In this increasingly secularized age of Western history, the “dysfunctional family” has almost become a caricature of the American household. The days of highly conservative values – addressing your dad as “sir” and asking to be excused from the dinner table – have mostly died out as liberal societal attitudes are reflected in the family unit. And so, there’s been an almost ironic nod to the intrinsic wackiness and difficulty that comes with living in a traditional family. The tongue-in-cheek approach is evident in countless television comedies and movies whose tag line is simply “dysfunction” — parents, children and even house pets all hilariously navigating outrageously rocky relationships.
But the phenomenon we’re detailing here, while nobody would wittily describe it as dysfunction, epitomizes it in the most tragic way possible. Honour killings represent a situation only possible when a family’s values are so conservative, and the tolerated divergence from them virtually non-existent, that it would punish its deviants with death, even for practices considered harmless, if not completely normal and healthy, by western belief systems. It reflects an attitude which puts a family’s principles ahead of family members’ lives, and it arises from an incredibly complex history of extremist religious and cultural values – originating, largely, in the Middle East and South Asia, but now globalized in the 21st century.
Women typically become victims for reasons like refusing an arranged marriage, being in a relationship without approval, having sex outside of marriage, dressing inappropriately or being the victim of sexual assault. Estimates for the yearly number of honour killings of women range from 5,000 to 20,000 around the world, and that’s excluding non-fatal attacks like mutilations, beatings and abductions. Men occasionally meet the same fate for being homosexual, and more often by virtue of their involvement with a partner’s “dishonouring”.
This act is so horrifyingly widespread and consistent that we can only wonder how many victims never come to light at all. Some honour killings happen out of unrestrained passion and anger by as little as one family member acting alone — those are generally less difficult to identify. But others result from calculated decisions by entire families to end the life of a member for the greater good of their reputation and social status, and that’s almost more terrifying and certainly more insidious.
And still worse, if that’s possible, in certain countries these kinds of attacks go unreported en masse. Those victims might feel out of reach, and we might sometimes write off these ‘honour killings’ as a foreign concept – but these nine tragic cases occurred in North America, where Western values prevail. Warning: The following reports are tough pills to swallow.
9. Sandeela Kanwal, Jonesboro, Georgia
At 19 Sandeela Kanwal travelled to Pakistan from America to fulfill an arranged marriage to a cousin twice her age. After living apart for most of their relationship, she filed for divorce six years later in 2008. But Sandeela’s deeply conservative father — a 52-year-old Pakistani immigrant — couldn’t stomach the thought. One July night that year in the midst of an argument, he strangled Sandeela to death with a bungee cord. Police say he tried to prevent the “disgrace” her divorce would bring his family, seemingly disregarding the disgrace of life in prison for killing his daughter.
8. Shafia Family Murders, Kingston, Ontario
Rona Amir Mohammed (bottom right) was the infertile first wife of Mohammad Shafia (top middle), a Pakistani-UAE real estate tycoon who settled in Montreal in 2007. After Mohammad Shafia’s second wife (top left) gave birth to seven children, Rona became something of a house slave. The Shafias reportedly held all of Rona’s identity documents and her passport while her husband refused her a divorce and kept her in an abusive relationship. While marital tensions grew, eldest daughter Zainab also became an increasing disappointment to her father due to her relationship with a Pakistani boy.
In June 2009, authorities recovered the bodies of 50 year-old Rona and daughters 19 year-old Zainab, 17 year-old Sahar and 13 year-old Geeti from a black Nissan Sentra submerged in a lock of the Rideau Canal in Kingston, Ontario. While Mohammed had reported them missing, a police investigation discovered the Shafia family Lexus had rammed the Nissan into the lock, landing Mohammed, second wife Tooba Yahya, and 20 year-old son Hamed 25 years each for first degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the guise of honour killing. The remaining 3 children were sent to social services.
7. Palestina Isa, St. Louis, Missouri
Palestina Isa was a sixteen year-old Missourian who liked dance, rap, R&B and rock music. Upon discovering she’d taken a part-time job and dated a non-Muslim black man, her Palestinian father and Brazilian mother decided Palestina had become too Westernized. As she returned home late from a date one evening in 1989, her father emerged from the kitchen with a 7-inch boning knife and stabbed her to death while her mother held her down.
