Thanks to Elamin Abdelmahmoud for letting me cross-post his article, which I came across at the Battered Women’s Support Services Ending Violence blog.
I don’t want to spent a lot of time on this matter, but I was stirred to comment (however briefly) about the Shafia murder trial.
I presume your basic knowledge of the case, as most mainstream media outlets spent a considerable time with it. It was, after all, a most horrific crime. Today, the verdict was handed down to the father, brother, and mother – all guilty, and all facing life in prison.
Before going on, I would like to reiterate the heinousness of the crime here. I have no intention of arguing for the convicted members of the Shafia family, making excuses for them, or pardoning them of the crimes they have been accused, charged, and convicted of.
This piece was inspired purely by the discussion that the verdict has generated. Specifically, the expression of outrage at ‘honour killings’ (the going term) and the lament for Canadian multiculturalism and how it has gone too far. I would like to suggest that, actually, by dubbing this an honour killing, we satisfy an elementary understanding of the crime while sidestepping the larger point.
The point, of course, is that this was a crime about control. Shafia was obviously exercising a level of control over the victims, and asserting his male dominance by robbing them of their agency. The violent act was Shafia’s response based on his belief that he has agency over these women, and they ought to act according to his worldview, a worldview many attribute to his ethnic background.
I have no intention of condoning this particular worldview. Y’all use words like “backwards”, “uncivilized”, and I’m not sure if those words are the precise words, but I’ll take your words and instead sub in “unacceptable”. I think that’s fairly agreeable? You can add an F word for good measure.
Where we go wrong in the discussion is here: we take Shafia’s robbing of women’s agency (with its cultural justification) and we call it an ‘honour killing’.
Instead, I suggest we drop the specific-language act and instead, we call it what it is: an exercise of controlling women. A deplorable practice of abuse of women, one that depends on deeming women not worthy of making decisions about their own bodies.
The reason I suggest we abandon using exceptional language is this: the same underlying assumption, the assumption that women ought to not make decisions about their own bodies, that women are not deserving of agency over their own destinies is used every single day in “our culture”, whatever you take that to mean (In this particular piece, I am taking that to mean some dominant culture, and not diving too deep into this).
Every time a woman is raped, a policy is passed about women’s bodies without taking agency into account, or a domestic abuse is committed, it is stemming from that exact belief. It gets a bit tiresome making the parallel everytime: Yes, a man who commits an “honour killing” is using his cultural baggage to justify his horrible act. But you know what? So is a man who rapes a woman because he thinks women’s bodies do not belong to them.
The mistake, in my opinion, made in discussing the Shafia case is assuming that cultural baggage only affects a certain segment of the population. Worse, there also seems to be an assumption that rape is a bunch of singular incidents and not culturally learned. Same thing as domestic abuse. We barely connect these crimes to a cultural learning that is pervasive throughout our culture, and that learning is the same one Shafia, his son and his wife were guilty of: the learning that women’s bodies must be controlled, and that women should possess less agency over their bodies.
So, to sum it up: Yes, the murder of these women was a heinous crime. Yes, it is a result of cultural understanding of how much agency women should have over their own bodies. But we need to ask ourselves, how many other crimes are we not attributing to the same cultural understanding? Stop calling it honour killing, and start calling it an exercise of stripping women of power. Then look for other examples of it, and you’ll find them all around you.
I have no intention of “relegating or implicitly excusing the role of culture” in this crime, as some folks have commented to me. On the contrary, I’m asking you to consider the role of culture in all violence against women.
As a final word, I guess, one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned is to question where my gut response is coming from. I’m not assuming yours is invalid. I am, however asking you to consider the possibility that it might be coming from a place of not spending time questioning where your own ideas may be coming from.
Oh, hey, if you have a comment back, tweet me: @elamin88.