Some big news broke recently involving the so-called “honor killing” of four women close to where I live, and the media coverage has just been troubling to say the least. A father, his eldest son, and his second wife have been convicted of first-degree murder in the slaying of three of their daughters and his first wife.
The fact of Geeti Shafia, Sahar Shafia, Zainab Shafia, and Rona Amir Mohammad’s deaths is an unmitigated tragedy. But its political meaning for the Western states whose resources are being funneled increasingly into surveillance and policing (domestically, through immigration and border services, and through imperial wars) is not self-evident.
Nor, perhaps, is its connection to the topic of youth, sexuality, and education, but let me tell you what I think about that.
Much reporting has focused on how the girls were killed because they were beautiful, had boyfriends, wore revealing clothes, and just wanted to be “Westernized.” It’s obvious that in addition to telling Western states in a post-9/11 landscape that they are the modern antidote to what one national magazine has called “ancient barbaric ‘honour’ code,” this kinds of journalism lets women know what they need to be in order to be truly modern, civilized, and free. Using the ironic combination of breathless surprise with tropes the “real” Canadian citizen is already expecting to hear, this editorial laments:
Before they died, the Shaﬁa sisters were caught in the ultimate culture clash, living in Canada but not allowed to be Canadian. They were expected to behave like good Muslim daughters, to wear the hijab and marry a fellow Afghan.
Obviously, “real” Canadians don’t wear the hijab, or promote troublesome ethnic enclaves by marrying within their communities of origin. Worthy members of the First World are independent from their communities, from religion (except from the Christianities which pass as secular in North America), dress in ways that reveal their bodies (definitely no veils allowed in this formula), and normatively heterosexual (not “fertile and conniving,” or polygamous, like the girls’ parents). Moralizing exposés like this represent an insidious example of the ways that youth—girls, especially—come to know who they are only through distinction from the (racial) Other. In the Orientalist picture drawn by media, these girls are victims of misogyny and barbaric sexual practices (polygamy, excessive fertility, arranged marriages) while “real” Western girls are portrayed as totally free from sexism, misogyny, social, familial, and reproductive control (yeah right!). This picture gives people an excuse not to acknowledge the ways that they themselves are tangled up in anti-woman anti-feminist systems.
Mainstream reports on the Shafia murders have taken the opportunity—when countless other women are hurt and killed every day in North America by their families, partners, and others—to narrate a profoundly racist story of fatal pre-modernity and the “ultimate culture clash” between “real Canadians” and “Muslims.” The last StatsCan report on domestic violence revealed that 7% of Canadian women reported being physically or sexually victimized by a current or former spouse in the past five years. In 2007, intimate partner violence accounted for approximately 1683 US women’s deaths. Yet, as Sherene Razack notes in her book Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics, “we do not, in these instances, refer to culture [or religion] as the root of the problem.” (And figures like these don’t even account for the women who can’t or won’t speak up, or for the hundreds of missing and murdered women of color whose deaths many officials don’t even bother to count).
It is disheartening yet fully predictable to see this exploitation of a tragedy for race pleasure, what Anthony Farley describes as a pleasure in one’s own superiority (ie. The magazine’s take that “Most Westerners” would find a story about such misogyny “unthinkable”) and the other’s abjection.
Following the lead of many feminist, anti-racist activists, we would all do well to ask: What does this particular narrative of the Shafia case teach girls about how to recognize their own agency? Why this attention to “honor-related violence” (HRV) coupled with a failure to locate it on a spectrum of violence against women? Why in conjunction with religion and “non-Western” culture? Why now?
In my opinion? The way this story is being sensationalized now, instead of others, furthers a lot of imperial interests. One of them is reflecting to young females an image of themselves as being like the Shafia sisters—craving beauty, boys, sexual freedom—but as having the choice and the civilized duty to succeed where their culture/religion caused them to “fail.”