Were the Shafia women victims of Islam?
Is religion to blame for the deaths of the Shafia girls? If society was to get rid of Islam, would there be an end to honour crimes?
In the wake of the guilty verdict in the Shafia trial, there has been no shortage of condemnation. Child support services, teachers, and the police have all come in for criticism. But a chorus of journalists have rushed to cast judgment not only on the murderers, but on the Muslim religion the family professes.
Sweeping blame on Muslims
Take National Post columnist Christie Blatchford, who writes:
“If it's a fair generalisation that some Afghans have learned to say whatever they think their listener wants to hear, if it's true that there is what's called ‘permissible lying' in Islam (it's called al-Taqiyya, and means the concealing or disguising of one's beliefs, feelings or opinions to save oneself from injury), none of it quite explains the Shafias.”
She neatly attributes the murderous duplicity of the convicted Shafias to their ethnicity and religion, en route to saying that they seem to have surpassed the typical stereotypes.
Perhaps we should conclude that they are simply more Afghan and more Muslim than most? Blatchford’s swipe at “al-Taqiyya”, as a refuge for liars, is simply fatuous: the concept is about holding on to one’s faith in the face of persecution, by overtly denying it if necessary (rather like Galileo “admitting” the world is flat).
Then there's Ezra Levant in the right-wing Toronto Sun, claiming the Shafia family murders are indicative of a “war on Muslim women”. He blames 90 per cent of honour killing on the bullying “extremist Muslim” male. While Levant qualifies the word “Muslim” with “extremist”, many Canadians may wonder if there is any other kind, given the negative media coverage.
“Honour killings” are merely the most extreme form of the drive to control women and ensure they remain the subservient property of men. This drive manifests itself in a range of practices from female genital mutilation and wife-beating, to social customs that ensure women are unable to support themselves economically. Those who benefit from a social order in which they have absolute primacy, will attempt to maintain the status quo through fear and violence. As a result, violence against women, including honour killing, is found in many different communities.
Violence against women around the world
It was only weeks ago that headlines were filled with the sad case of Jaswinder Kaur Sidhu, a Canadian Sikh girl whose family is suspected of having her murdered for marrying a rickshaw driver.
And before we start condemning people with more melanin in their skin as inherently more patriarchal, we should recall that the linking of female sexual behaviour with family honour has a long pedigree in “western” societies as well.
The 1964 film Sedotta e Abbandonata tells the story of a Sicilian girl who is raped. Her family then pressures her to marry the rapist to “repair” family honour, an attitude consistent with Article 544 of the Italian penal code. Until it was repealed — in 1981— Article 544 recognised this type of marriage as a reparation for the crime.
Who benefited from this solution? Certainly not the woman. It was her family, whose honour had been wronged by her encounter.
The fact is that how the ethical requirements of religion are heard often depends on who is listening. Religion is a convenient authority to invoke when justifying a dirty deed which has far more personal motivations. Some Christian societies invoked the Bible to justify slavery, using lofty moral language to dignify the utter subordination of other human beings. Did the people of the United States and South Africa practise slavery because they were Christians?
Honour killings: not in the Quran
Most Christians today would argue that slavery continued in spite of the religion. Would it be right to assume that because these professing Christians invoked the Bible to justify slavery, it is therefore a Christian practice?
It is erroneous to blame Islam for honour killings. There is nothing in the Quran or the life of Prophet Muhammad to advocate or excuse this barbaric crime. A history of patriarchal male interpretation has often supported customs that do not treat women equally — but even this bias does not extend to sanctioning family murder. Muslim feminists have re-examined the Quranic message and found it to be a rich source of support for social justice and a corrective to notions of male entitlement.
It is undeniable that places with the worst levels of honour crimes today — Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and parts of Turkey — also happen to have large numbers of Muslims. This is a reminder of the uphill struggle against the worst practices of local culture that religions so often engage in.
Female infanticide was among the first targets of Islam in the seventh century, a practice that the Qur’an warns against in the darkest terms. As it happens, female infanticide was also common in Greek and Roman societies across the Mediterranean.
Muslim women, and men, are today at the forefront of activism against honour crimes and other forms of violence against women that are as rife in western communities as they are in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. In his closing comments, the judge presiding over the Shafia trial rightly derided “a notion of honour that is founded upon the domination and control of women”.
That is the problem, and it is not particularly Muslim.