Saturday, February 4, 2012

Honor Killings and Protective Intervention: Does a Universal Morality Exist? Should It?

In a week that was dominated by the FL GOP primary, Mitt Romney not caring about the very poor, Susan G. Komen setting itself on fire and then dousing itself with tea and sympathy, as they apologized so very, very sincerely, two barely mentioned in the US news stories have stuck with me. They perfectly elucidate the crash of culture, of law, of the concept of honor between Afghani culture and that of the West. 

On Sunday, a jury in Ontario convicted Mohammed Shafia, age 58, his second wife, Tooba Yahya, 42, and their son, Hamed, age 21, of killing their three daughters (and Hamed's sisters) Zainab, age 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13. Mohammed's first wife (it was a plural Muslim marriage) Rona Amir Muhammad, age 52, was also killed by the trio, reportedly because she had been too indulgent with the three girls, not her own but evidently much loved by her. (Mr. Shafia had taken his second wife, Tooba Yahya, because Rona could not bear children.) The four women were found dead on June 30, 2009, purportedly drowned in a car that crashed into a canal in Kingston, Ontario, as the family returned from a leisure trip from Niagara Falls. Mr. and Mrs. Shafia claimed that their elder daughter had taken their car without permission, going for a joyride with her younger sisters and other mother and crashed into the canal. The police, however, believed that the women had been either drowned or incapacitated elsewhere, placed in the vehicle and the car pushed into the canal. Jurors in the case did not even need to hear excluded testimony, that of an 8 year old child who had been awake in his nearby house, who saw two, not one, cars, at the scene, heard the splash as one vehicle entered the water. Hamed, once in jail, told a slightly conflicting version from the initial story of the parents and that of the 8 year old, saying that he had followed his sister and accidentally bumped her Nissan with his Lexus, causing it to fatefully fall into the canal. No word on why he drove away and left them to drown, if that was the case. Early on in the investigation, however, allegations that this was an honor killing emerged. The wealthy family, who had moved to Canada in 2007, reportedly never really adjusted, or should we say, Mr. Shafia had never adjusted, to Western mores.

What could possibly induce a father, mother and brother to kill the three children? Zainab had been caught by Hamed sneaking around with her boyfriend. Sahar also had a boyfriend, who had been photographed with his arms around her. As if these hussies weren't bad enough, little Geeti, at 13, was evidently a rebel as well. The girls didn't want to wear hijab and there were an abundance of scandalous photos of them, some where they even were wearing shorts or sleeveless dresses! Why, they could almost be mistaken for regular Canadian girls!

From Hamed's damning Google search history ("where to commit a murder" and "can a prisoner have control over his real estate" being among the topics) to a court-ordered wiretap that caught Mr. Shafia mourning his dead girls by calling them "filth" and "whores" and that he would "defecate on their graves." When Zainab met a boy she liked at school, Shafia forced her to quit school. When it became apparent that all three girls would fight his authoritarian rule of his home, the conclusion of the Ontario jury was that he simply killed them all. 

In a fateful wiretapped phone exchange between Shafia and his son, Hamed, he was heard to say:

"Be I dead or alive, nothing in the world is above your honor. Isn't it right my son?"

He's also said they could hang him and he'd still have his honor.

On Sunday, Ontario superior court Judge Robert Maranger declared "It is difficult to conceive of a more heinous, more despicable, more honourless crime." "The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your completely twisted concept of honour ... that has absolutely no place in any civilised society."

This same week, mind you, there was the pretty much equally horrific story about a mother and son who killed the son's wife, known simply as Storai, age 22, because she had borne him a third daughter. We have no lovely photos of Storai, whose fate as the mother of three seems little better than Rona Amir Muhammed's fate as the de facto mother of none.

As the Women for Afghan Women director Manizha Naderi points out, "Girls are looked down upon in Afghanistan." Ms. Naderi, who has seen more than her share of horrors visited upon Afghan women and girls, and not just at the hands of the Taliban, I might add, was surprised, however, at the death of a wife for bearing female children. (I am too, since it's evident to me that Storai's husband's sperm are likely to blame here...) It's worth pointing out that Storai's husband, Sher Mohammed, is purported to be a member of a local militia (arbakai) in Kunduz province, and therefore not a Talib. Mr. Mohammed absconded and left Mommy holding the bag. His mother, Wali Hazrata, is in police custody for the deed. Of course, we know how it goes. I will always remember the harsh fate of Bibi Aisha's brutal father-in-law Suleiman, released from jail after a scant six months. I'm sure Mrs. Hazrata will be out in no time. After all, Storai was just a girl. It was like one piece of property killed another, not anything more. (Look, by the way, to the end of this post for an update on Aisha...)

