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Tuesday, 31 January 2012

About Honour Killings, A Book Review of Tell It to the Trees

Quote of The Week

Crown attorney Gerard Laarhuis after the verdicts:
"This jury found that four strong, vivacious and freedom-loving women were murdered by their own family in the most troubling of circumstances. We all think of these four, wonderful women now who died needless deaths. This verdict sends a very clear message about our Canadian values and the core principles in a free and democratic society that all Canadians enjoy and even visitors to Canada enjoy

Anita Rau Badami

Given the completion of the horrific trial of the murders of the Shafia girls and their step-mother-- who were found drowned in a car in the Kingston Mill Locks on  June 30 of 2009--and the conviction of their parents and brother, Hamed, this week, I have decided to post a review I did last October, my first ARC, Tell It to the Trees by Anita Rau Badami.  There are insightful, if not creepy, parallels in this story to the true life tragedy of the Shafia family.  Badami, like the Shafia family is also from Montreal. Her ethnic origin is Indian and she writes convincingly from the newly arrived immigrant point of view.  The effect of her writing is that, while I realize I was reading fiction, I felt I was being given insight into the frightening real lives of many immigrant woman isolated by language and culture, imprisoned and abused by their own family.  In short, Badami, in Tell It to the Trees, opens a window on the lives of these immigrant woman from which we can learn and understand the conditions and restraints that they must live with in order to literally live.

Tell It to the Trees is a gripping tale of twisted loyalties and murder in a recent immigrant family living outside a remote village in British Columbia.  Captured in this frightening tale are the cycles of abuse that are handed down through the generations.  At the heart of this abuse are the control of women and the cultural subjugation of both dress and behaviour.  But most importantly, this is a story about family secrets and above all preserving the family name and honour.  Although, the real life tragedies of the Shafia woman and girls and the fictitious story of the Dharma family, differs somewhat culturally, the underling factors that propel a family to murder are chillingly similar.  Much is being made in the press about honour killings, and I agree that this is some of the motivation for these ghastly killings, the starting point, but; it is not the whole of it.  The children and the step-mother went outside the family for help, sought help from the children protection authorities of Montreal, complained of their treatment within the family.  They betrayed the family secrets, aired the dirty laundry.  The members of the family allowed to live would keep family business, including murder, a secret.  The members who would tell were killed.  Talking outside the family is the universal taboo of all dysfunctional families regardless of culture.

Now, I do not believe that all women who maintain their traditional dress are abused.  I have worked with several women both nurses and doctors who chose to wear the traditional coverings.  All of whom were very happy and independent women.  First, the problem is when this form of dress is forced upon the woman as a means of taking away their freedom and identity.  Secondly, and even more importantly, is the reaction of the community in which these women live.   When the community that surrounds them does not see these women as individuals, but, as a cultural group, their personhood is lost.  Unfortunately, this is how the Montreal children protection workers saw these Shafia women, as an example of their cultural group who must wear this and behave so, not as four abused women who were in danger from their own family.  A social worker had been in the Shafia house in May and found no immediate concern.  The four were killed the next month.  The social worker could not get past the scarves to see the real pain and fear of the women beneath.  In addition the Shafia family were very affluent, with no appearnace of obvious neglect, the claims of the children were dismissed.  The importance of outward appearances of the children is repeatedly emphasised in Tell It to the Trees.  These children do not 'look' abused.  They 'look' well dressed.

Badami in Tell it to the Trees, explores the effect of secrets upon the different children in the Dharma family.  And shows how one child may embrace the family dysfunction and how another will be become more and more frightened and distressed.  And what of the surviving Shafia children that keep the secrets?  Can you keep a secret of murder, even if only after the fact, and remain sane?  Two girls and a boy survived this family cull; I am sure the girls now firmly know their place as Afgani woman but will the boy understand that you can not get away with honour killings in Canada or only that it must be more expertly executed.  And what of Hamed, now convicted killer, only 18 at the time of this crime, would he have become a cold blooded murder if raised in another family?  How will he feel years from now knowing what his parents had him do and the fact that in the end they were quite willing to hang him out by convincing him to change his testimony to admitting he was there at the scene when the car fell into the Kingston Mill Locks?   Will he realize that his parents were willing to let him take the blame while they would go free?  After all, they did have another ‘good son,’  willing to testify in court to the Shafia version of the truth.

