Crucial Power Analysis Missing from Courts and the Media in Shafia Murder Case

April 1, 2012

On the surface, the Shafia murder case doesn’t look like a “political” issue at all. The horrifying killing of four innocent women by family members near Kingston nearly three years ago could easily be seen as simply the tragic drama of an individual family, not a matter for analysis and action in the broader Canadian socio-political context.

On reflection, however, that individualized assessment breaks down. In fact, the Shafia murders raise issues of a highly political nature which demand the attention of all progressive Canadians.

Most obvious, of course, are the cultural and supposedly religious aspects of the case, and the racist distortions which are rightly being challenged and denounced. As well, troubling questions have arisen around the social services that somehow failed to respond adequately to the victims’ cries for help. But there is an even more basic element to the story – a fundamentally political dimension which has been almost entirely missing from the public discussion. That element is power.

Raw patriarchal power was a determining factor in the unfolding of these tragic events. The information that emerged during the trial and since makes it very clear that 58-year-old millionaire Mohammad Shafia controlled not only the lives of the four female murder victims; he also controlled – through years of domestic abuse and domination – the lives of his “preferred wife,” Tooba Mohammad Yahya, their son Hamed, and their other children.

In convicting the father, mother, and son together as equally guilty of first-degree murder, our Canadian justice system ignored the unmistakable evidence of the ways in which brutal gender-based power dynamics affected not just the victims, but also the father’s co-accused.

It is not easy or popular to question the designation of the unsympathetic Tooba Yahya as every bit as much a murderer as her husband. I am not trying to excuse or justify whatever part she played in those horrendous deaths. I am saying her culpability is different, and that such differences are important in this and many other cases.

Dr. Judith Herman, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard, has written extensively about the effects of prolonged, repeated trauma on hostages, political prisoners, concentration camp survivors, and many victims of human trafficking and domestic abuse. In her 1992 book, Trauma and Recovery, she describes these as forms of captivity, in which the victim, for varying reasons, cannot escape the control of a violent perpetrator.

The methods used to establish that coercive control, Herman writes, “are based upon the systematic, repetitive infliction of psychological trauma. They are the organized techniques of disempowerment and disconnection... designed to instill terror and helplessness and to destroy the victim’s sense of self in relation to others.”

Herman points to the classic power dynamic in which abusers “seek to isolate their victims from any other source of information, material aid, or emotional support.” Alternating unpredictable outbursts of violence with intermittent and equally capricious rewards, they manage to “instill not only fear of death but also gratitude for being allowed to live.”

“As the victim is isolated, she becomes increasingly dependent on the perpetrator, [and] comes to see the world through [his] eyes... But the final step is not completed until she has been forced to violate her own moral principles and to betray her basic human attachments. This is the most destructive of all coercive techniques... It is at this point, when the victim under duress participates in the sacrifice of others, that she is truly ‘broken’.”

To those of us who have lived an experience of “chronic trauma” as described by Herman – and let’s not kid ourselves, we are many – the reports of Tooba Yahya’s behaviour, and of her erratic evidence during the investigation and trial, can feel eerily familiar. The lies and contradictions, the alternating defiance and tears, the apparent heartlessness, the weird loyalty to her husband, the confusion and forgetfulness, whether real or feigned – all these fit Herman’s description of the “broken” and degraded object of chronic abuse.

It's scary to acknowledge the possibility that Yahya is not inherently a monster, a despicable being, totally different from us and our vaunted “Canadian values.” But South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has seen plenty of horror, is quoted as having said: “There is nothing [anyone] has done that I might not have also done under other circumstances.” That is pretty heavy food for thought.

Not for nothing do feminists insist that the personal is political. Unless our analysis recognizes the key role of patriarchal power at every level in the Shafia case, we leave the field open for racist and religious prejudice on the one hand, and misdirected “cultural sensitivity” on the other. Both have been rampant in the public discourse on the Shafia case.

To discuss the Shafia murders and Tooba Yahya’s guilt without acknowledging the central role played by the pervasive and dehumanizing power of patriarchy is like trying to discuss the Alberta tar sands or the Keystone pipeline without examining the power of the corporate oil lobby. If we fall into that trap, we have no way of understanding what has really been going on. Without that understanding, our hope for preventing such tragedies is slim indeed.

(Helen Forsey is a feminist writer and activist whose book about her father, Senator Eugene Forsey, has just been published.)