The Honorable Voices of Four Women Killed in Kingston: Reflections on the Shafia murder trial

Published by The Dominion

TORONTO—Somewhere in the calm setting of an Islamic cemetery in Laval, Quebec, lie four headstones belonging to four women; all members of a single family. Neatly arranged next to each other, they share similar color, style and design. A Farsi gender-specific religious title for the deceased (Marhoome) is prefixed to their names. One verse of Koran, in Arabic, decorates all four gravestones: “Yea, enter thou My Heaven!” But it was their mortal lives, the very hellish existence that they had to endure, which is more telling. Who were these people? And how did they, all originally from Afghanistan, end up buried, thousands of kilometers away, in the serene surroundings of a town in Quebec?

The primary details of the case were always clear from the outset. In Summer 2009, three sisters aged 13, 17, 19, and their 52-year old stepmother, were found drowned in a car in the depths of the Rideau Canal. It was always unlikely that it was an accident that had led them.

Now, we know much more. The police investigation led to the largest trial in Kingston’s history; it took over three months, was conducted in English, French and Persian, and involved summoning 58 witnesses. The accused were the parents and brother of the three murdered sisters. Over the course of the trial, those in the courtoom were able to form a picture not only of the gruesome murder, but of the real lives of Geeti, Sahar, Zainab and Rona.

In the last days of January 2012, the jury returned a guilty verdict for all three accused on four counts of first-degree murder. Police uncovered damning statements, primarily from Mohammad Shafia, the patriarch and murderer-in-chief of this plot, which recorded no sorrow.

But as Shafia’s statements fill the newspapers, what we don’t hear is the story of the four victims. Shafia said that they had to be murdered because of their “treason” in supposedly violating his “honor”, and that of Islam. What he saw as betrayal, however, was a brilliant story of resistance and expression.

A breathtaking exhibit in this trial was a journal kept by Rona Mohammad Amir, 52, the first wife of Shafia, who was discarded for her infertility and later murdered along with the three children of the second wife. Written in a beautiful Persian prose, it describes an educated woman, who was just 20 when the 1979 revolution signaled an era in which a proliferation of woman’s rights, and other social progressive policies, took place in Afghanistan. The Kabul in which she spent her youth was called “Paris of the East”, a city with a young female population, known both for their university degrees and liberal fashion sensibilities. Her own polygamous father, a retired colonel, had welcomed the waves of modernization. Rona could wear whatever she wanted and was fond of cheering for her favorite basketball teams in the stadiums. Those days ended in 1981 with an arranged marriage to a young man from a rich family, who gave her an extravagant wedding ceremony at Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel.

One would need a novel to delve more into the story of how this ‘family’ found new members; how it traveled around the world to Pakistan, India, the UAE, Australia and finally Canada; how the very-rich Shafia (whose business included buying a shopping centre in Montreal for two million dollars) decided to run his family according to his own sick notion of “Islam,” a notion that (as Kurdish-Iranian Feminist scholar, Shahrzad Mojab testified) is discarded by millions of Muslims around the world as a backward tribal code that has nothing to do with the religion.

Never resting, the eldest girl Zainab, 19, made recurring attempts to escape with a Pakistani boy whom she loved were not tolerated. Sahar, 17, loved nothing like taking cellphone pictures of herself and her large beautiful eyes. And Geeti, 13, never got a chance to go beyond her first teen year.

These voices of resistance are the true honorable voices in this story, a story which, when finally told, will defy all clichés about Afghan women. Both those that the patriarch Shafia had in mind, and those apparent in the sensationalized racist accounts that have filled the newspapers in this country.

Arash Azizi has spent countless hours covering the Shafia case for Shahrvand, a Toronto-based Persian publication.

This article was originally published by the Toronto Media Co-op.

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