Honour Killing of Aqsa Parvez inspires documentary, "In the Name of the Family"
- May 1, 2010
When Families prey on their own
A filmaker lays bare the mysoginy behind honour killings, avoids demonizing Islam
The Toronto Star
The prisoner's face is impassive, his stubbled jaw tightly clenched. "She ruined our lives, " he says. "She ruined my life, my family. If she had listened to me I wouldn't be here."
Waheed Mohammad, doing 10 years for the attempted murder of his sister, Fauzia, is unrepentant when he speaks of the attack, which left her bleeding and near death. And two years after the crime, he is convinced that Fauzia's guilt is greater than his own.
The chilling scene, filmed in New York's Attica prison by award-winning Toronto-based filmmaker Shelley Saywell, is part of a documentary that premieres today at the Royal Cinema during the Hot Docs festival.
Saywell's film, In the Name of the Family, focuses on a secretive world with its own rules and punishments, which go beyond any country or religion but are based on the belief that a woman's sexuality is a commodity to be closely controlled by male relatives. And the young minority women who live in these islands of fear are surrounded by the freewheeling society of North America, a fact that intensifies their plight.
Saywell, who won a 2001 Emmy for her film Crimes of Honour, about the Middle East, sees the murder of girls in such families as honour killings, a term that has been hotly debated in Canada and the United States. But although the attacked and murdered women in the new documentary are Muslim, the stories she follows expose misogyny rather than religion as the driving force.
The perpetrators are not recruited to kill by religious leaders, and young Muslims in the film remind the audience that Islam does not tolerate such killing. In many cases it is used to mask the murderer's own devaluation of women and belief in his entitlement to control his daughter's or sister's fate.
"There are people who say that to talk about honour killing means primordializing certain groups, whether Muslim or others, and making them out to be uncivilized, " says Iranian-born Shahrzad Mojab, an expert in honour killing and principal of New College at the University of Toronto.
"But here we are dealing with a phenomenon that is patriarchal, and using (Islamophobia) is an easy excuse not to deal with the problem."
Saywell's film begins close to home, in Mississauga, with the strangulation of pretty, dark-haired, 16-year-old Aqsa Parvez. Parvez's father, Muhammad, 59, and her youngest brother, Waqas, 29, are to face trial for first-degree murder on Jan. 10, 2011.
Peel police said at the time of her death that her father called 911 and confessed to strangling his youngest daughter in their Mississauga home that morning. The story went international when Aqsa's friends said there was family conflict over the girl's rejection of Muslim traditions.
"It's like she had two lives, " her friend Alina told Saywell. "She had to be someone in her parents' eyes, and then outside of the house she had to be a different person."
Saywell also looks at the shooting death, three weeks after Aqsa's murder, of sisters Amina and Sarah Said in Dallas, Tex. Police believe the killer was their Egyptian-born father. She also focuses on the case of Rochester, N.Y. teenager Fauzia Mohammad, who - five months after Aqsa's death - was stabbed 11 times in a frenzied attack by her brother, who had vowed to avenge the family honour against what he called her impiety.
Certain elements are common to such murders. Intense pressure from ultra-conservative male relatives. Families that were complicit in the violence, forming networks of surveillance and abuse. Pervasive anger over losing control of the young women's bodies and lives.
And although honour killings are a small fraction of North American domestic violence as a whole, they are particularly troubling because of the isolation and secrecy the young women experience, as well as their fear of deserting their families. They are left with an agonizing choice between safety and betrayal.
Unni Wikan of Oslo University, author of In Honor of Fadime: Murder and Shame, calls honour killing "a murder carried out as a commission from the extended family, to restore honour after the family has been dishonoured. The basic cause is (belief) that any female family member has behaved in an immoral way." The UN estimates there are 5,000 such cases a year, and experts say thousands more go unreported.
For Dallas teens Amina and Sarah Said, "immorality" meant wearing form-fitting clothes and seeing non-Muslim boys.
"(It) began when Amina came home and her dad had found out she was spending time with some guy, " her friend Zohair says in Saywell's film. "He got really upset over that so he started threatening them and he told them he would kill them, (or) send them back to Egypt."
Their father, Yaser Said, had friends spy on the girls. Their mother and aunt told Saywell he had treated Amina brutally and threatened the girls with a gun.
Worried by the escalating violence, their mother took them away to Kansas, but later believed it would be safe to return. Yaser Said insisted his daughters join him for a fast food dinner, and then allegedly turned his gun on them, leaving them dead and escaping without a trace.
Many honour killings are perpetrated by a father who rules the family with an iron hand. But in the case of free-spirited Fauzia Mohammad of Rochester, the attempt was made by her older brother Waheed, who arrived from Pakistan, where the Afghan family had fled during the civil war in the early 1990s before immigrating to America.
"Before my (three) older brothers were here, life was perfect, " she told Saywell. "Waheed comes from nowhere . . . and makes that home worse than hell for me."
Waheed had toiled resentfully in a low-level restaurant job in Rochester, after years in Afghanistan's traumatic war. His anger and humiliation focused on Fauzia; he believed he would be dishonoured by teenage behavior that was "out of control."
Fauzia's most bitter lesson was the betrayal by her mother, who believed Waheed's story that Fauzia's friendships with male classmates were immoral.
Miraculously, Fauzia survived her brother's knife attack, which left her with 11 stab wounds and a punctured lung. She hopes for a career in the United Nations.
But the wider picture is less optimistic. In spite of the publicity around these attacks, there has been little change in the families and communities where honour killings have occurred.
For some young women, change can't come too soon. Two of Aqsa Parvez's friends have left home, explaining that they're fearful for their safety.
"Sometimes I have those moments when I cry and I know no one is there for me, " says Aqsa's friend Alina. "I just have to be strong."