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Saving Aqsa Parvez.


LAST JUNE, Muhammad Parvez and his twenty-nine-year-old son, Waqas Parvez, were sentenced to life in prison by a court in Ontario, Canada for the murder of Muhammad's daughter and Waqas' sister, Aqsa Parvez. Aqsa was a rebellious sixteen-year-old, the youngest of eight children. She objected to her father's demand that she wear a traditional Muslim hijab, and wanted to get a job so she could have the money to lead a normal teenage life. After she ran away from home and then returned, she told her friends she feared for her life, because her father had sworn on the Koran that he would kill her if she ran away again. She was right. Three months later, after another battle royale over her disobedience in attending her first movie, Aqsa fled once more. Her brother picked her up from a school bus stop and took her home; half an hour later she was dead.

In an interview with police, Aqsa's mother said her husband told her he killed his youngest child because: "My community will say, 'You have not been able to control your daughter.' This is my insult. She is making me naked." This evidence of what he called "a twisted and repugnant mindset" led Judge Bruce Durno to find it "profoundly disturbing that a sixteen-year-old could be murdered by a father and brother for the purpose of saving family pride, for saving them from what they perceived as family embarrassment."

Human Rights Watch defines "honor killings" as "acts of violence, usually murder, committed by male family members against female family members, who are held to have brought dishonor upon the family." Nevertheless, the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) refused to admit that Aqsa's murder was an honor killing, saying it was just a case of domestic violence that can happen in any family.

Domestic violence does happen everywhere, including the most secular of families. What Canadian CAIR and other defenders of Islam deliberately choose to ignore, though, is that a substantial body of Muslim scripture and tradition teaches people like Muhammad and Waqas Parvez that it is God's will for them to impose this kind of punishment on disobedient daughters.

It's true that there is nothing in the Koran or the traditions of Muhammad that flatly states: "Thou shalt kill thy unruly daughters." There are even some passages in the traditions that can fairly be interpreted as encouraging lenience and mercy in cases of violations of the sexual code. The trouble is, the Koran and the traditions are full of conflicting commandments, and there is plenty of ammunition there to turn a case of wounded pride into homicide.

First, there is the extensive Muslim authority that females in general are subhuman; their testimony counts as half the testimony of a male, their inheritance rights are half those of males, and they need to be covered up and kept inside as much as possible to avoid tempting males into sin. Men can have multiple wives, but women are forbidden from having multiple husbands. The Koran states that "Men are in charge of women, because God hath made one to excel the other," while ordering back-talking women to be scourged. Muhammad is reported to have added that: "Women are naturally, morally, and religiously defective" You don't see many alleged honor killings of males; daughters and sisters are the principal targets.

Then there are the laws commanding death for illicit sex. Sharia is a mass of contradictions on this point, but there is plenty of support for Muhammad's saying that "for a fornicator, there is stoning." Sometimes the punishments for men and women are equal, but sometimes they are not. In one notable case, Muhammad ordered an adulterous man to receive 100 lashes and exile for a year, while the woman was stoned to death.

Then there is the teaching on apostasy. Here Muhammad did not mince words: "If a Muslim discards his religion, kill him." Even closer to the honor killing point is the Koran's approving discussion of the murder of a boy by a God expert, in order to prevent the boy's apostasy from corrupting his parents. According to tradition, Muhammad himself opposed the killing of children, except where the killer knew that the child would grow up to be a nonbeliever. The evidence is pretty strong that the sum of Aqsa Parvez's actions were tantamount to abandoning her religion; what's a devout father to do?

A twelfth-century Muslim legal manual of Umdat al-Salik, certified as a reliable guide to Sunni orthodoxy by Al-Azhar University, today's most respected authority in Sunni Islam, carries the logic one step further. It notes that normally "retaliation is obligatory against anyone who kills a human being purely intentionally and without right." However, "not subject to retaliation" is "a father or mother (or their fathers or mothers) for killing their offspring, or offspring's offspring."

