This weekend marked the long awaited conclusion of one of the most highly profiled cases of violence against women in our country. Zainab Shafia 19, Sahar Shafia 17, Getti Shafia 13, and Rona Mohammad Amir 50, were all found dead in their family’s car in Ottawa’s Rideau Canal on June 30th, 2009.
Yesterday Mohammad Shafia (the girls’ father and polygamist husband of first wife Rona), his other wife Tooba Yahya (the girls’ mother), and their son Hamad were found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to an automatic life sentence, with no chance of parole for 25 years.
The Shafia family emigrated from Afghanistan to Montreal in 2007. The girls’ refusal to adhere to “traditional Afghan values” in Canada greatly upset their family and incited incidents and threats of violence that were reported to the police. This article in The Montreal Gazette mentions that the girls spoke to the police in April 2009, with the youngest daughter Getti reporting that her father had pulled her hair and punched her in the face and that her brother hit her in the eye. In the same month, the oldest daughter Zainab took refuge in a Montreal women’s shelter. In doing so her family believed she had committed the “ultimate act of betrayal” by making their problems public. It was revealed in this article by the CBC that the plot to kill Zainab, her sisters, and Rona took shape shortly after this incident.
Zainab, Sahar, Getti, and Rona, you will all be remembered.
For those of us who do not see or live with violence everyday, the Shafia murders and trial are a tragic reminder that violence against women remains a serious problem today. The United Nations estimates that 5,000 women are victims of so-called “honour killings” every year. The murder of the Shafia women highlights the intersection of gender, culture, age, and violence and the difficulties facing young women who are trying to exercise their right to seek safety and refuge and live free from violence.
Their death also demonstrates that violence against women extends far beyond domestic partner-based abuse. It persists in control by men and other family members and is masked in social and cultural traditions that perpetuate male patriarchy. Tragically, we have failed these women in many ways including societal justification that the death of “assertive women” will restore “family honour”; and by allowing cries for help to go unheard until it’s too late.
At Nellie’s and other women’s service organizations we witness countless women and children fleeing violence and oppression. We hear their emotional stories, see their physical scars, and witness their great strength as they transition into new lives free from violence and abuse.
Although sentence has been passed on to punish the guilty, there is nothing we can do for the Shafia women, but hope to learn from this tragedy how to prevent future unnecessary deaths. We can ask questions such as:
- How can we end violence and abuse in families?
– How can we recognize or better help women and young girls in abusive situations?
– How can services and organizations provide confidential, safe service to women escaping violence?
– Can social media or other technology tools be used to keep girls safe?
We hope that this conversation continues beyond today, next week, and into the future until all women can safely live a life free from violence or the threat of harm.