Monday, November 10, 2008

In Defence of Aqsa Parvez, Part I

This month's issue of Toronto Life is dedicated to immigration issues. Obviously, this is something that caught my eye, and I was excited to see what the magazine had to offer on the subject.

"Minority Report" is the name of the feature, and it covers a number of immigration-related issues, including an article on the growth of unusual tropical diseases in Toronto due to the immigrant population ("Sickness and the City") and a profile of the rapper K'naan ("The Prince of Little Mogadishu").

But what I read first--and what prompts me to raise my head up out of the fog of articling to post this--is the first article I read, "Girl, Interrupted" by Mary Rogan. The article is about Aqsa Parvez, a Grade-11 student in Mississauga who was killed by her father in December 2007. Her murder seems to have been due to her rebellion against her family, including her refusal to wear hijab.

Now, full disclosure: I am firmly W.A.S.P. in background, so this is definitely an outsider's perspective. But personally, I found the article disturbing, deeply so, in that gets-under-your-skin-and-bothers-you-but-you're-not-immediately-sure-why way. At the end of the day, my conclusions are that the article both legitimizes the Islamophobia that makes the hijab such a hot-button issue, and supports the patriarchal authoritarianism that is the source of so much genuine harm in many faith- or culturally-based communities, of whatever type.

The article quotes a comment from a discussion:

In response to an editorial suggesting that Aqsa’s death shouldn’t become an argument against the hijab, one writer responded dryly, “Hijabs don’t kill women; fanatically religious men fixated on female modesty kill women, eh?”

The placement of the quotation implies agreement; that is to say, it's ambiguous, but I read it to mean that hijabs do kill women, in some sense. It is, after all, mirroring the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" slogan of the anti-firearm movement.

Just to reiterate: the comment implied, and the Toronto Life article appeared to agree, that the hijab is equivalent in some way to a gun.

The article also skims by the reaction of most of the Muslim community, something which, in my view would be the most important indicator of the extent to which Aqsa's murder was a signal of problems to come, rather than a singular tragedy.

Aqsa’s death got to the heart of a heated debate about women in Islam. Some progressive Muslims, such as Tarek Fatah and Farzana Hassan of the Muslim Canadian Congress, saw her murder as evidence of rising Islamic fundamentalism in Canada. The majority of Muslim leaders, however, insisted that Aqsa’s murder was not an honour killing. Mohamed Elmasry, who heads the Canadian Islamic Congress, and Shahina Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Social Services Association, described the death as a teen issue and a case of domestic abuse.

The article goes on, at length, to discuss Aqsa's family's Imam as not fully understanding the situation, stating that Aqsa's issues with her parents were more complex than just whether or not to wear hijab. Trying to problematize the issue and avoid simplifying it is admirable, but rings a little false when the cover calls it "Toronto's first honour killing".

The article mentions the lack of a gravestone, and Aqsa's friends negative reactions to that lack:

Aqsa Parvez is buried in the Muslim section of Meadow­vale Cemetery in Brampton, where, according to tradition, she would have been laid on her right side, facing Mecca. Her grave is marked by a small steel plate pressed into the ground. On the plate, which is no bigger than the palm of my hand, is the number 774 and nothing else. She is surrounded by other simple graves; beyond that, around a corner, is a more elaborate Muslim section with detailed headstones and shrubbery, fresh flowers and handwritten cards. When I point out the tiny marker to Ebonie and Ashley, Ebonie sucks air through her teeth in disbelief. “Just a number? That’s all?”

Now, I've never seen the cemetery, and I lack an authoritative source, but I have seen mentions that it is not encouraged for observant Muslims to build markers, at least not ostentatious ones.[1]

So yes, the article does a subtle--and to me, infuriating--job of casting the immigrant Muslim community as the Other, as alien, as impenetrably different from the author and the readers, and somehow invariably prone to offing their women. But if the article were just subtly racist, it probably would not bother me so much. What I found disturbing was the way the article cast Aqsa as a hoodrat, almost legitimizing her murder.