All these ingredients make it easy for Muslim authorities to justify honor killing as divinely ordained, as many of them do. Savitri Gooneskere has carefully documented the honor killing teachings of imams in Pakistan in her book Violence, Law and Women's Rights in South Asia. A Gaza journalist quoted therein was refreshingly candid:
   Deep down, we know that when a woman has
   disgraced her family, nothing will restore honor
   except by killing her. This is understood in Jordan,
   Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Egypt, the Gaza strip, and
   the West Bank. So why are we Arabs telling the
   Western press that honor killing is cultural, that
   it is not really part of Islam? Our way of life is
   based on maintaining our honor. And make no
   mistake about it: a woman does tarnish her family's
   honor by engaging in pre-marital sex, or by
   getting herself raped, when she seeks divorce, and
   when she marries against her family's wishes. And
   keeping our women pure is a big part of our honor.
   So there's no point saying honor killing isn't really
   part of our religion. Honor and Islam are inextricably
   bound; they are what give our life meaning.
   A strong religion demands we choose to maintain
   our honor.

Ramsan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya and a Muslim, was equally frank. Commenting on the discovery of the bodies of seven women found by a roadside last year, he explained that they had "loose morals" and were rightfully shot by male relatives in honor killings. "If a woman runs around and if a man runs around with her, both of them are killed" he said, adding for good measure that "no one can tell us not to be Muslims. If anyone says I cannot be a Muslim, he is my enemy."

Honor killing is not an isolated phenomenon; the United Nations estimates that 5,000 honor killings occur each year worldwide. Many arise from a daughter's resistance to an arranged marriage, as occurred in Atlanta in 2008 when twenty-five-year-old Sandeela Kanwal was killed by her father because she was seeking a divorce from the designated husband. The father, a fifty-seven-year-old pizza shop owner, told police that killing his daughter was a right given to him by God, and that God would protect him. When Ayaan Hirsi Ali went on a one-woman crusade to get the Dutch police simply to keep track of the number of honor killings in Holland, she was scorned for exaggerating the problem--until a pilot program in just two of the country's twenty-five regions found eleven such killings from October 2004 to May 2005. After the United States "liberated" Iraq from the secular Baath Party regime and handed it to the Shiites, there were forty-seven documented honor killings in 2006 in Basra alone. Ayman Udas was killed by her brothers in Pakistan for bringing disgrace on the family by singing on television; Harry Potter film actress Afshan Azad was attacked and nearly killed by her father and brother this summer for dating a Hindu. A four-year-old Palestinian girl who was raped by an adult was allowed to bleed to death, to preserve the family's honor.

In Jordan, the Penal Code states flatly that "he who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds, or injures one of them, is exempted from any penalty." A proposal to repeal this law failed when Jordan's Islamic Action Front issued a fatwa that doing so would "destroy our Islamic, social, and family values by stripping men of their humanity." Syrian and Egyptian laws also permit judges to reduce penalties in honor killing cases. In Palestine and other majority-Muslim countries, teenaged brothers are often persuaded to carry out the crime, as they will receive lighter sentences because of their age.

People like Muhammad and Waqas Parvez may or may not be able to cite any passages in support of honor killing from the Koran or the hadiths, much less any traditions that lean the other way. That's not the point. The point is that the religious figures and God experts who do study these things and who have a sternly paternalist view of the world have plenty of scriptural ammunition enabling them to spread the message, explicitly and implicitly, that a God-fearing father does not allow his daughter to run wild, and does whatever it takes to keep her in line. Putting the stamp of God's approval on a dark impulse drives the Parvezes of the world over the edge. The ultimate answer is to wear down the credibility of the God experts themselves, so fewer people like the Parvezes care about what they say, leaving common sense and the common values of their society as their only guides.