In a strange twist to this horrifying story, Palestina’s deranged father was part of militant Palestinian splinter group the Abu Nidal Organization, which at the time plotted to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. The FBI’s wiretaps in the family home became the decisive piece of evidence against the parents in their first-degree murder conviction which earned them the death sentence. Ultimately the father died on death row; the mother had her sentence commuted to life in prison, and died serving it this past April.
6. Amandeep Atwal, Prince George, British Columbia
17 year-old Amandeep Atwal and 19-year-old Todd McIsaac managed to conceal their their relationship for three years until 2003, when their involvement in a car accident blew their cover. Amandeep’s Sikh father became furious and abusive, leading her to pack her things and move in with her boyfriend in June. But by July, things seemed to be on the mend when her father asked her to attend one last family road trip before settling with Todd. She did, and somewhere between Prince George and Vancouver, her father stabbed her 11 times in her car seat. He delivered her body to the hospital himself, and ultimately received a second-degree murder conviction in 2005.
5. Amina and Sarah Said, Irving, Texas
Amina and Sarah Said — 19 and 18 years-old respectively — were found in a bloody taxi in Irving, Texas on New Year’s Day, 2008. Moments earlier, Sarah had called 911 to tell them she and her sister had been shot by their father. Their mother later confirmed that her husband, Egyptian immigrant Yaser Said, killed the two daughters for having non-Muslim boyfriends. He remains at large, pending a $20,000 reward from the F.B.I. for any information contributing to his arrest.
4. Khatera Sadiqi and Feroz Mangal, Ottawa, Ontario
After a night out at the movies with a group of friends, engaged couple Khatera and Feroz (20 and 23, above) drove Khatera’s older brother back to his car in a Phoenix parking lot. As they idled by his vehicle, he returned with a .44 Magnum and open fired at close range. Khatera’s brother Hasibullah, who couldn’t accept that the couple had become engaged without his father’s permission, sat eerily silent when the jury issued him a 25-year murder sentence.
3. Aasiya Zubair, New York
Aasiya Zubair and her husband Muzzammil Hassan were known for founding the first American Muslim English-language television network, Bridges TV. It was at the Bridges TV station in New York that 36-year-old Aasiya was found beheaded in February 2009, six days after serving her estranged husband divorce papers. Pakistani-born Muzzammil — an explosive man with a history of abuse throughout his three marriages — turned himself in the same day, receiving 25 years to life in prison.
2. Noor Almaleki, Phoenix, Arizona
To her father, Noor Almaleki had long been a ‘problem child’, due to her pretty standard teen behaviours of socializing with guys, wearing jeans and posting photos of herself on MySpace. But refusing an arranged marriage to an Iraqi man back in her father’s home country was a step too far. 20-year-old Noor was walking across a Phoenix parking lot with her boyfriend’s mother in 2009 when her father struck both of them with the family Jeep. Noor died instantly; the mother died two weeks later. Noor’s father was captured fleeing the country and received 34 ½ years in prison for second-degree murder, aggravated assault and hit and run.
1. Jassi Kaur Sidhu, Maple Ridge, British Columbia
Of all the tragedies on this list Jassi Kaur Sidhu’s might be the most unsettling. The 24-year-old Canadian beautician fell in love with a rickshaw driver on a 1994 trip to India. After years of secrecy, the two (above) married in 1999 to the great dismay of her family. While the couple shared the same culture, Sidhu’s family fiercely disapproved of her love for a man of “lower status” and made countless abusive attempts — including physically beating her — to prompt their divorce.
But Jassi eventually managed to escape her family’s confinement with the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and reunited with her husband in India in May 2000. Then, less than one month later, Indian police found Jassi’s husband violently beaten and Jassi’s body dumped in an irrigation canal with her throat slit. The inquest determined the couple was kidnapped by hitmen hired by Jassi’s uncle. The killers kept contact with Jassi’s family by phone, and it was the mother who ultimately gave the order to execute her daughter.
Unfortunately, the ending to this story is supremely dissatisfying: Attempts to extradite the mother and uncle to face trial in India were delayed in B.C. courts. It wasn’t until January 2012 — eleven years later — that British Columbia police arrested them, and it wasn’t until this past May that B.C. turned them over to India. While they both remain unconvicted, their daughter’s widowed husband has additionally endured four years in Indian jail for a false rape accusation engineered by the family.