First, Aqsa is pictured on the cover vamping it up:

Pouting, semi-topless, makeup heavy--it is uncharitable perhaps, but it does emphasize the attention to beauty and sexuality that seemed to put Aqsa in such conflict with her parents. She's clearly very pretty, but she also looks, to be blunt, a little tarty, Pictures inside the magazine, however, show her as a much more complex individual: laughing with friends, wearing hijab and not, smiling with a baby-bot, and basically being a teenage girl.

Perhaps most infuriating part of the whole article is the last several sentences:

I visited the Meadowvale cemetery one last time. At Aqsa’s grave, I found the bangle and key chain her friends had left behind. Standing there, it occurred to me that for her last year and a half, Aqsa lived in fear. That’s a long time to be running away and getting nowhere. The horror of the way she died, the physical act itself, is compounded by something a Muslim sociologist told me: when a Muslim child disobeys her parents, the emotional stakes are higher than for other kids. “It’s a religious issue. You’re not just violating your parents’ rules; you’re violating God’s rules. This will affect you in the hereafter.” What if this was true for Aqsa? What if, after all that bucking and fighting and standing her ground, Aqsa was scared not just of her father and brother, but of the possibility that they were right?

Here are my concerns: this paragraph highlights the "alien-ness" of Muslim culture, as if they are the only or the first culture whose religion and cultural values cause conflict with between teenagers and their parents. As if no white and or Christian girls have ever been abused or killed by their parents/elders for supposedly or actually transgressing the community's taboos. At the same time, the article ends with a suggestion that Aqsa did transgress, and might be punished in the afterlife.

So, on the one hand, Aqsa is essentialized as a bit of a hussy, a bad kid who disobeyed her parents and maybe got a bot of what she deserved. On the other hand, she is essentialized as yet another victim of the irredeemably misogynist outsider culture that poses a danger to our perfectly egalitarian Canadian society.

Fast Facts

  • Visible minorities born in Canada experience higher rates of violent victimization [2]
  • Race or ethnic origin is the most commonly cited motive for hate crime incidents (66% of all hate-motivated incidents) [3]
  • Six in 10 homicides against children and youth were committed by family members in 2006. [4]
  • Over the past three decades (1977 to 2006), the majority of family perpetrated homicides against children under 18
    years of age were committed by a parent (90%). Fathers are more likely than mothers to be the perpetrators. [5]
  • In 2006, female victims accounted for 50% of victims of violent crime, but 32% were female victims in the context of a familial relationship (as opposed to only 12% of male victims in a familial context). [6]
  • Young females (aged 15-24 years) were most at risk of spousal homicide--over twice as likely to be victims as males in the same age group, and almost twice as likely as female victims in the next age group [7]
  • In 2006, there were 60 homicides committed against children and youth under the age of 18 across Canada [8]
  • Six in 10 homicides against children and youth were committed by family members in 2006 (36 homicides), compared to 27% committed by non-family members (including acquaintances and friends) (16). The remaining 13% of child homicides (8) were unsolved. [9]
  • Over the past three decades (1977 to 2006), 90% of family-related homicide victims under the age of 18 were
    killed by a parent. [10]


[1] See e.g.

[2] According to StatsCan:

[3] According to StatsCan:

[4] StatsCan, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile 2008, Catalogue no. 85-224-X,, p. 8

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 18

[7] Ibid., p. 40

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Sarah, you should sent this to T.O. Life - it's a great commentary. KB

sumayya said...

hey! i'm helping organize the response and the call-out/press conference you posted in part 2. thanks for this, ditto the comments, its a great analysis and so important..

hope you wrote toronto life today and shared some of it!

much respect and solidarity,

Yumna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yumna said...

thank you sarah that was good! it is simply sad how some people potray our religion. Islam doesnt teach us to force someone to do something...its your own choice.

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