When bruising a husband's ego can get you killed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am

Shemina Hirji had been married only five days before she was murdered in her Vancouver area home. The 40-year-old elementary school principal and her husband, Paul Cheema, had seemed so blissful together, friends said, and they were stunned and outraged when Cheema was arrested two weeks ago in connection with her murder.

'They seemed to have been happy,' said Indira Prahst, a friend of the Cheema family. 'It's almost a slap in the face for many of us.'

Hirji is the latest victim in a string of murders of young, married women that has rocked Vancouver's South Asian community. Three other Indo-Canadian women have been killed, and one critically injured, in the past nine months. And in most of the cases, the victims' husbands are now either under investigation or waiting trial. The spate of killings has prompted South Asian community leaders to condemn domestic violence and has raised questions about how common spousal abuse is within the culture.

Police, acting on Cheema's account, initially reported that Hirji was killed during a home invasion on July 5 and had asked the public for help in tracking down the suspects. Masked intruders were said to have attacked the newlyweds about noon, leaving Cheema with minor injuries from the struggle, police said.

But theories of a very different version of events began to emerge after investigators arrested Cheema on July 14, naming him as their only prime suspect. Police said they had found no evidence of a home invasion. They have yet to lay charges.

'It's too soon for something like this to happen to our community,' said Ashiana Khan, business manager for the local radio station, Radio India, which has been inundated by calls about the recent tragedies. Many listeners have also told stories of their own experiences with spousal abuse.

'I personally thought we had moved away from this violence,' Ms Khan said. 'But due to the series of murders and the stories which we hear from young women listeners, we are still in the same place.'

On October 19, Gurjeet Kaur Ghuman, a 40-year-old nurse, was shot in the face by her estranged husband, who then killed himself. She is now blind.

Four days later, police found the burned body of Manjit Panghali, 30, a schoolteacher who was pregnant with her second child, dumped on a rocky beach. Her husband was later charged with second-degree murder. Then, on October 29, Navreet Kaur Waraich, a 27-year-old mother, was stabbed to death in her home. Her husband was also charged with her murder. In February, Amanpreet Kaur Bahia, 33, was stabbed to death in her home, with her two toddlers nearby. Police are still investigating that case.

Ms Khan blames the violence on the reluctance of some immigrants to let go of certain attitudes they grew up with in their native countries. 'In Indian culture, we are told we should not be talking back to our husbands, we should not be talking back to our in-laws, even though we are right,' she said.

Ms Prahst, the friend of the Cheema family, added that some South Asian families continued to value men over women. As a result, some young women grew up accepting abuse as normal.

'There's no doubt that in the past nine months we've had serious cases of domestic violence where women have been killed, and it's been disproportionate in number of victims and perpetrators who are South Asian,' said Ms Phrast, who is also a social activist and a lecturer in sociology at Vancouver's Langara College.

But to ask whether domestic violence was more prevalent in South Asian families was 'almost considered taboo', she said.

For Canadian authorities, the challenge is to crack down on illegal behaviour within an ethnic minority community without offending the culture. And in the age of political correctness, some say, it is safer - although not always constructive - to adopt a broad, non-cultural approach to the problem.

Corporal Roger Morrow, of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said domestic violence occurred in all segments of society.

'To be fair to the South Asian community, it's not just them,' Corporal Morrow said. 'Do we deal with domestic violence in the South Asian community? Yes. Do we deal with it in other communities? Yes, absolutely.'

Police did not track cases according to the perpetrators' and victims' ethnicity, he said. But he acknowledged that doing so might help prevent more tragedies.

'Perhaps it would show an evolving trend that we then could better address,' he said. 'But then on the other end of that, we may be accused by the South Asian community of profiling. So how do you win?'

Corporal Morrow said his unit was appointing an officer to handle domestic violence cases full-time, but the new position was not in direct response to the Indo-Canadian killings. By singling out how and why spousal abuse occurred within a specific community, authorities could more effectively allocate resources to tackle the problem.

Gita Das, vice-president of the Indo-Canadian Women's Association, said police, social workers and the media all tended to be too culturally tolerant.

'With excessive cultural tolerance, I can never say what is wrong because I may offend somebody,' Ms Das said.

To control the violence, however, all parties needed to examine the reality of the situation, she said.

As with Chinese, Filipino and other Asian cultures, there was a tendency in South Asian society to overindulge men and expect women to be subservient, she said. As well, domestic abuse victims were discouraged from speaking out to protect the honour of their families.

Some victims lived with extended-family members who allowed violence to occur, making it all the more difficult to seek outside assistance, and many Indo-Canadian victims did not speak English.

Such cultural factors made addressing spousal abuse in ethnic communities different from targeting the problem in the mainstream.

Ms Das said there was a hazy but critical line between avoiding ethnic prejudices and excessive cultural tolerance.

'Everybody talks about cultural relativity. They think there are no absolute standards,' she said.

'But when you look all over the world, every culture, every religion, has said killing is bad, violence is bad. Whether you're Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, it doesn't matter.'

While no one wants to see stereotypes develop toward the South Asian community, most agree that victim services should better target abused Indo-Canadian women. Authorities needed to be more culturally sensitive, not less, Ms Prahst said.

Mainstream counsellors who did not understand the nuances of South Asian culture might give an Indo-Canadian woman inappropriate advice to deal with an abusive husband, she said.

'If they give advice that's culturally insensitive, it can threaten his ego and, as such, she's in a greater position of danger,' Ms Prahst said.

In the long run, the prevention of domestic violence would require changing patriarchal attitudes within the community - a process that would take time.

'It's going to take about a generation for those attitudes to change,' she said.