On March 11, 2011, Quebec MP Justin Trudeau debated the government on its use of the word ‘barbaric’ to describe honour killings in a study guide for would-be Canadian citizens.
It is worth restating Trudeau’s words here: “We accept that these acts are absolutely unacceptable. That’s not the debate. In casual conversation, I’d even used the word barbaric to describe female circumcision, for example, but in an official Government of Canada publication, there needs to be a little bit of an attempt at responsible neutrality.”
Trudeau is offended by the public use of the word ‘barbaric,’ though he accepts its use in private. He would prefer government ‘neutrality,’ but to what end? In our traditions, governments are a representation of our community. Can our government embrace neutrality in relation to the killing of young girls at the hands of male relatives?
I was born in an honour based family structure in India, married off as a teenager and lived in an abusive marriage for 18 years. For the past thirty years, I have been working with abused immigrant women living in Canada. There is no denying it: Not all cultures embrace gender equality. It is not racist to name those practices that deny women’s dignity in the name of honour. While no one wants entire cultures condemned, practices that are incompatible with women’s humanity should be.
Canadians find rudeness unacceptable. They would agree that public urination and littering are unacceptable. They find road rage and vandalism unacceptable. Honour killings don’t really belong on this list.
For the sake of neutrality, in Trudeau’s view, government should not take a principled stand when young women are tortured and murdered in the name of family honour and when their blood is shed to boost or regain a ‘male’ status in the community. Five year old Farah Khan was killed by her father and stepmother after the father claimed that the child was not his. Invoking a deep shame he claimed that the killing was necessary to redeem his honour. Such an act is ‘barbaric,’ not simply ‘unacceptable behaviour.’
Honour killings are not mere social nuisance, and are much more than murder. A UN Secretary General’s 2006 study on violence against women stated that
Honour is generally seen as residing in the bodies of women. Frameworks of ‘honour’, and its corollary ‘shame’, operate to control, direct and regulate women’s sexuality and freedom of movement by male members of the family. Regulation of such behaviour may in extreme cases involve horrific direct violence –including ‘honour’ killing… In these contexts, the rights of women (and girls) to control their own lives, to liberty and freedom of expression, association, movement and bodily integrity mean very little.
In Canada twelve honour killings have taken place since 2002. The justifications for committing honour killings—usually offered by perpetrators—vary: wearing makeup, socializing with objectionable friends, wearing immodest clothes, staying out late, dating, lack of sex in the marriage, extramarital sex, gossip, or challenging the authority of the dominant male in the family. Ironically, they kill for gestures or actions they find “unacceptable.”
In patriarchical, honour-based family structures, gender roles are clearly defined. Females are viewed as wives, sisters, and daughters who are expected to be subordinate, even servile, to their fathers, brothers, husbands, as well as their own sons. Women’s role in life is ancillary: as a dutiful daughter, an obedient wife and a self-sacrificing mother. Women are not expected to show or develop autonomy but to work without complaint for their families or their husbands, and to bear children for her husband’s family. The more she bears sons, the better.
While men make most honour killing decisions, women (mothers and sisters) also collude with them. They keep silent, confirm alibis and protect the killers. The murderer, appointed by the group, knows that he has the full support of others. Although these are premeditated murders, the killers often manage to manipulate the justice system to get away with lesser charges in the name of cultural values.
Underneath Trudeau’s comments lies the ideology of multiculturalism, pandering to the ethnic vote, concerns about ‘racializations’ and ‘political correctness,’ which tend to preclude any discussion of harmful traditions and values.
Canada is an open society. We dialogue and debate, but we must show no patience for those who insist on violently acting on values that are contrary to our established values and legal norms. We should respectfully spell out the limits to accommodation of cultural differences. Our central values of respect and dignity for individuals cannot be compromised for diversity’s sake. We gain nothing in finessing language to make what is barbaric appear to be less so.