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Girl, Interrupted Print E-mail

By Mary Rogan
November 12, 2008

ImageAqsa Parvez had a choice: wear a hijab to please her devout family or take it off and be like her friends. She paid for her decision with her life. When her father and brother were charged with her murder, it raised the spectre of religious zealotry in the suburbs. Is this the price of multiculturalism?

Over the fall of 2007, Aqsa Parvez shuttled between friends’ houses and youth shelters. She was afraid to go home. Her father, Muhammad, was enraged because she refused to obey his rules. He swore he would kill her.

On the morning of December 10, Aqsa huddled in a Missis­sauga bus shelter with another Grade 11 student, a girl she had been staying with for the past couple of days. They had plenty of time to make it to their first class at Apple­wood Heights Secondary School. As they waited, Aqsa’s 26-year-old brother Waqas, a tow-truck driver, showed up at the bus stop. He said that she should come home and get a fresh change of clothes if she was going to be staying elsewhere. Aqsa hesitated, then got into his car.

Less than an hour later, Muhammad Parvez phoned 911 and told the dispatcher that he had killed his daughter. Within minutes, police and paramedics arrived at 5363 Longhorn Trail, a winding suburban street near Eglinton and Hurontario, and found Aqsa unconscious in her bedroom. The 16-year-old wasn’t breathing. The para­medics started CPR, found a faint pulse, and rushed her to Credit Valley Hospital, 10 minutes west. A few hours later, she was transferred to SickKids and put on life support. She died just after 10 that evening. The official cause was “neck compression”—strangulation.

In the days following her death, Aqsa’s story was widely reported in the Canadian media as well as on CNN and the BBC. Was her murder an honour killing or simply a gruesome case of domestic violence? Worldwide, an estimated 5,000 women die every year in honour killings—murders deemed excusable to protect a family’s reputation—many of them in Pakistan, where the Parvez family had emigrated from.

Canada prides itself on its multiculturalism and, to varying degrees of success, condemns institutionalized patriarchy. But there is growing concern that recent waves of Muslim immigrants aren’t integrating, or embracing our liberal values. Aqsa’s death—coming in the wake of debates about the acceptability of sharia law, disputes over young girls wearing hijabs at soccer games, and the arrest of the Toronto 18—stoked fears about religious zealotry in our midst. Is it possible that Toronto has become too tolerant of cultural differences?

When police arrived in answer to his 911 call, Aqsa’s father, who worked as a cab driver, was arrested and charged with second degree murder. Waqas was charged with obstruction. The charges against both men were changed to first degree murder in June, after police decided her death was a planned and deliberate act.

The Parvez men are being held in a cellblock at Maple­hurst Deten­tion Centre in Milton. They will be tried together at the Brampton courthouse sometime next year. If convicted, they face automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole for 25 years. Aqsa’s mother and the rest of the Parvez family will likely be called as material witnesses.

At the southern end of Hurontario Street, Mississauga’s main drag, there’s a stretch of squat, low-income housing where many new Muslim immigrants settle. As you drive north, you see stores offering halal meat, instant passport photos, Thai food and Pakistani takeout. Dental and legal clinics advertise in Perso-Arabic script. By the time you hit Burnhamthorpe Road, the strip malls have been replaced by green glass condos and ele­gant medical clinics. East and west of Hurontario are expensive subdivisions with garage-fronted homes, most of them less than a decade old. This is where the Parvez family lived.

Mississauga’s population has tripled in the past 30 years. Today, there are more than 700,000 people living in the country’s sixth largest city, and half of them are visible minorities. South Asians outnumber the second largest visible minority by almost three to one. They form what StatsCan calls an “ethnic enclave.” Slightly more than half of all minority households don’t speak English at home. The city’s planners expect these numbers to rise steadily over the next two decades.

Applewood Heights is a typical Mississauga public high school at the grittier, eastern edge of the city. There are just over 1,100 students, and nearly half speak a first language other than English. Vietnamese is the most common non-English language, followed by Urdu, the language spoken by the Parvez family.

