Aqsa Parvez: a question of honour

Melissa WIlsonIn light of the recent guilty plea by Aqsa Parvez’ father and brother, was Toronto Life wrong to label her murder an honour killing? The author doesn’t think so. Melissa Wilson reports.

It began, like so many insatiable stories do, with a rebellious teenager. On December 10, 2007, 16-year-old Aqsa Parvez was found unconscious in her home, seemingly strangled by family members. She died later that night. It was, and still remains, a tragedy. Despite the fuzzy details, one thing that was clear was that Aqsa had been expected to act as a “traditional” Pakistani young woman, and had rebelled. It didn’t take long for the press to label her murder an “honour killing”—an incredibly weighted and politically charged term—and the backlash began.

Aqsa ParvezThe criticism over the spotted use of the term didn’t really take off, however, until a year later, December 2008, when Toronto Life published a profile of the young girl, putting a sexualized Facebook photo of her on the cover (it looks a bit like a 1980s glamour shot) and a coverline reading: “The untold story of Toronto’s first honour killing.” Only then did the maelstrom really begin.

Critics from both sides of the argument lashed out at the writer, Mary Rogan. The story itself was a well-researched and poignant profile that described Aqsa’s life and last days. It was a lovely tribute, save for one short chunk out of a 3,500-word whole:

“Canada prides itself on its multiculturalism and, to varying degrees of success, condemns institutionalized patriarchy. But there is growing concern that recent waves of Muslim immigrants aren’t integrating, or embracing our liberal values. Aqsa’s death—coming in the wake of debates about the acceptability of sharia law, disputes over young girls wearing hijabs at soccer games, and the arrest of the Toronto 18—stoked fears about religious zealotry in our midst. Is it possible that Toronto has become too tolerant of cultural differences?”

This paragraph seems out of place in the piece as a whole. As D.B. Scott wrote on his Canadian Magazines blog, “the article does trespass against a standard journalistic rule: don’t raise questions you don’t answer.” The answer to the million-dollar question was not discussed at all in Rogan’s article, nor has it been adequately addressed by Toronto Life since.

It took months for it all to die down, but when Aqsa’s father and brother pleaded guilty last week to murdering the young girl—both have been charged with second-degree murder—and the details of the day in question came out, the media craze started up again.

The Toronto Star recently reported on the details of the day Aqsa was killed:

“In a chilling police interview on the day Aqsa was killed, her mother crying and talking out loud to herself, was recorded as saying she thought her husband was only going to ‘break legs and arms,’ but instead ‘killed her straight away.’

“’Oh God, Oh God. . . Oh my Aqsa, you should have listened,’ Anwar Jan [Aqsa’s mother] said in a police interview room. ‘Everyone tried to make you understand. Everyone begged you, but you did not listen. . .’

“When she asked her husband why he killed her, he told her: ‘This is my insult. My community will say you have not been able to control your daughter. This is my insult. She is making me naked.’”

Chilling, indeed.

So was Aqsa’s death an “honour killing”? In the most stereotypical way (patriarchal male relative kills woman because some trivial infraction has shamed the family), yes, perhaps it was. Fine. Call a spade a spade. But the more pressing question, is, should the media have been so quick to plaster that label on a tragedy of which there were few concrete details available? That’s still up for debate.

Mary Rogan, who had previously refrained from commenting on the issue, participated in a Q&A with Toronto Life last week. When asked if she regretted using the term “honour killing,” she said:

“No, not at all. I think the story’s critics make a willful and profoundly irrational attempt to distinguish the crime from its context. Let me explain it this way: if someone is walking down the street and killed in the course of a crime, that’s a terrible thing. But if three guys in a pickup truck with a Confederate flag stop a black man, drive him into the woods and hang him, we know something very different has happened, and we have a word for that. Lynching means something very specific. Similarly, a hate crime is a very specific charge. It surprised me that people were so afraid to describe Aqsa’s death as an honour killing. It’s irrational to think that we can’t call something what it is because that community can’t sustain that kind of criticism.”

Others didn’t see the story quite the same way. Uzma Shakir wrote a column for decrying the Aqsa Parvez story as a “Canadian tragedy—not an immigrant tragedy, or a Pakistani tragedy, or indeed a Muslim tragedy.”

Shakir, born and raised in Pakistan, describes her family’s definition of honour, that “there was honour in treating the women in the family with respect, there was honour in making sure that every child in the family had good education, there was honour in allowing your children (men or women) to make choices with regards to where they wanted to go for education or who they wanted to marry….In fact, what was considered dishonourable in my family was to use physical force against women and children (my father used to say to my brothers “never raise your hand”), for adults to lie or cheat, to hurt someone and than justify it, and a particularly heinous act was to take a life—since, according to my dad, only God had that power.”

While Rogan’s point—that “honour killing” is simply a distinguishing label—is valid, and perhaps true, there is a danger in applying a label to a tragedy such as this that is so entrenched in patriarchal barbarity and so attached to a particular culture. If Aqsa and her family had been white, the crime would have been labelled an act of passion, or perhaps simply domestic violence. But to so liberally apply the term “honour killing” without being absolutely sure is to imply that such a thing is commonplace within a culture, and only serves to perpetuate stereotypes about Muslims that ought to have been done away with long ago.