Opinion: Honour killing? Please, call it femicide

I have a confession to make: I don’t read the news nearly as much as I should. (Bad journalist!)  But, like so many other Canadians, I followed the Shafia murder trial with a mix of fascination and outright horror. It was beyond the scope of my imagination how a father, a mother, and their son could send four innocent family members to their deaths for perceived crimes against the family, and show absolutely no remorse — and then have the audacity to expect to get away with it.

Predictably, the media response was overwhelming. During the trial, and weeks afterwards, it was the focus of news reports, opinion columns, and feature-length sidebar stories in every publication that I read. Almost every article referred to the quadruple-homicide as an ‘honour killing.’

Forgive me if I don’t totally agree with that label.

The term ‘honour killing’ typically refers to the killing of a woman by a male family member for apparent crimes against the family’s image or honour. These crimes are usually related to a woman’s sexuality, and have long been incorrectly associated with the Islamic faith. According to a Globe and Mail article by Timothy Appleby, their crime reporter, labeling the Shafia trial an honour killing has done enormous damage to the million-plus practicing Muslims in Canada.

I’d believe that.

Though in Canada you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, when you’re charged with murder the public inevitably sways against you. So in that respect, I believe the Canadian public would have disliked the Shafias based on principle.

But calling the quadruple-murder an ‘honour killing’ in the media and in the trial didn’t help either. I do believe they were guilty, and their sentencing was just, but labeling their actions as a crime of so-called honour made the media coverage of their trial somewhat unfair.

I’ve heard both sides of the argument. People in favour of using the term believe it’s a label that denotes a specific kind of crime against women, and consider it therefore necessary; those against cite its racialized dimensions, and suggest it be used more sparingly, if at all.

I understand where people on the other side are coming from. If you’ll allow me to use the term for a minute, “honour killings” as we have come to understand them indicate a premeditation and motive that isn’t necessarily present in other femicides. In the Shafia trial, there was plenty of motive, and the drowning was definitely premeditated. Besides, in an age where getting your story read is all about search engine optimization, using a widely-accepted (if not slightly inappropriate) term like ‘honour killing’ is a way to drive visitors to your site.

But calling what Mohammad, Tooba, and Hamed did to their daughters (or sisters) and to Rona Amir Mohammad an ‘honour killing’ is only going to stir up distrust of Eastern cultures and religions. It’s a tool in the hands of people who are looking for an excuse to promote bigotry.

Vinita Srivastava, a Ryerson journalism professor, made the point on Twitter (coincidentally when talking to me) that the term ‘honour killing’ made the trial about a culture clash: the civilized West versus the barbaric East. We, the West, were going to smite down primitive Eastern beliefs that had no place in our country. This mentality managed to simultaneously make the Muslim community an ‘other,’ and obscure the real focus of the trial.

The reality is that the Shafia trial was about gender power dynamics in our society, and violence against women. Hiding behind a term like ‘honour killing’ distracted from the tragic fact that four women were murdered quite senselessly because they were unable to get help from the people who were supposed to provide it.

Call the Shafia trial what it was: femicide, plain and simple. Zainab, Sahar, and Geeti Shafia, and Rona Amir Mohammad were murdered because they were women. And that’s what we should have focused on.

(This was written for the March 2012 issue of the Ryerson Free Press.)

– Kelsey

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