After the Shafia Verdict

02/06/2012 02:47 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2012

Honor killings have long held a fascination for Westerners and the quadruple murder committed by three members of the Afghan-Canadian Shafia family amply justified the ghoulish public interest. The three teenage victims, Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, and their middle-aged step-mother, Rona Amir Mohammad, were found in a car submerged in the Rideau Canal in Kingston, Ontario in June 2009. They were apparently killed for breaching the narrow code of conduct imposed on his household by the polygamous Mohammad Shafia, a prosperous businessman who settled in Canada with his family in 2007. His second wife Tooba Yahya, 42, was also involved in the premeditated killings, as was their son Hamed, 21. Members of the jury recognized the crimes for what they were, first-degree murders, and they returned a verdict of life imprisonment against the three perpetrators on Jan. 29.

Honor remains an important value in patriarchal societies where the interests of the community trump those of the individual. Women bear the burden of the family honor and are expected to uphold it through their modest and obedient conduct. Honor crimes have been committed for millennia, but traditions are neither monolithic nor static. Few societies remain untouched by modernity, and patriarchal rules adapt to changing circumstances. Honor-based crimes may be alien to western societies, but the practice is one of the many forms, a particularly extreme one, that violence against women takes worldwide.

Victims of honor crimes were in the past killed in a very public manner to redeem the family's reputation in the eyes of the community. The Shafia family, on the other hand, tried to make the quadruple homicide look like an accident, aware that murder carried a heavy penalty. Stricter legislation and greater public awareness, and condemnation, of honor-based violence have in some countries resulted in a higher incidence of "suicides" and unexplained accidents.

When these crimes take place today, particularly among migrants in Western countries, a complex combination of factors usually comes into play. These may include a sense of alienation and isolation that some migrants experience in the host country. Migration also radically alters hierarchical relations within the family, narrowing the imbalance of power by tipping the scales toward women who, typically, enjoy more mobility and opportunities in the host country.

In all communities where misogyny remains deeply entrenched, local activists are working to challenge the status quo and ensure that the most narrow-minded members of the community do not monopolize the interpretation of their culture and their religion. Contrary to popular perceptions, honor-related crimes are not rooted in Islam, nor are they limited to Muslim communities. Sikh and Hindu families, too, sometimes kill relatives, mostly female, who are deemed to have breached patriarchal rules, and such murders were still reported in European countries around the Mediterranean until a few decades ago.

Murder is the most brutal weapon used by patriarchy to maintain its domination, but it has other tools at its disposal, such as coercion, domestic violence and forced marriages. In the United Kingdom, the London-based charity IKWRO scoured through police files and found more than 2,800 honor-related incidents recorded in 2010. Understanding the delicate social balances and the pattern that can lead to honor killings is therefore important to prevent these crimes and to improve the lives of women and girls who live under constant pressure. When the Shafia sisters sought help, the authorities underestimated the threat they faced.

The attention paid to crimes committed in the name of honor because of their particular nature should not distract from more home-grown forms of violence against women, which also claim many victims. A Turkish or a Pakistani husband who kills his wife because she is seeking a divorce may try to argue that he was protecting his honor. A similar crime can, under certain circumstances, be labelled a "crime of passion" in western countries. In both cases, the perpetrators acted to control the victims.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics, 1,640 women were killed by intimate partners in 2007 in the United States. In 64 percent of homicides committed against women, the victims knew their killers, and in 19 percent of cases, the perpetrators were other family members, rather than intimate partners.

The Shafia case may prove a watershed for the understanding of honor-based violence in North America. European countries went through this learning process a decade earlier, and have taken steps to improve policies. These need to be finely tuned to strike the right balance, offering adequate protection to potential victims while ensuring that law-abiding members of ethnic communities do not feel unjustly stigmatized or discriminated against.

Honor-based crimes may all share distinct features, but each case is ultimately unique and the result of individual decisions, rather than pre-determined cultural dynamics. Far from "saving" his family from alleged disgrace, Mohammad Shafia destroyed it: He cut short the lives of four of its female members; he, his wife and their eldest son will spend their lives in prison, and the family's three youngest children will live forever with the knowledge that their closest relatives were murderers. He remained defiant after the verdict was announced, but he will have at least 25 years to reflect on the devastation he caused and the heavy legacy he passed on to his remaining children.

Nicole Pope is a journalist and writer based in Istanbul, Turkey. She is the author of Honor Killings in the Twenty-First Century, recently published by Palgrave Macmillan and the co-author of Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey (Overlook Press).