In sum, we have the murder of three girls and their co-mother, because of honor, and the killing of a 22 year old because she was producing wrong sexed children, which isn't really honor-violating exactly, but maybe somehow it impugned Mr. Mohammed's sperm.

So here's the thing, the point I want my readers, many of whom work in the child welfare sector, to really mull over. Honor killings are on the rise, worldwide. Or at least, the awareness and reporting of them is increasing. We have one set of murders in the West, another murder (among the the many) in the East. Oh those mad, bad Afghanis. But... wait a minute. A mass honor-killing, here in North America? Weren't we supposed to be doing better here? I mean, you know, in theory, women, even Afghani women, should be safer here in the West, where women and men, girl children and boy children, have equal rights and equal rights to safety and well-being, correct? What do we do when culture and morality, when culture and gender equity, collide so terribly? What do we do when people come to the West from other cultures and fail to adapt to our morals and laws?

The other day I listened to several BBC World Service radio programs on honor killings, including one of 24 minutes and a more in-depth program, here and which I highly recommend, of almost an hour. The latter program dealt with the failure in Canada (and let's be frank, it could just have easily happened in the US or in any European country) to protect the three Shafia girls from their father. Christie Blatchford of the National Post has detailed, over the course of many months, the daunting protective failures in this case.

Looking at only a few months before the girls' death, Zainab Shafia went to a women's shelter in Montreal. She feared for her life because her brothers had told her father she had a Pakistani boyfriend. As is all too common in cases of domestic violence, nothing was done to really aid her, or her sisters, who remained at home with the father that Zainab reported she was extremely afraid of. Sahar was in the same risky boat, with the family trying to force her to marry an Afghani man, because she had been alone with her Brazilian Catholic boyfriend, who was so wholly inappropriate it was unthinkable. Geeti was... Geeti and irrepressibly willful.

There was much mention made, on the radio and in the press, of how timid social service agencies are to intervene in cases involving people of different cultures and faiths. Not just in Canada, or the US, but in the UK, as well. Of course, here in the US honor killings have also occurred, as you can see here with the horrifying murder of Noor al-Maleki, or here. There has been a fierce debate about media coverage (or lack thereof) of honor killings in the West, with criticisms from both sides of the political divide, see here and here, for example. As usual for me, rather than just looking at media coverage issues and whether the public even pays attention to these horrors, I also view things through the social services intervention paradigm.

Look at this bit testimony from the Shafia trials, quoted from Christie Blatchford's blistering article after the verdict in the case:

Det. Lefebvre was a child-abuse investigator (who) interviewed the children, and one of Sahar’s chief complaints was a lack of freedom. 
Prosecutor Lacelle asked her, “How did Sahar appear?” and Det. Lefebvre replied, “Well, I was surprised. She said she had no freedom, but she was well-dressed, wore jewelry, had nice makeup. She did not seem depressed.” 
And the detective told Sahar that: “I said, ‘no freedom?’. I said, ‘You’re well-dressed, have nice makeup.’”

Social workers in a women's shelter looked at Zainab and saw an exotic, beautiful, well-spoken, well-dressed woman, dripping with jewelry and thought she couldn't possibly be abused. Zainab claimed that her authoritarian father was out to kill her. And she was right, of course. But there were so many other protective failures: school and other social service entities including the police, disregarded the threats to these girls, the oldest two of whom had warned boyfriends and boyfriend's family to never, ever act as if they knew them if they saw them in public and were with family, even their brothers, because it could mean their death. Interviews were conducted by investigators after various complaints and reports, some of which used the family's children themselves as translators (do not get me started!), to no avail. Reports were filed but nothing was done. The timidity of social workers and first responders to get involved, reportedly stemmed from cultural differences. Or perhaps more accurately cultural ignorance in not believing that the threat was real.

Although I know the source might disturb my atheist readers, I found an interesting article on Uncommon Descent about Bibi Aisha's mutilation at the hands of her family (another honor-related attack, rendered only slightly less heinous by the fact she has survived). Uncommon Descent, which I'll warn you from the start is an Intelligent Design Theory blog, hooked me into reading this article, although I disagree with it on a number of points, because of its opening thesis: A teacher shows students a photo of Aisha and asks for their reaction and is appalled. (The UD article is also valuable for its thorough discussion of the despicable practice of baad, which is how Bibi Aisha ended up in her horrible circumstances.) There is actually a sequential series of articles or blog posts from differing sites, discussing the moral ambiguities involved ("Is it wrong if another culture says it's right?") which stemmed from a post of the same title and A Teacher's Surprising Discovery, which in turn led me to the original source: "Moments of Startling Clarity", an article by Dr. Stephen L. Anderson in Education Forum magazine. I strongly encourage all my readers to check out this thought-provoking article, if you read only a single link from this blog post. 

