Back in June, in an “honour-killing” murder trial now known across Canada, Muhammad Parvez and Waqas Parvez pleaded guilty to the 2007 murder of 16-year-old Aqsa Parvez (their daughter/sister respectively). According to media reports, not one of the twelve people present in the house could – or would – bear witness to the crime.
Regrettably, unless attitudes in some immigrant communities change, this may not be the last time Canadians hear of such tragedies. The same day the Parvez males pled guilty to murdering Aqsa for “dishonouring” their family, I happened to conduct a workshop in an elementary school for south Asian women in Toronto. I asked the participants why the boys and girls were segregated on the playground and learned that about 75 per cent of the children in this school are from one region of south Asia, the same one Aqsa Parvez came from.
While segregation of children by gender is not the school policy, the volunteer parents who monitor the playground and speak their language instruct the children in appropriate culturally-accepted behaviours. So, for example, a majority of the boys and girls wore native outfits and few spoke English, and the consensus among the 19 mothers in the workshop was that if Aqsa had obeyed her parents, she would still be alive today.
All these mothers were resistant to the notion their children should adopt Western values— the problem for Aqsa Parvez. Aqsa had wanted to wear the clothes other Canadian kids do, go to the mall with her friends, hold down a part-time job—and that’s why she was killed. Like many of Aqsa’s friends from a local mosque, these mothers agreed that she brought her death upon herself. I could not help but wonder which one of the female children in that playground might turn out to be another Aqsa Parvez.
Few researchers on the subject appreciate the many distinctions between historically observed Western patterns of abuse of women by men and newer, culturally-driven abuse of girls and women by both men and women.
One example can be found in the rising number of “honour killings.” Between 2002 and 2010, 15 women and girls in Canada have been killed in the name of family honour. Many of the women in this cultural group are married to their cousin or relatives by marriage, which binds them tighter to the clan. Such murders are carried out in order to cleanse the family name and restore the family honour, usually that of the male patriarch.
Unlike “normal” western domestic violence, typically perpetrated by one intimate partner on another, honour violence is instead perpetrated within the greater family context by a variety of the family’s members. So it occurs against girls and women by male relatives such as fathers, fathers-in-law, brothers, brothers-in-law, husbands, and occasionally sons. Tragically, it often happens with the complicity of older females.
Among other differences, the traditional pattern in Western families is that such violence is statistically infrequent (relative to immigrant communities) and stems from psychological dysfunction around intimate relations between individual adults. Critically, it is considered a cultural aberration by kinship groups and society in general.
In contrast, culturally-driven violence is statistically frequent, in fact stems from culturally-approved codes around collective family honour and shame. It is condoned and even facilitated by kinship groups and the community; that’s why the many mothers I talked to that day though young Aqsa brought it upon herself.
Problematically, most advocates and activists for female victims of abuse shy away from challenging the immigrant communities to examine their own traditions and cultural values in explaining the violence in their homes. The ideology of multiculturalism, even amongst the most well-meaning advocates for female equality, tends to preclude any discussion of cultural values and traditions. Such advocates are afraid of being seen as “colonialist” and try to avoid a perceived “racialization” of an entire ethnic community.
Such advocates of multiculturalism run amok are afraid to ever imply some cultures are better than others where treatment of women is concerned. So it is much safer, but dishonest, to blame the abuse of women on the ‘global phenomenon’ of women abuse, or settlement issues, or discriminations and racism in the host society. But that ignores values that need to be challenged within some immigrant communities.
In the south Asian communities where traditional values are upheld, honour/shame codes revolve around women’s sexual purity. Aqsa Parvez’s death was a tragedy, but the signs pointing to that tragedy were long evident in the obsessive control of her behaviour exerted in her home. She resisted her family’s attempts at brainwashing her into submission and paid a terrible price. Question: How many future Aqsa Parvezes are playing in gender-segregated playgrounds in our schools?