Last updated on Friday, Jul. 24, 2009 10:32AM EDT
They were brought up to court separately, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, the mother – the mama bear, to borrow from the old Goldilocks and the Three Bears children’s story – first.
Slight and pale, wearing a modest black tunic top over matching pants, cuffed at the wrist and ankle, her small chin quivered now and then, but she held it together – she is an Afghan, after all, tough and proud – until, as part of a court procedure, the prosecutor read aloud the names of her four surviving children.
At the naming of the last, a girl, the 39-year-old Ms. Yahya began to sob, quite uncontrollably.
How sad that was, and how fitting: Girls, women and the XX chromosomes that mark the female of the species appear to have everything to do with what Kingston Police now allege was mass murder.
Ms. Yahya, her 56-year-old husband Mohammad Shafia and their 18-year-old son, Hamed, are charged with four counts each of first-degree murder and four of conspiracy to commit murder in the June 30 deaths of three of their flesh-and-blood – respectively, daughters and sisters Zainab, 19, Sahari, 17, and Geeti, 13 – and Mr. Shafia’s first wife, Rona Mohammad, whom he had been passing off for decades, when need be, as his “cousin.”
Fifty-two-year-old Ms. Mohammad and the three girls were found inside one of the family cars, which most curiously and against all odds, had ended up in about three metres of water at the nearby Kingston Mills locks of the Rideau Canal – its front end inexplicably facing the stone wall of the northernmost lock, which meant it would have gone in the water ass-backwards.
In the immediate aftermath of this terrible discovery, Mr. Shafia and Ms. Yahya presented, as my Montreal colleague Ingrid Peritz and others reported at the time, as grief-torn parents – though even then, it should be noted, they were blaming the oldest, Zainab, painting her as a bit of a rebel who didn’t have her driver’s licence but occasionally had taken the car out for a toot.
Combining the modern sensibility of crying for the television cameras with the great Afghan tradition of telling any listener what he wants most to hear, Ms. Yahya said then, between sobs, the family had come to Canada for the children (“In Afghanistan, no study … no rights”), while Mr. Shafia generously allowed, “It’s not Canada’s mistake, it’s my family’s mistake.”
Was this a gaudy example of those magnificently misnamed “honour” killings, the extrajudicial killings of people by their own kin for real or perceived infractions of the Islamic moral code – almost invariably by women, often involving alleged sexual or behavioural transgressions, like showing a bit of ankle to a male not a relative? These happen, often enough, in the family’s native land and in neighbouring Pakistan (and usually go unpunished or lightly punished).
Kingston Police skirted ’round that issue at a press conference here yesterday, stopping short of confirming the deaths as “honour” killings, but acknowledging that “the culture issue,” as they called it in fine Canadian fashion, was a live one.
But, as my colleague Les Perreaux, who has been to Afghanistan, wrote me last night, while killing a rebellious teenage daughter might fit with that view of justice, while killing the “other” wife might be understandable if hardly defensible, surely wiping out the lot of them, including the 13-year-old, is a stretch, even for the Afghan mind. “I can’t say I ever even heard of a mass family honour killing, even in Afghanistan,” Les wrote. Me either.
But whatever else, it sure as hell was no accident that the victims all carried the old XX.
Young Muslim men behaving badly may not be encouraged, but even in the most backward parts of the Islamic world, they aren’t killed for dating a blonde or drinking a beer. Girls and women are punished for even more minor offences (disobeying, not marrying the old bag of bones daddy chose, appearing in public unveiled, etc.), often with death.
In these parts of the planet, women don’t matter; they are less than men; they don’t really count: Thus, as a man, you can do with them as you like.
The murders aside, imagine the ordinary humdrum fun of Mr. Shafia’s two wives, moving as a duo with him from Kabul, first to Dubai, then, about two years ago, to Montreal – Ms. Mohammad, according to a police source interviewed by the local Whig-Standard, as Wife No. 1, couldn’t have any children, so he found the younger Ms. Yahya, married her and got her pregnant at least seven times.
What a joy it must have been to be the barren Ms. Mohammad, faced with the offspring of her fertile rival every day – and to be introduced, at least in Canadian society, as her husband’s cousin. And how lovely for Ms. Yahya, seeing the old boy sneaking off to have at it with his first love now and then.
Before court started yesterday, I asked Mr. Shafia’s lawyer, Waice Ferdoussi, an Afghan himself, about this. Was it true, I asked, that the dead adult woman was really his client’s first wife, who couldn’t give him children?
Mr. Ferdoussi, who says he is the only Afghan lawyer in Canada, shrugged and said, “Children, no children: In Afghanistan, you can have two, three, four wives. It doesn’t matter. But that’s Afghanistan; this is Canada.”
That’s the rub, isn’t it?
This is Canada. And Canada is not the United States of America, as we so often point out with tedious smugness. There, the motto on the Great Seal of 1782, the motto carried by the American Eagle, is e pluribus unum , Latin for, “Out of many, one.” There is the melting pot, where everyone is first an American.
Here is the mosaic, where, as a friend reminded me yesterday, years ago Greeks celebrated when Greece beat Canada at basketball, where this spring, protesting Tamils blocked a street full of hospitals in Toronto to criticize our country, where a couple of years ago, Toronto Police bragged of not uttering “the M word” (Muslim) at a press conference held to announce the arrests of a group of young Muslim-Canadian men charged in a terror plot.
“Here is the clash that the great Canadian tolerance is faced with,” my friend wrote. “Here we tolerate a partial and some would say a negligible assimilation or even acceptance of our Canadian norms, beliefs, fundamental principles.”
And what seems to underlie these murders, what appears to be the real bottom-line context, is the belief that men are superior to women.
Canadians don’t believe that, do not accept the core belief of many ethnic groups that women aren’t equal to men and are less valuable a creature.
In a splendid touch, Kingston Chief Steve Tanner began the press conference yesterday by saying that Zainab, Sahari, Geeti and Ms. Mohammad “all shared the rights within our great country to live without fear” but had their “lives cut short by members of their own family,” mentioned a new memorial to victims of domestic violence, and then asked for a moment’s silence.
When Mr. Shafia was led into court yesterday, he spotted a female friend (outside in the halls, she had defended him and professed herself “so disappointed in the other things,” by which she meant the murders), smiled warmly at her and gave a double wave of his cuffed hands, then pressed his hands together and dipped a bit, as if bowing in a religious gesture.
Then he smiled beatifically, as a man at peace would.