian magazine)