By Sadiya Ansari
Critics say the government’s targeting of anti-violence funds on specific groups of women–such as those from Muslim and South Asian communities–worsens victims’ isolation and undermines a wider push for women’s safety.
VANCOUVER, Canada (WOMENSENEWS)–Federal funding to combat “honor-based violence” is isolating immigrant women from other victims of gender-based violence by creating a different “ethnic” category of violence, critics say.
“When a white woman is killed by her domestic partner or family we ask very individual questions about the circumstances,” said Itrath Syed, a former shelter worker in Vancouver who is now pursuing a doctoral degree examining Islamophobia. “When women of color are killed, we ask these larger questions around their culture. We ask what’s wrong with their entire people — their culture, their religion — instead of a particular person.”
The Canadian media have intensely covered two cases of fatal domestic violence in Muslim families.
Crown prosecutors called the murder of Aqsa Parvez an “honor killing.” The 16-year-old was killed by her father and brother, Muhammed Parvez and Waqas Parvez, in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga in 2007.
In 2008, three teens and the first wife of Mohammed Shafia were killed in Kingston, Ontario, by Shafia, his second wife Tooba Yahya and their son Hamed. When all three were convicted of first-degree murder in 2012, the presiding judge said the crime was based on “a completely twisted concept of honor . . . that has absolutely no place in any civilized society.”
Crimes widely labeled “honor killings” are the type of violence that Status of Women, a government agency created to advance women’s issues, aims to target.
“The terminology is used in order to highlight that this form of violence is sometimes associated with unique risk factors and requires a specialized response,” the agency said in a September statement.
‘Harmful Cultural Practices’
Since 2007, Status of Women has provided $2.8 million for projects that “address harmful cultural practices.”
Ninu Kang is director of family programs for MOSAIC, an immigrant services organization in Vancouver that received $200,000 of that funding for a two-year project to prevent honor-based violence.
The project will conduct focus groups with men and women in the South Asian community and then create targeted approaches to crime prevention based on this assessment.
Kang said her organization identifies the issue as honor crimes because of special cultural dimensions to the violence and fear that women in this community suffer. Some women, for instance, will not want to leave a marriage because it will shame the family and because no one had ever been divorced before.
“We could see there was an undertone of honor,” Kang said.
The Canadian Council of Muslim Women also has funding to prevent honor-based violence, but it prefers not to use the term in its own programming.
Executive Director Alia Hogben said she prefers the term femicide. She doesn’t agree with Status of Womenthat there are “unique risk factors” in certain communities.
Risks Tied to Power, Control
“These murders are happening, but I don’t think there are unique risk factors,” Hogben said in a phone interview. “I think there are some things that happen that have to do with fundamentally, the control and power men want to have over women: daughters, wives, mothers.”
The organization applied to this pot of funding to develop toolkits on forced marriages, female genital mutilation and femicide for its local chapters
Rubaiyat Karim is an advocate with 10 years’ experience working with women who have suffered domestic violence. She is now the program manager of the York Region Center for Community Safety just outsideToronto. She challenges a rarified view of honor crimes, saying all forms of violence against women have an element of honor.
“I think honor is tied to masculinity,” said Karim.
She compares a man getting jealous over his female partner texting another man to be about ego — in essence, honor. For her, this label creates a false choice for organizations; having to choose between racism and sexism.
“Immigration policy can be very inclusionary and preach the language of multi-culturalism,” Karim said. “But if we really want to talk about multiculturalism, we need to address the Orientalist mentality of government.”
Karim said the agency’s funding method encourages organizations to say their communities in particular have major problems. “What we really need is a larger federal policy on gender equality.”
‘Gender Equality‘ Disappeared
Political advocacy was cut from the listed activities eligible for funding by Status of Women by the Conservative government in 2011 and the terminology “advancing gender equality” disappeared from the agency’s mandate.
When the Conservatives first took power in 2006, 12 out of 16 Status of Women offices were shut down across the country, cutting 61 jobs out of the 131 positions that existed at the agency at the time.
The targeted use of depleted resources in ethnic communities is deliberate, said Sunera Thobani, aprofessor of women’s studies at the University of British Columbia and former president of president of theNational Action Committee on the Status of Women, Canada‘s largest feminist organization.
“I really consider this an attempt by the Canadian state to shape feminist politics in the country,” Thobani said. “In a perverse kind of way, it blames women for the violence they experience because in a way, it says it’s sanctioned by your culture.”
Thobani also sees the continuation of a longstanding government practice to separate immigrant women from the mainstream. In the 1990s the issues were different, for example dowries, but the implication of exclusion was very similar.