Violence against women and the Shafia case

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The Shafia case is so unsettling that it seems to unleash the search for a single key to explain it. Then you could toss away other keys that don't work, and even lock the door to a recurrence. But I don't think that's the way to go.

For instance, people ask: Was it about honour killing or domestic violence? Yet honour killings are domestic violence. You lose something in understanding if you discard either category. And domestic violence is a case of violence in general. The same holds when you try to decide if the murders are social, cultural or religious. Religion and culture are social. Why choose?

Tarek Fatah of the Canadian Muslim Congress says, "If these four women were white women, they would still be alive today." But not if they'd been working on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside when Robert Pickton was selecting victims. Or if they were studying at Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique when Marc Lepine went there in 1989. I don't mean the cases are the same -- but they relate. We learned this week, for instance, that police didn't act on warning signs about Pickton, just as Montreal social agencies didn't act on the Shafias.

Christie Blatchford wrote that 17-year-old Sahar died "because, well, she was a girl." That's true but it's also because he, her father, was a man and shared in the perks (or taints) of patriarchy -- as feminism puts it. These include economic roles that lead to social power in very distinct contexts, like Canada and Afghanistan. Mohammed Shafia's attitude was, said a relative, "I'm the one producing food, clothes and everything for you guys. Whatever I say, shut your mouths and don't answer me back." I don't see the point in narrowing down these avenues of approach rather than utilizing as many as possible.

Barbara Kay in the National Post wrote that domestic violence isn't "a unitary phenomenon." They're not identical of course, if that's what she means by unitary, but there are linkages that can make both understanding and positive action more likely. For instance, Muslim men have started a White Ribbon campaign to oppose violence against women and girls. It's modelled on male responses to the Montreal massacre. It's based on assuming a similarity.

Or take the failure by Montreal social agencies to act in the Shafia case. A spokesperson said it was because this was "really, really foreign to our way of thinking," but they've now "learned a terrible lesson." I hope it's the right one. The premise of a multicultural society isn't that we are "foreign" to each other but that we're mutually accessible based on our common humanity. There are certainly differences and disputes, but these are rife within as well as between groups. It isn't a matter of imposing "our" values on "them" based on "our" cultural or moral superiority.

We need faith that we have enough in common to have a discussion about the rules, reach decisions as a society, and assure everyone abides by the results. If anything, an assumption of "their" foreignness and "our" superior values will lead tolerant, well-meaning souls like social workers to be too slow to condemn when they ought to judge and act swiftly.

It makes me wonder if the "unitary" approach of fiction or drama might not be a better way to examine cases like this than the compartmentalizing bent of experts and pundits. I recently saw David Cronenberg's film on Freud and Jung, A Dangerous Method. It deals with the primitive impulses that permeated relations even among those towering, sophisticated intellects: rage, envy, lust. (Was sex involved in the Shafia case? Think of his astounding statement that "every night I used to think of myself as a cuckold," about his daughter. Analyze that.)

They had an acute sense of the violent forces lurking just beneath the surface, not only in their patients but in themselves. Pretending this chaos and risk is generally absent and only out of control among a few extreme and foreign "others" is delusional and dangerous. We're all in similar boats and we all have things to learn, not just teach, from harrowing cases like this one.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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