As Canadians were preparing for the Christmas season, they were shocked to learn that Aqsa Parvez, a 16-year-old Muslim girl from the Toronto area, was strangled to death by her devout father, a cab driver of Pakistani origin. It appears her crime was a refusal to wear the traditional hijab when she was not at home and behaving like a typical Canadian teenage schoolgirl by posting photos of herself on Facebook wearing colorful clothing and accessories.
Friends describe Aqsa as a vibrant, fun-loving girl who liked to dance and take pictures. When she arrived at school, she would change into Western dress. A week before her death, she had left the family home to stay with friends because of arguments with her father and elder brothers. When she returned home to gather some clothing, she was killed. The father, Muhammad, has been charged with murder, and one of her older brothers has been charged with “obstructing police.”
Honor killing is a common occurrence in many Muslim countries of the Middle East and South Asia. The term refers to the barbaric practice of killing female family members who violate the “honor” of the family, usually by compromising their sexual purity in some manner—but often, as well, by simply disobeying a dress code, refusing an arranged marriage, or being seen in the company of a man who is not a relative. As recently as December 19, a top Muslim cleric in Iran said that women who do not wear the hijab must die. The United Nations estimates that as many as 5,000 such honor killings take place annually.
Aqsa’s murder has sparked a national debate in Canada about the cause of her death. Was it the result of a family argument that went wrong? Was it because of the generational gap that often exists between parents and their teenage daughters? Or was it yet another sad example of child abuse that has become all too frequent in our society? Few commentators have dared to place the blame on the loathsome tradition of “honor killing” or to suggest that her murder had anything to do with religion.
Canada’s conservative-leaning newspaper, the National Post, in an editorial about Aqsa’s death, warns its readers that nothing has yet been proved and reminds them that Canada’s Muslim community is moderate by world standards. The Post writes that “Canada is no Europe where immigrant communities are left to fester within impoverished ghettoes in perpetuity—with their imported violent and backward practices passed on from one generation to the next.” The suggestion here seems to be that Canada’s Muslims are different from Europe’s.
Spokesmen for Canada’s Muslim community have been united in denouncing the slaying of the Toronto-area teenager but attribute it to a case of domestic abuse. An executive of the Canadian Islamic Council claimed the murder had nothing to do with Islam and said it was a teenage issue. Muslim leaders, however, also stressed the importance of women wearing the hijab, which is a vital part of Islamic culture. One of the leaders who is a member of the Canadian Council of Imams said that, if a daughter decides not to wear the hijab, her parents have failed.
A Muslim woman columnist for the national Globe and Mail complained that, because of this incident, “the Muslim community will once again be put under the microscope.” She may have been referring to the concern caused by the arrest last year of 18 young Canadian-born Muslims who were planning to blow up the Canadian Parliament buildings and behead the prime minister; a follow-up poll revealed that 12 percent (roughly 84,000 of the 700,000 Muslims in Canada) believed that the terrorist plot was justified.
Canada has prided herself on being a welcoming country for immigrants and a champion of multiculturalism and diversity, but many Canadians are beginning to question the wisdom of continuing to accept immigrants whose religious beliefs appear to override many of the fundamental values of a liberal Western democracy. The tragic death of Aqsa Parvez should stimulate more open debate in Canada about this issue.