Ebonie Mitchell and Ashley Garbutt met Aqsa in Grade 9 and were two of her best friends at school. On the Friday before Aqsa was murdered, Ebonie shared a pizza lunch with her, then headed off to their last class. On Sunday night, just hours away from her death, Aqsa talked with Ashley on the phone about how she was still scared to go home. Before she hung up, Ashley told her to be careful and that she loved her.

Over the previous year, the girls had become a tight trio. Most days it was Ebonie, Ashley and Aqsa walking down the hall together, a black, white and brown snapshot of Applewood Heights. Before they became friends, they knew Aqsa as a quiet girl who dressed like her older sister, in plain, loose-fitting pants, non­descript tops and a hijab. To Ebonie and Ashley, she was just another South Asian girl, and there were lots of those at Applewood.

Ebonie is 17 years old, barely five feet tall and probably doesn’t weigh 100 pounds. She has a soft voice and tiny teeth, but if you look through her smile, you’ll see some hardness, too. When I met her this past summer, she explained that she wasn’t living at home because she’d been bucking her mother’s rules. Like Aqsa in her last year, Ebonie was bouncing from one friend’s couch to another and dreaming about getting a place of her own with a couple of other girls. She was working the summer at Ontario Place for mini­mum wage, catching kids that came sailing down the water park slide and praying for thunderstorms so she could go home early. She was heading into her last year of high school and had no plans beyond graduation.

It was during gym class in Grade 10 that Ebonie saw Aqsa’s personality begin to evolve. “We were changing one day when we saw her hair,” she remembers. “It was long and beautiful, and everybody was like, ‘Oh, your hair is so beautiful. Why don’t you show it off?’ And she said, ‘I’m not allowed to, but I wish I could.’ Then, like less than a week later, she was taking the hijab off.”

This opened the door to hoodies, tight-fitting jeans and fights with her family. According to Ebonie, Aqsa’s mother agreed to buy Western clothes for her on the condition that she also wear her hijab. “But as soon as she started wearing our clothes, she wanted more freedom,” Ebonie says. “After school she was supposed to go straight home, but she started to stay out later and hang out with us. Her father was angry and told her, ‘Black people do bad things and they’ll change you.’ ” Ebonie shrugs her shoulders and then presses her lips together: “We didn’t force her. She knew what she wanted to do.”

Every school has its story, and for Grade 10 and half of Grade 11, Aqsa Parvez was the story at Applewood. Ebonie says other students were getting into Aqsa’s business and telling her what she should and shouldn’t do. There were boys who would tell her she should put her scarf back on, that she was disrespecting her family and culture. They weren’t even Muslim, Ebonie tells me, they were “just stupid.” On the flip side, there were kids who would keep watch for Aqsa and warn her if her father or brother showed up at school to check on her, allowing her to race to her locker and put her hijab back on. And there were a few girls who confronted Aqsa’s more conservative older sister in the bathroom, accusing her of having ratted out her own sister for not following her family’s rules.

But even without the drama, Aqsa was captivating. Ashley laughs when she remembers how clueless Aqsa could be, how she didn’t understand that she should be discreet about breaking rules. She’d shout down the hall, “Hey Ashley, I’m skipping history. Wanna come?” Her friends talk about how energetic she was and the wild crush she had on a boy named James; he liked her back, but not enough to step into the craziness of her family situation. To her friends, there was something endearing about Aqsa’s naked attempts to fit in. The trio cut classes to go to the mall, swapped clothes and talked about fashion. Ebonie and Ashley schooled Aqsa on the finer points of Western fashion, coaching her to ease up on the cleavage a little so no one would call her a slut. Aqsa showed her friends some traditional Indian dances that Ebonie said looked like a cool mixture of hip hop and Bollywood.

