Speaking out against a brutal tradition


National Post - Wednesday January 26th, 2011


Barbara Kay, National Post
· Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011

Have Canadians forgotten how to take care of themselves? What are the limits of the nanny state -- and how should we enforce them? In a week-long series devoted to these questions, National Post writers examine that endangered concept known as "personal responsibility."

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Canadians are not racist, but they are increasingly skeptical about the ideal of multiculturalism. Mass immigration, many feel, will only be desirable when immigrants choose to Canadianize, as they did in the years before multiculturalism was ensconced as an official state doctrine in the 1970s.

Here is one reason why they are skeptical. In a few months, Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya and their son Hamed will submit to Canadian justice in a courtroom. Each of them faces four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of three teenage daughters/ sisters, as well as the death of Shafia's first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad. Details may emerge about the motivation for these alleged crimes, similar to many we've seen before, that will sicken and enrage most Canadians.

In the honour killings recorded in Canada since 2002 -- 12 have been reported in total, but there probably are many more -- the victims were girls or women, the perpetrators fathers and brothers, abetted by other family members. (Occasionally, absent a male authority figure in the household, mothers have killed their daughters.)

Honour codes, in which a girl or woman's perceived sexual virtue is the linchpin around which an entire family's good opinion of itself and its standing in the community revolves, are an importation to this country from regions, mainly the Middle East and South Asia, where honour culture has been entrenched for centuries. Although actual killings of girls and women, and abuses such as female genital mutilation (FGM) are typically associated with Muslim cultures, forced marriages, forced suicides and dowry fraud are present in Hindu, Sikh and (as we shall see below) even Christian communities from South Asia.

All such practices are anathema to Western culture, and in particular to our values of individualism and gender equality. Yet few influential elites are willing to speak out against them. On the contrary, our intelligentsia either remain silent themselves or attempt to silence others by associating disapproval of honour codes with racism. For example, Amin Muhammad, a psychiatrist at Newfoundland's Memorial University, a supposed expert on honour killings, says, "We should not be focusing on any particular group or culture. Honour killings can happen to anybody in Canada."

That is manifestly not true. Denial that honour-motivated violence is specific to certain cultures, reflexively parroted by liberal pundits and politically correct ideologues, only serves to enable its perpetuation.

It takes courage to state the obvious. The federal government has, to its credit, warned new Canadians against "barbaric" practices in its new citizens' guidebook. But the government cannot uproot socially inappropriate perspectives within cultural enclaves without the support of cultural leaders. Some community spokesmen, ethnic media personalities and religious clerics have not been unequivocal -- or even vocal -- in condemning honour-motivated abuse against girls and women.

Two years ago, I formed a friendship with a Canadian survivor of honour-motivated abuse. Born and raised in the Punjab, Aruna Papp is ethnically Indian, and religiously Christian. The oldest of seven children, she came to understand, with the birth of every sister, that girls and women of her culture were, in her words, "unworthy creatures." Only the eventual birth of her brother was an occasion for joy in her family. She arrived in Canada in 1972 as a young mother, under-educated, routinely abused by her (arranged-marriage) husband and, in her words, "brainwashed" into acceptance of her subservient role in a rigid patriarchal matrix.

Years later, happy in a second, egalitarian marriage, she became a counsellor to honour-obsessed South Asian families and an activist for South Asian women's rights. Aruna's story of lonely resistance, relentless upward striving and eventual triumph is inspirational. Inspirational because she didn't consider her work done when she herself escaped the system. Aruna felt it was her personal responsibility to do what she could to change it. She applied her intimate knowledge of honour culture to a campaign of education and reform.

As a cultural whistle-blower, Aruna has paid a high personal price. For daring to expose the ongoing honour-motivated victimization of women in her community (she counsels second-and even third-generation Canadian clients of South Asian provenance), she was for many years shunned by her family and denounced by community leaders. Her persistence has paid off in (sometimes grudging) recognition and even admiration from some former detractors who used to condemn her for shaming them.

In her writings and speeches, Aruna emphasizes the fact that honour codes absolve the perpetrators and their abettors from guilt. They blame the victim for forcing their hand. This must end. As Aruna often says, it is not racist to demand that immigrant women benefit from the Charter of Rights as other Canadian women do. Cultural leaders must therefore take responsibility for breaking the cycle of honour-based abuses in their communities.

bkay@videotron.ca - Aruna Papp's memoir, written with Barbara Kay, will be published by McClelland & Stewart in the fall of 2011.

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THURSDAY

Neil Seeman on obesity. Andrea Mrozek and Peter Jon Mitchell on parenting.