After a dizzying parade of nearly 50 witnesses in 25 days, jurors in the Shafia honour killing trial heard one final prosecution witness Monday, an academic who testified that in some cultures, family honour is considered more important than human life. “A rumour could cause the killing of a young woman,” testified Shahrzad Mojab (inset), a native of Iran who is a professor at the University of Toronto. The judge accepted her as an expert on honour killings and related issues of culture, religion, patriarchy and violence in Middle Eastern and South Asian societies and in immigrant diasporas in western nations.
Mojab has been studying the issues for more than 15 years, edited a book on honour killing, has written dozens of research papers and she has attended dozens of conferences and seminars. She has provided advice to the United Nations and last year, she explained the concept of honour killing at a conference of Toronto Police homicide investigators.
Prosecutors allege that Montreal businessman Mohammad Shafia, 58, his wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya, 41, and their son Hamed, 20, murdered four family members in an honour killing. Each of them has pleaded not guilty to four counts of first-degree murder.
Sisters Zainab Shafia, 19, Sahar, 17, Geeti, 13 and Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, were found dead inside a submerged car discovered at the bottom of a shallow canal in Kingston on June 30, 2009. Mohammad was Shafia’s first wife, whom he married in his native Afghanistan before the family moved to Canada in 2007.
Prosecutors allege that the murders were orchestrated because the teenaged sisters dressed provocatively, took boyfriends, disobeyed their father and, in the case of Zainab, ran away from home to be with a young man of her choosing. Jurors heard that Rona Mohammad complained of abuse and wanted a divorce.
Mojab was not asked to comment on the facts of the Shafia case. She explained the concept of honour killing and the motivations of perpetrators.
“The shedding of the blood is a way of purifying the name of the family… and restoration of the honour of the family,” Mojab told the seven women and five men on the jury.
She said that in traditional, patriarchal families, the chastity, virginity and obedience of girls and women is vital to the maintenance of family honour. Men, who have power in the families, control women’s bodies and have exclusive access to them. If a woman dresses immodestly or consorts with other men, or is believed to have done those things, she may be perceived to have shamed the patriarch and may be marked for death.
“There are cases that female members of the family and, in particular mothers, participate by different means in the … planning or directly involved in the act of the killing,” Mojab testified.
She said the conspiracy among family members is a characteristic that distinguishes honour killings from domestic violence. She said honour killing is an ancient cultural practice seen among Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians.
“It doesn’t have any direct connection with religion at all,” she said, characterizing it as a means for men to maintain gender inequality that affords them a privileged position in families and society.
Mojab said that in many cases she has studied, perpetrators who murder their children claim that they loved them but say that their deaths were necessary because it restores the honour of the family and the honour of the child who transgressed.
“It is [considered] part of the continuum of love and care,” Mojab testified.
She said some immigrants don’t shed these strict views when they move to new countries. Instead, they “freeze” their concept of their home culture at the moment in time when they left their native country and resist integration in a new home by clinging to old beliefs.
Defence lawyer Peter Kemp, who represents Shafia, asked Mojab if the shame of a family would not be purified if an honour killer denied committing the murder.
“That’s often the initial reaction,” she replied. “But then there are many cases that, even after the father is imprisoned, they acknowledge that the act that was committed was to purify the name of the family.”
In answer to another question, Mojab said an honour killing would still be considered to have cleansed the family’s shame, even if the death was disguised as an accident.
The trial was adjourned until Thursday, when it is expected that Mohammad Shafia will testify as the defence begins presenting evidence.
Jurors were told the case is likely to extend into January.
(this appeared first at the Montreal Gazette)