Eventually, even though she was nervous, Aqsa invited them to her home. Ebonie was amazed at how big it was and how many people lived there. She counted at least eight adults. Aqsa gave them a tour, introducing them to her family. People were friendly and asked them if they wanted anything to eat. The girls were impressed by Aqsa’s basement bedroom with its wardrobe full of clothes and a jewellery box filled with more gold than Ebonie had ever seen. It was a real girlie-girl room; but unlike every other bedroom in the house, it didn’t have a door. Ebonie thought that wasn’t right, with all those men in the house. Ashley thought it was just plain weird. Neither one said anything to Aqsa about it. When Ebonie and Ashley left the house, Aqsa’s father, stocky and balding, was standing in his driveway glaring at them. His daughter was slipping away from him, and Ebonie figured he blamed her and Ashley for it. By the end of Grade 10, Aqsa started to open up to her friends about how bad things were at home. She talked about her father and brother Waqas and how frightened she was.

After summer break, at the start of Grade 11, she was a different person. The spark was gone, and she was desperate to get away from home. Her days were spent begging other students for a place to stay. Some were kind, and others were cruel, like the boy who said, “Sure, you can stay at my house—for a blow job.” Ebonie couldn’t bring Aqsa home; her place was full, with two little brothers, a stepfather, a cousin and a mother she was banging up against. Ashley certainly couldn’t take Aqsa in; her relationship with her mother was so troubled that she had moved out and was staying with an older sister. When Aqsa wasn’t looking for shelter, she was scrounging for lunch money or free food. Twice that fall she wound up at a youth shelter on Dundas Street West in Mississauga. Her friends did what they could, sharing jeans and pooling dollars to buy her lunch.

The Peel School Board recommends a three-step approach when a student has a conflict with his or her family. First, try to set up a family meeting. If that doesn’t work, reach out to the community for a “culturally sensitive referral,” and, if all else fails, find the student alternative housing. In Aqsa’s case, the school contacted the imam from the mosque where the Parvez family worshipped.

Within days of Aqsa’s death, more than 20 Facebook pages were devoted to her. One site, Aqsa Parvez RIP, still has almost 6,000 members. On another page, a young Muslim male from California posted a video in which an American imam explains that fathers and sons and husbands don’t tell Muslim women to wear the hijab—God tells them to wear the hijab. It’s only sensible to protect your valuables, he says, asking his audience if they would tell him their PIN number or leave valuables lying around if he came to visit. Of course they wouldn’t. And that’s why women cover themselves. Someone from Anchorage called Aqsa an idiot. “She was not proud of her identity,” he wrote. “She wanted to be someone she was not. How come no one blames Christianity or Judaism when something happens within those religions? This has nothing to do with religion, so quit blaming a retarded girl’s death on Islam.” In another post, a writer described Islam as an evil that “should be banished from civilization altogether.” A discussion on Salon was more restrained. In response to an editorial suggesting that Aqsa’s death shouldn’t become an argument against the hijab, one writer responded dryly, “Hijabs don’t kill women; fanatically religious men fixated on female modesty kill women, eh?”

Aqsa’s death got to the heart of a heated debate about women in Islam. Some progressive Muslims, such as Tarek Fatah and Farzana Hassan of the Muslim Canadian Congress, saw her murder as evidence of rising Islamic fundamentalism in Canada. The majority of Muslim leaders, however, insisted that Aqsa’s murder was not an honour killing. Mohamed Elmasry, who heads the Cana­dian Islamic Congress, and Shahina Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Social Services Association, described the death as a teen issue and a case of domestic abuse.

The imam whom Applewood contacted to get help for Aqsa was Sheikh Alaa Elsayed, who presides over the Islamic Centre of Cana­da. The centre is the largest mosque in the GTA, its impressive minaret visible from the QEW. Elsayed, a tall and good-looking man with a friendly smile and flowing white robes, came to Cana­da from Egypt when he was 15. In his 20s, he lived in Bermuda, Saudi Arabia and Europe but eventually made his way back to Toronto. Before he found his religious calling, he was a district safety manager for Home Depot. Elsayed’s office reflects the hectic pace of his job. There are religious texts, pamphlets, counselling books and, the requisite prop of any skilled listener, a bowl of candy on his desk. As imam, he’s responsible for weddings, funerals, divorces, domestic disputes, spiritual counselling and, of course, leading prayers. After he heard from Applewood, he phoned the Parvez family twice, once speaking briefly with someone at the house and another time leaving a voice mail offering support and assistance. He never had the opportunity to help because no one in Aqsa’s family returned his calls.