The question naturally arises, what can governments do about this? In particular, will proposals to ban the wearing of the burqa (a tent-like, full-body and face covering) in places like France, Spain, Belgium, Quebec, and New South Wales save women's lives? They wouldn't have had any direct effect on Aqsa Parvez, because her father never asked her to wear a burqa. He only wanted her to cover her hair with a much less intrusive hijab. One leader did attempt to ban even the hijab: Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, eighty years ago. He realized that he needed to drag Turkey into the modern world if it was going to remain independent, and that meant all of Turkey--not just the men. In fact, the biggest winners in the humanist revolution wrought by Ataturk were Turkey's women. Polygamy: banned. Allowing men to divorce simply by repudiating their wives: banned. Divorce proceedings initiated by women: allowed. Voting by women: allowed. He even overcame a storm of Muslim opposition by counting women in the national census, as though they were human beings. According to Ataturk, "If a society consisting of men and women is content to apply progress and education to one half of itself, such a society is weakened by a half. A nation aiming at progress and civilization must not overlook this."

Ataturk tried to outlaw the wearing of Muslim veils, but was never able to push his legislature that far. Instead, he did everything he could from his bully pulpit to discourage religion-induced covering of women's heads: "In some places I have seen women who put a piece of cloth or a towel or something like it over their heads to hide their faces, and who turn their backs or huddle themselves on the ground when a man passes by. What is the meaning and sense of this behavior? Gentlemen, can the mothers and daughters of a civilized nation adopt this strange manner, this barbarous posture? It is a spectacle that makes the nation an object of ridicule. It must be remedied at once." As a result of Ataturk's unrelenting pressure, the wearing of religious head coverings was dramatically reduced, at least until recently, when Turkish politicians pandering to the Islamist right began restoring it to favor.

I'm a great fan of freedom, particularly with regard to apparel. (One of the happiest days of my life was the day my law firm adopted a casual dress code.) My own reaction to a law, enforceable by the police, telling me what I can and can't wear would surely not be fit to print. And yet, Ataturk had a point that still makes sense today.

It would be great to live in a world where women could wear exactly what they want to wear, without the slightest pressure. But this is not the world we live in. Islam, which in Arabic translates to "submission" (to God), is a belief system in which male God experts assume the right to tell everyone how to live their lives down to the minutest detail, and in which women are regarded as inferior beings whose principal crime is tempting men into sin. Every shred of evidence demonstrates that if the laws grant Muslim God experts the freedom to harass women into covering up, they will do so. In this imperfect world, sometimes the only way to allow one freedom is to take away another. American governments have decided that the freedom to display a KKK noose should be limited, to promote the freedom of black people to live without fear. For similar reasons, European governments have decided that the freedom to display swastikas and deny the Holocaust should be limited. Though reasonable people can disagree, I believe the freedom to wear a burqa--perhaps even a hijab--should be limited as well, as a conscious tactic to allow the greater freedom to prevail.

On a broader level, a burqa ban is valuable because of the statement it makes about society's attitude of deference toward religion in general. Politicians seeking to squeeze out one last vote have elevated religion nearly to the status of government itself. All sorts of laws give special preference to people just because they claim to be doing what God wants. They may be granted exemption from taxes, zoning laws, or military service. They can claim exemption from pension funding laws, employment discrimination laws, a variety of dress-related rules, immigration laws, and even from drug laws. The message this sends to people like Muhammad and Waqas Parvez is that there are two parallel sets of rules, and that sometimes the religious rules are more important than the rules of civil society. A head-covering ban--especially if it could be implemented at the same time some of these exemptions are being repealed-makes the statement that there is only one set of rules, so there is no violent choice for the Parvez males to ponder. If that message can be pounded home to spare individual lives, like that of Aqsa Parvez, then we, as a global society, will truly have done the honorable thing.

Luis Granados is a Washington, DC, attorney and a student of religious history. His weekly "God Experts" articles at relate a current headline to a scandal of religious history.
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Author:Granados, Luis
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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