Laarhuis cross-examines a surviving Shafia son, who can't be identified:
Laarhuis: "The reason that you're confirming this with Hamed and your mom is because you know there's a problem with that part of the story."
Son: "No, not really. I'm just trying to help them (tell the truth)."
Laarhuis: "That's the remarkable thing about the truth — you don't need to remind people what the truth is."
From Global News. 

To be fair to these three surviving children and even Hamed, they are also victims of the reining terror in the Shafia household; those that complained got put into the car and drowned in the lock.

The Book Review of Tell It to the Trees
Anita Rau Badami

This book will grab your attention from page one and will linger in your mind long after completion. It is a thought provoking book concerning family secrets, an unexplainable death of a tenant and an isolated family invested in maintaining a good family name. The cold harsh setting of a small Canadian town springs to life in Anita Rau Badami beautiful lyrical writing. The Dharma family- consisting of autocratic Vikram; his aged mother Akka, who has chilling secrets of her own; sweet gentle Suman, Vikram's second wife, newly immigrated from India and rushed into marriage; the troubled teenage daughter Varsha, abandoned by her first mother; and Hemant, the sensitive seven year old, haunted by ghosts- live at the end of a lonely barren road outside of a town called Merrit's Point, referred to as Hell by old Akka. Everyone loves secrets...or so you think...and this story is all about secrets, what you tell... who you don't tell...but when you are 7 and have to tell, you tell it to the tree.
This puzzle of a story is told from four view points Suman, Ana, the Dharma family tenant, and the two children Varsha and Hemant. The characters come alive in your mind. Each is given a unique voice expressing alternate views of the story. Each piece of this jig saw puzzle flows smoothly into the next, until a complete chilling picture is revealed at the end.

In Tell It to the Trees, Anita Rau Badami evokes a chilling depth of insight into the psychological aspects of a dysfunctional abusive family. Badami presents us with an opportunity to see those unfortunate abused woman beneath their cultural garb, whatever that might be, and see the person lost and isolated underneath.  This is a book that all women should read, all men should read. This is one of those important books that come along every so often that can change how people view unmentionable aspects of our society. Most books are read for pleasure, entertainment, and, make no mistake, there is a very good mystery story in this book, but, very few go to the heart of such difficult and mostly hidden aspects of our society with such a sense intimate feeling. This book goes beyond entertainment; this is a cautionary tale of isolation and abuse. Tell it to the Trees describes the cycle of abuse and how it passes down the generations. As Suman dreams of escape, Badami describes how such a situation can entrap, ensnare and beat you down until you are capable of fabricating excuses for inexcusable behaviour. Why does she not just leave, is often queried with regard to women who suffer from abuse. This book will show you why. But more importantly, it will clearly show why you should get out, for yourself and, especially, for your children. Does Suman get out in time? We can only hope...

No Victim Impact Statements

Following the trial and conviction of murder, normally victim impact statements would be presented by family members and loved ones from whom the victims had been harshly taken away.  Sadly, in the case of the four Shafia women no one from their family or community will speak on their behalf.  

Zainab, 19: Chose to marry a man of her choice.
The marriage was disallowed by her father.
Two months prior to her murder she fled the Shafia home for a women's shelter.
Unfortunately she returned home.

Sahar, 17: She wanted to be a doctor.
Looks like every 17 year old I know.
Complained to teachers and social workers about abuse at home.
Including a suicide attempt in the spring before her death with no results.

Geeti, 13: Requested to be put in foster care.
Sadly, she was left with her family.
Teachers noted increasingly wild behaviour.
That's called being terrified and no one helping you.

Rona, 52: Died because she loved these girls.
The press has put forth that this was a convenient way to get rid of the first wife.
I do not believe she was part of the original plan.
For a family that purchased a cheap car to kill their family members,
why would they allow the expensive jewlery she was wearing to go to the bottom of the lock?
If only in my imagination, I like to think she went down fighting.
Surely to God, someone would fight for these girls. 

We all should speak on their behalf, because no one should be murdered for just being a girl.

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