I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In June 2009, a car was pulled out of the Kingston Mill Locks in Ontario. Inside, were the bodies of four women, three teenagers and a 52-year-old, all members of the Shafia family. What horrible misfortune had caused their Nissan Sentra to plunge into the water killing them all?
The Successful Deal Maker
Mohammad Shafia was from a middle-class Afghan family and became what is known as an entrepreneur, that is someone who buys low and sells high. Although poorly educated, he had a knack for deals and soon was making millions.
In 1979, Rona Amir was given to Shafia in an arranged marriage. The wedding was a lavish affair at Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel. The union proved childless so Shafia took a second wife, 17-year-old Tooba Mohammad Yahya, who joined the now polygamous family. Tooba proved to be fertile and soon there was a husband, two wives, and four children. Two more children arrived as the family left the turmoil of Afghanistan's civil war in 1992.
There was a brief stopover in Australia before the Shafia family settled in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Mohammad prospered mightily and got into the used car and property businesses while wife two, Tooba, worked to sideline wife number one, Rona. The Shafia family operated in a traditional Afghan manner—Mohammad with the unquestioned ruler who must be obeyed in all things.
Immigrating to Canada
While the money was cascading in, the UAE was not a country that bestowed citizenship on newcomers, only residency. Shafia wanted the sanctuary that being a citizen of a stable Western country offered and he spied one in Canada.
The Province of Quebec had an immigrant investor scheme that allowed applicants to buy their way into Canada with a $400,000 cheque and a few other requirements. But, Canada frowned upon polygamy, so Rona became a cousin and live-in nanny.
Again, Shafia prospered. He bought a strip mall for $2 million in cash, opened an import/export business, and kept his thriving enterprises going in Dubai. He built a $900,000 mansion in an upscale neighbourhood and moved his clan in that, by now, numbered the patriarch, two wives, and seven children.
Except for the polygamy, it seemed like the charmed successful immigrant story; but trouble was brewing.
While in Dubai, the older children had attended an American-run private school and had mingled with students from many countries. The older girls, Zainab, and Sahar had their first brush with Western culture and they liked what they saw. They were even more impressed by the freedoms their classmates enjoyed in Montreal.
Then, boyfriends entered the picture. In 2008, Zainab, now 18, invited a boy she liked over to the house when her parents were away. But, her brother Hamed was there and he enjoyed the position of stand-in for Mohammad when he was absent. He ordered the boy out and Zainab was pretty much confined to her room for 10 months.
Next, it was the turn of 16-year-old Sahar to feel the wrath of Mohammad's rules about obedience and behaviour. She was accused of kissing a boy, a sin of major proportions in the Shafia family. She compounded the error by tearfully describing the reign of terror that prevailed in her home to her school's vice-principal. Social services were called in but the girls had been frightened into saying everything was fine. No further action was taken.
Twelve-year-old Geeti idolized her sister Sahar and had a rebellious streak. She too wanted a typical Canadian teenager's life and not a conservative Afghan existence. Wearing makeup, defying female subservience, and her family's culture brought down the fury of her father on her.
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Coming home late one day from a mall, Geeti was beaten by Mohammad and Hamed, as Zainab watched unable to help her younger sister. That was too much for Zainab; in April 2009, she ran away and took refuge in a women's shelter.
Later, it emerged that any sign of defiance by the girls to Mohammad's edicts were met with beatings, usually delivered by Hamed the brother, and threats of death.
Mohammad Shafia believed that the behaviour of his daughters had cast a dark stain on his honour and the only way to remove it was to kill the people who he believed put it there.
A Fatal Trip
On the morning of June 30, 2009, three people showed up at police headquarters in Kingston, Ontario. Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba Yahya, and their 18-year-old son were there to file a missing persons report. They were staying at a motel on their way home to Montreal after a trip to Niagara Falls, they said. They were travelling in two vehicles, a Nissan Sentra and a Lexus SUV.
The family said one of the daughters had grabbed the Nissan's keys and with two sisters and their "nanny" Rona Amir, had gone off joyriding. They had not returned, said Shafia. However, Kingston police already had a good idea where the missing females were—a submerged Nissan Sentra with four corpses in it had been found in the Rideau Canal..
Quite quickly, the Shafia family's story started to unravel. Shards of headlight plastic found at the canal matched a broken headlight on the Lexus SUV. Had the bigger vehicle been used to push the Sentra into the canal, with the females already dead from drowning inside? It seemed plausible, so police bugged their car and listened as Mohammad Shafia, his wife Tooba Yahya talked about what they had done.
The Investigation and Trial
In the recorded conversations, Shafia was frequently heard ranting about his how his honour had been defiled by his daughters and first wife. He is heard cursing his daughters as whores, and “filthy and rotten children,” and hoping that the devil will “s**t on their graves.” Later, he says “Even if they hoist me up onto the gallows . . . nothing is more dear to me than my honour.”
As police investigated further they uncovered a family ruled by an abusive tyrant, aided by his wife and son, who used violence to impose his will on his first wife and his children. Within three weeks, Mohammad, Tooba, and Hamed were in custody. Police had physical evidence (the broken headlight) and motive (Mohammad's complaining about his shattered honour) on which to build a case.
The trial opened in October 2011, with the three entering not guilty pleas. Over six weeks, the prosecution meticulously built a compelling case of the trio's guilt. The jury agreed and passed verdicts of first-degree murder on all three. The convictions carry an automatic sentence of 25 years without hope of parole, followed by deportation.
Justice Robert Marranger summed up the feelings of most Canadians when he said “It is difficult to conceive of a more despicable, more heinous crime.
“The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your completely twisted concept of honour—a notion of honour that is founded on the domination and control of women, a sick notion of honour that has absolutely no place in any civilized society.”
- At the current level of expenditures, it will cost Canadian taxpayers $11.6 million to keep the three Shafias in prison until the end of their sentences.
- University of Toronto Professor Shahrzad Mojab testified at the Shafia trial on the nature of patriarchal societies. She noted that “What masquerades as honour is really a man’s need to control a woman’s sexuality. It reflects on who is in power in the household. If a man cannot control his own household, which is represented by the behaviour of the female members, it means he cannot be trusted for any other public matters.”
- According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, between January 2016 and December 2017 there were 280 cases of honour killings reported in Afghanistan, although many cases go unreported. The UN agency says that in the vast majority of cases the perpetrators go unpunished. Now that the Taliban have returned to power with their extremely conservative interpretation of Sharia law, the number of honour killings will probably rise.
- “Inside the Shafia Killings that Shocked a Nation.” Michael Friscolanti, Maclean's Magazine, March 3, 2016
- “How the Shafia Investigation Unfolded.” Allison Jones, The Canadian Press, March 23, 2013.
- “Shafia Jury Finds all Guilty of 1st-Degree Murder.” Melinda Dalton, CBC News, January 29, 2012.
- “Injustice and Impunity.” United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, May 2018.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor