Like many Canadians, I paid close attention to the Shafia trial as it unfolded in a blaze of media drama from its beginning in October 2011, through to the eventual conviction at the end of January.
The reason for the intense focus on the trial is multi-faceted, but undeniably a great deal of the interest originates in the sheer enormity of the crime involved. The three accused are Mohammad, Tooba, and Hamed Shafia; mother, father and son. They have been convicted of the murders of Rona, Zainab (19 years old), Sahar (17) and Geeti Shafia (13) — Mohammad Shafia’s first wife and three daughters.
The reason? According to the crown, it was an honour killing, caused by the girls’ embrace of Western culture, such as boyfriends, Western clothing, and a desire for more freedom.
The Shafia family came originally from Afghanistan, but in a series of moves that included Dubai and Australia, they eventually came to Canada as economic immigrants. As such the family, even with seven children and (as came out afterwards) two wives, was quite wealthy, millionaires in fact. It might have been an immigrant success story, except for dark familial undercurrents that began to rise to the surface.
These difficulties began to be noticed at school. Zainab ran away from home. Sahar tried to commit suicide. Geeti was in constant trouble, and begged to be placed in foster care. At one point several of the children asked a stranger to call 911 for them, because they were too frightened to go home. Social services and the police got involved, but as soon as the parents appeared the children recanted all of their allegations. The police and social workers ended up closing their files.
Meanwhile, matters did not, apparently, improve. Zainab was lured back home from the women’s shelter where she had been staying, on the promise that she could marry her forbidden boyfriend. The marriage was annulled the same day it happened, and arrangements were made for Zainab to marry her cousin. It is not fully clear what Zainab thought about that.
Rona, the first wife, in diaries that were found after her death was, apparently, unhappy, as the second wife, Tooba, attempted to separate Rona from her husband. It is alleged that Rona wanted a divorce before her death.
The drama finally ended when, on the way home from a “family holiday,” one of the Shafia family’s cars ended up at the bottom of a canal, with the four “erring” family members in it. The court alleged, based on a considerable body of evidence, that this was not, as the defence tried to suggest, a tragic accident, but was in fact cold-blooded and premeditated murder on the part of the people they should have been able to trust most deeply: parents, spouse, brother.
You could easily fill a volume with the details of the Shafia family’s troubled life, the trial evidence, and the trial itself. Indeed, I have no doubt that several such books are in the works as I write. But for Canadians, perhaps the most important effect of the trial is not merely the fact that three murderers have been punished, but the fact that Canada has engaged in deep soul-searching as a result of the Shafia murders, and has emerged, I would suggest, with a stronger sense of self, a deeper understanding of the difficulties faced by immigrant families, and a reawakening of our sense of duty towards the vulnerable, regardless of cultural sensitivities.
The police who recovered their bodies from the canal were but the latest in a series of officials who became involved in the lives of the Shafia girls. But, in what now appears to be fatal oversight, warning signs were missed, pleas for rescue went unheard, and files were closed with minimal investigation. Did social services act with what would have been, in any other case, appropriate vigilance to protect these girls? Hindsight is 20:20, so it is very difficult to say with any clarity, but many have suggested that they did not.
For many, a deeper and more disturbing issue than merely incompetence or misjudgement on the part of a few individuals is the openly asked question, “Did the Shafia family get a pass because these difficulties, about dating, wearing a hijab, etc, were so closely intertwined with their religion and original culture that social services were too nervous, as a result of political correctness, to look at issues clearly?”
Again, for many people the worry is that yes, either through ignorance of the situations that women from various cultures could be facing, or through a misguided sensitivity towards cultural and religious issues, the Canadian social system seemed slow to act, too slow as events proved.
The Shafia case broke open taboos, and forced everyone to confront pathologies that many people would prefer not to have dealt with. Denial was no longer possible, save perhaps for a few diehard liberals. Dozens of Canadian and American imams issued a fatwa against honour killings, even they were using the name. Conservatives in the past have made an issue of the fact that honour killings have not been properly covered by the mainstream media. That can no longer be said in Canada.
Canada is called a mosaic where multiculturalism is a reigning virtue. That may be, but I think we are starting to realize that we can not be blinded by the official lines of academics and activists to ignore the reality of those who are suffering, regardless of race, religion and culture.
The Shafia girls wanted to be Canadians, but if they failed in life they succeeded in death. Canada took them to their hearts, as millions absorbed the drama of their last days, and unleashed a torrent of wrath against their murderers. Thanks to them, Canada has grown up, and is willing to face these issues head on. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Rebekah Hebbert is the Managing Editor of The Prince Arthur Herald, a centre-right student newspaper that circulates throughout Canada. A student of economics, she lives in Eastern Canada.