When Murder is a Family Affair


The four women were found dead in June 2009, stuck in a car submerged in the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, Canada's capital city.

A jury would later find, in what would become one of Canada's most infamous recent trials, that the women — three teenagers and a 50-year-old — were murdered by family members.

Evidence brought out in the trial suggested that the parents and brother of Zainab and Sahar Shafia, aged respectively, 19 and 17, blamed them for bringing shame to their Shi'a Muslim family by having secret boyfriends. And they couldn't forgive sister Geeti, 13, and Rona Amir Mohammed — the second wife in a polygamous marriage — of helping the older teenagers keep their secrets.

The case played out in the media as a gruesome, but largely isolated, instance of “honor violence” — hurting or killing a family member as punishment for behavior deemed shameful in a practice still prevalent in many parts of the world.

But what happens when such “traditions” are imported to North America?

Speakers at a conference yesterday at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City claimed that honor violence, such as the Shafia family murders, has become a worrisome problem in the U.S. and Canada.

Gerard Laarhuis, the Assistant Crown Attorney who prosecuted parents Mohammad Shafia and Tooba Mohammad Yahya, and their son Hamed, said more could have been done to prevent the Shafia murders.

“We failed them, but we are here because we want to do better,” Laarhuis said.

Ric Curtis and Anthony Marcus, professors of anthropology at John Jay, estimate that there are 109 honor killings in the U.S.

They concede that data is hard to track in this field, since police data on domestic abuse or killings is rarely broken down in this category. They arrived at their figures by comparing honor killings in Britain, Holland and Germany, which are among the few western nations that keep such statistics.

Holland's are perhaps the most reliable. Curtis pointed to a computerized record system used in Holland that logs and categorizes the daily observation reports of police officers. The system logs a “checklist” of detailed information about specific cases, even examining the social and cultural background of possible victims.

Using the system, in 2011, Holland identified nearly two honor killings for every 100,000 residents with a MENASA background. A significantly higher rate than those estimated by other similar European democracies.

Curtis and Marcus said their initial research suggested that the U.S. was far behind other Western countries in acknowledging the problem.

But, as they pointed out, the reasons were not surprising: Europe has received more immigrants than the U.S. from countries where honor violence is most common: the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (MENASA).

Another possible reason: fewer first or second-generation immigrants to America are likely to directly oppose their parents' wishes when choosing a spouse.

As part of their research, Curtis and Marcus interviewed 100 New York City college students with at least one parent from a MENASA country.

The interviews disclosed that the lack of a “robust relationship between [the] individual and state” means young adults in America are more likely to rely on parents for school fees, healthcare and housing, Marcus said.

“There's a set of institutions in the United States that declare that the nuclear family is much more important into young adulthood,” Marcus said. “They're going to be more resigned to compromise with their families, that's what we found in our conversations.”

Among those interviewed, 84 described “situations in which individuals in their social networks” had married a spouse contrary to their own wishes. “

Marcus theorized, “they're going to be more resigned to compromise with their families, that's what we found in our conversations.”

Yet when probed directly about forced marriage and other cultural institutions associated with familial honor, many students became defensive.

“There's more circling of wagons when they felt their community is being judged,” Marcus said.

But how can authorities identify potential victims, if they're unable or unwilling to come forward?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born former Dutch legislator who renounced her Muslim faith when her criticism of some religious practices exposed her to death threats, told the conference that greater awareness by North American law enforcement about the extent of the problem could have saved the lives of the Shafia sisters, and countless girls like them.

“There's this long history of homicide after homicide after homicide, and that makes me think, how many girls have to get killed before there's at least data collection,” said Ali, who founded the AHA Foundation in 2007 to provide support to women under threat and bring greater awareness of the dangers.

She said government officials often don't know how to handle potential honor violence cases. Social service agencies often interview girls in front of their parents, or assign workers from the same communities to speak with victims, but both practices are intimidating to those who are at-risk, Ali said.

“American society is unprepared to understand and deal with the realities of honor violence.”

Graham Kates is Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter @GrahamKates.

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