Life trumps culture…or it ought to

In Canada, we should call them crimes of dishonor. For that is, in fact, what they are.

To add such a phrase to the Canadian vernacular might even be the beginning of a tribute, a true honour, if you will, for three teenagers, Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia and for 53-year-old Rona Amir Mohammad, who were all murdered by family members. All murdered, unbelievably, for the sake, of something called family honour.

Even to write the phrase makes me cringe.

But there it is. It calls out to be dissected and then, discarded.  Banished from Canadian vocabulary, because regardless of where you lived and what you practiced before arriving in this country, you’d best leave that language – and the practices that go with it – far, far behind.

The tragic story of Zainab, Sahar, Geeti and Rona first became public in June 2009 when their bodies were discovered in a car submerged in the Rideau Canal near Kingston, ON.

The story officially concluded this week with a jury declaring the guilt of three people:  Mohammad Shafia, father of the three girls, and husband of Rona (who was his secret first wife in a polygamous marriage); Tooba Mohammad Yahya, the second wife, and mother of the three murdered girls; and Hamed Shafia, the girls’ brother.

But while the jury has gone home, and the judge and legal counsel have hung up their robes, this case does not seem to be done with the collective consciousness of Canadians.

We are not done with it, because it has important things for Canada to consider. It speaks to us of who we are as a nation, of what our values are, what we stand for, and what we stand against.

There has been much discussion in the past week about how we should view these crimes. Did they stem from culture? The Shafia family came as immigrants to Canada from Afghanistan. Did they bring this openness to murder as a solution to family problems with them when they left their country of origin and settled in Canada?

Clearly, not every Afghan family turns to murder as a way of preserving its reputation should their daughters push the limits. But the country does have a history of deep patriarchal practices and a history of subjugating women.  One cannot disregard this when one considers the Shafias actions.

Were the murders more about a controlling, maniacal father, who so easily influenced his wife and son that they followed his lead in murdering their own family members?

Should we characterize this crime as one of domestic violence, for certainly it was violent, and it definitely destroyed a household.

These are all reasonable questions. And perhaps the murders are linked to all of these possibilities.

But they are not the most important question, particularly in Canada, a country so deeply characterized by, and committed to, multiculturalism.

The most important question this case raises for Canada is about life, and particularly how deeply, how broadly, how certainly, we value it.

If the Shafia crimes are to help us think clearly about anything, they should help us put boundaries around what can, and cannot be done to denigrate one human life – or four lives, as was the sad case here.

Let us say this loudly and boldly to every person who wants to be called a Canadian: we value human life. We value it above family practice, above cultural traditions, above religion, even, above nationhood.

And if your family practice, your cultural tradition, your religion, or the nation you’ve left behind says otherwise, then Canada has one message: Change. Leave those ideas, practices, beliefs behind. There is no room for them here.

In Canada, the value of life crowds out everything else.

The right not to die at the hands of another person trumps every cultural tradition that strives to wiggle its way into this country. That is the message we Canadians need to give to one another, whether we come to this country by birth or by choice.

We need to speak this message loudly and clearly because it is not necessarily believed across the world. In fact, honour killings — murder justified for the sake of a family’s reputation — are carried out every day in far too many countries.

Canada is increasingly becoming a country shaped by those who come here from other places. This is a good thing – it broadens our worldview and enriches our experience as humans.

But let’s be clear as we shape and reshape our country. We value life. No, let me say it more strongly: we honour life. And we will not tolerate crimes of dishonour.

 Lynda MacGibbon is a transplanted Maritimer living in Toronto. Her column appears each Friday in the Moncton Times & Transcript. Contact her at or on Twitter @lyndamacgibbon.

3 thoughts on “Life trumps culture…or it ought to

  1. Well said. Thanks for the clear, concise response to an horrific crime of dishonouring of life.

  2. The Shafias will quickly learn in prison that killing your own children is considered one of the most shameful crimes. And that is the opinion of criminals, let alone general society.

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