Honor and Terror
9/30/2010 9:10 PM
Written by Rafia Zakaria
The killers of 16-year-old Aqsa Pervez were convicted on June 18. Mohammad Pervez and Waqas Ahmed, Aqsa’s father and brother, were sentenced to life in prison by a jury in Ontario, Canada.
Aqsa was killed after being picked up by her brother from her school bus stop. She was taken to the family home where she was found dead by the police. DNA material belonging to her brother was found under her fingernails and her father confessed to the murder.
According to accounts published in Canadian newspapers, Mohammad Pervez killed his daughter because she did not subscribe to his conservative values. She wanted to get a part-time job and did not want to have an arranged marriage. According to a statement made by Aqsa’s mother, Mohammad Pervez told her that he had killed his youngest child because “the community will say that you have not been able to control your daughter” and “this is my insult, she has made me naked”.
On Dec 10, 2007, the day of her death, Aqsa was tricked into coming back home and then strangled. The cause of her death was deemed to be asphyxiation and evidence showed that Aqsa had fought for her life in her last moments. On the day the sentence was announced, Aqsa’s mother was present in court and pleaded to the judge to spare her husband and son.
Days before Aqsa Pervez’s killers were sentenced, another Canadian Muslim girl, Bahar Ebrahimi, was stabbed by her mother when she went out with friends and did not return until the next morning. On June 13, 19-year-old Bahar was returning home when her mother stabbed her in the chest and head with a knife. The mother, Johra Kaleki, has been charged with attempted murder, assault and possession of a weapon. During the hearing her husband got up and started shouting that his wife was innocent and was ordered to sit down by the judge. The couple’s other children, three younger daughters aged 10, 14 and 16, have been taken away from the family home and placed with youth services. In the meantime Bahar is in hospital, recovering from her wounds.
The sentencing of Aqsa Pervez’s father and brother and the stabbing of Bahar Ebrahimi in Quebec has instigated much debate in Canada over the nature of the crimes. As expected, conservative forces on the lookout for cases that can be used to further demonise immigrant and Muslim communities have given the tragedies a place in their Islamophobic narrative. Going beyond the expected, however, commentators have also raised questions about how and why crimes such as these should be treated differently from murders stemming from domestic violence.
As one commentator noted, Canada sees several hundred women victimised and even killed by their spouses every year. Another, a Muslim woman, noted that sensationalised treatment of these crimes and viewing them as a particular kind of family violence deflects attention from the far more prevalent, routine incidents of family violence that afflict immigrant communities.
The existing debate and the construction of ‘honour killings’ as an issue particular to Muslim communities is worthy of contextualisation. Western Muslim scholars have repeatedly denounced honour killings as against Islam and a ‘cultural’ problem that does not relate to religious doctrine. While this is apt and useful, few of these scholars are willing to address the issue of how mosque and community sub-cultures contribute to ideas of male entitlement and female submission. The religious sanction given to the male to be the head of the household, and often underlined in mosque sermons in Canada, is one instance where constructs of an ideal Islamic family structure can promote the interpretation that women must be controlled.
In an abusive household, it is easy to see how faith can and does become entangled with a controlling ego and produces the disastrous consequences seen in the Aqsa Pervez case. While there is no sanction in Islam for killing an innocent girl, the existence of the complexities mentioned makes this form of violence different from routine incidents of domestic violence against Canadian women of all faiths and cultures.
It is also crucial to consider the connection between honour killings and the control of women on the one hand and terror prosecutions and the demonisation of Muslim men on the other. One consequence faced by the post-9/11 generation of Muslim children growing up in the West is the construction of the Muslim identity in response to terrorist stereotypes.
For Muslim girls this has meant an increasing push to be employed in the defence of the faith with which they identify at the occasional expense of the overhaul of discriminatory gender treatment in their communities. A girl’s adopting the hijab as a visible sign of Muslim identity is lauded by her community as a rejection of western values. On the flip side, girls such as Bahar Ebrahimi who do not wear the hijab or want to flout moral codes can become the subject of censure. Worse, they can be viewed as lesser Muslims compared to their veiled counterparts because of their failure to follow community norms.
On the same day as the sentencing of Aqsa Pervez’s killers, in a courtroom in the same Canadian town of Brampton, a jury was also sent off to deliberate the fate of Steven Chand and Asad Ansari both accused of planning terror plots as part of a terror cell known as the Toronto 18. The juxtaposition of terror and honour crimes will be a burden borne by the Canadian Muslim community for some time.
In both cases, Canadian Muslim leaders must realise that simply presenting doctrinal arguments that say Islam does not support terrorism or honour crimes is a limp argument. Unless moral codes that indirectly allow for the control of women or paint deviation from community norms as a rejection of Islam are addressed, it will be difficult to escape the monolithic portrayals that continue to demonise an entire community for the crimes of a few.
The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional history and political philosophy.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published in DAWN, Pakistan, on June 23, 2010. This has been republished here with the permission of Rafia Zakaria.