I have alluded to the results of Dr. Anderson's philosophy class's reaction to a photo of Bibi Aisha and what happened to her. When shown her photo, rather than the strong aversion he anticipated, he was rather dismayed by student commentary, such as:

"Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there, that's okay."

Another offered:

"It's just wrong to judge other cultures."

As Dr. Anderson describes it, his students were absolutely morally timorous in decrying what had been done to Aisha. He fears that unskilled teaching of cultural tolerance and non-judgmentalism is yielding a result of ethical paralysis in youth today. I think we should question whether it is yielding similar results in the world at large. It certainly did in Canada, where as Christie Blatchford puts it:

"In the long weeks and months before their deaths, knew they were in danger, that they were afraid, and that their pleas for help were misunderstood or minimized."

These are, of course, difficult issues, which tread dangerously on the edge of civil rights and the rights to follow one's faith, culture and tradition in a new country. The chance for oppression, of someone, at either end of the situation, is ever-present. And yet these are issues which we must address, within our own country and in the world at large. Just as France has moved forward, after much dialogue, with its hijab/niqab ban, we must begin here in the US, and in Canada, to address the issue of safeguarding citizens and residents who come from different cultures as best we can, even if we must bravely face controversy in doing so.

A thoughtful commenter on one of the BBC radio programs summarized his own, and that of his family's, adjustment to moving to the UK. He decided that the same freedoms that drew him to England would ultimately mean his daughters must join that freer world. Another gentleman said that this was nothing to do with honor but the power that many men felt they had to have over their families and specifically their daughters and that it was a personal power trip for some Afghani men. These two callers were Pakistani and Afghani respectively. So it's not as if émigrés aren't capable of getting the broad points of living in these different and more open cultures.

Recently, I attended a child welfare meeting and read a draft Case Manager Role statement. One of the supports that was requested of GALs (which was not the capacity in which I was attending and thus I could not comment upon it) was:

GALs should consider the child, family and caregivers in the context of culture and circumstances in which they live, and their values and aspirations.

In principle, I think, yes, yes. But I look at the photos of the beautiful Shafia girls and the beloved co-Mother and I'm not so sure I can flatly agree with the intent in that statement anymore. Should I just accept other cultures' customs without question? Did considering the family cultural values in the Shafia family properly safeguard Zainab, Sahar and Geeti?

When do we stop accepting culturally-accepted mistreatment? At what point do we risk controversy to step in?

There are, as I say, no easy answers. But this dialogue must begin if we are to safeguard women and girls at risk of harm.*

Protecting children from harm is a universal moral issue. It supersedes cultural tolerance. And as Dr. Anderson says, if the cost of peace is denial of social justice, the price is too high.

*Of course, Muslim culture, even with its honor killings and female circumcision and practices like baad and mut'ah, are not the only cultural practices that harm. I am not solely talking about Western moral assessments of culturally-accepted misdeeds against women and children in the Muslim world, but those seen in any culture. This post, however, specifically addresses the plight of women and children subject to harm under Afghani cultural norms.

Edited to add:

On Saturday, Muslim clerics of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada issued a fatwa against honor killings, domestic violence and hatred of women. Fatwas are morally binding religious edicts issued as a community reminder of the fundamental teachings of the Qu'ran. Prior fatwas issued by the ISCC include a condemnation of the terrorist actions of 9/11, and against the Taliban for forbidding girls to attend school.

Several of my longtime readers have requested an update on Bibi Aisha. In November 2011, Aisha moved in with an Afghan family where she is regarded as a daughter. They have expedited her application for political asylum in the US and taken charge of her medical and educational needs (Aisha had been illiterate, as is common for many Afghani girls). She is learning English. She has been seeing a psychiatrist and therapist, as well as a medical doctor. With asylum, she will fully rebuild her life on her own terms. Readers may recall that there have been delays in Aisha's surgery to reconstruct her nose and ears. Those who query the delays in her surgical procedures should consider what these invasive procedures may pose to her, in terms of triggering traumatic memories. Now 21, she has plenty of time.

You can keep up with Aisha's progress reports at Women for Afghan Women

© Bright Nepenthe, 2012

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