The day after Aqsa’s murder, Elsayed went into damage control mode. Worried about a backlash against Muslims, he and another imam held a press conference where he read passages from the Koran to demonstrate how Islam condemns honour killings. Taking a life, he said, is an act against all humanity.

“The fact is, the Koran says to cover,” Elsayed tells me. “This is what God Almighty says. You want to adhere to it? Good for you. If you don’t want to adhere to it I cannot force you, but you will be held accountable on judgment day. There are so many Muslim women who are not covered now. Do we do anything? Do we shoot them? We do not.”

His analysis wilfully ignores how Aqsa, like any teen, was just trying to emerge from her parents’ shadow, to be herself in every way. The hijab was one flashpoint, but there were others: the friends she had, the hours she kept, the wishes she harboured. She wanted a boyfriend. She wanted to go to movies. She wanted to lose her virginity before she finished high school. “She didn’t turn her back on her culture,” Ashley says. “She just wanted to have freedom; that’s all she wanted. She just wanted to have fun the way we were having fun. She really did like her religion. She liked wearing the hijab and some of the traditional clothes, but she also wanted to show her beauty, her hair. She wanted to show the other side of her, show both worlds. Some days, she’d be wearing clothes like us and the hijab, and I’d ask her, ‘Aqsa, why are you wearing the hijab?’ and she’d say, ‘Today, I want to wear this.’ ”

Aqsa Parvez is buried in the Muslim section of Meadow­vale Ceme­tery in Brampton, where, according to tradition, she would have been laid on her right side, facing Mecca. Her grave is marked by a small steel plate pressed into the ground. On the plate, which is no bigger than the palm of my hand, is the number 774 and nothing else. She is surrounded by other simple graves; beyond that, around a corner, is a more elaborate Muslim section with detailed headstones and shrubbery, fresh flowers and handwritten cards. When I point out the tiny marker to Ebonie and Ashley, Ebonie sucks air through her teeth in disbelief. “Just a number? That’s all?” I go back to the car while they visit with Aqsa. When they’re finished, they tell me they left some things with Aqsa so she would know they’d been there. A bangle from Ebonie’s wrist and a key chain from Ashley’s purse that says “princess.”

Back in the car, the girls are quiet for a few minutes until Ebonie starts into a story: “A week before Aqsa died, we were walking to the plaza to get food and she said, ‘Last night, my dad swore he was going to kill me.’ I told her, ‘He’s not going to kill you, that’s just what parents say all the time.’ I had believed everything up until that point, but when she said her dad was going to kill her, I didn’t believe that. Why didn’t I believe that?”

The morning after Aqsa’s death, the school’s teachers had rounded up her close friends for crisis counselling. They were brought into a room and given the news. Then the principal made an announcement to the whole school. A table was set up in the school’s front hallway with a picture of Aqsa and a book for students to sign and write tributes in. (The book was later put on display in the school’s main trophy case.)

The kids at Applewood talked to counsellors, and they had access to a video camera with which they could record messages to Aqsa, some of which were played at a memorial held at Applewood on April 22, her 17th birthday. Cake was served, friends sang and gave speeches, and there was a slide show. Ebonie says these things helped, but she still wakes up most days feeling guilty that she couldn’t do more for Aqsa. She wonders, too, about a brother of Aqsa’s, not Waqas, who treated her with kindness. Ebonie never knew his name, but she remembers Aqsa cried when he left home to live with his girlfriend, back when Aqsa was in Grade 10. He visited sometimes and would take Aqsa to lunch. Once, Aqsa showed the girls a pair of shoes he bought her.

Ebonie and Ashley visit Aqsa’s personal Facebook page every day, adding new posts. They look at the dozens of photos they’ve saved of Aqsa: some from a school trip to Toronto’s fashion district, others of just hanging out in the school hallway. In most of them, Aqsa is smiling or laughing. In one she strikes a sultry pose. In another, a faux gangsta front. She is a beautiful girl, her face broad and open. Ebonie has posted the video from the April memorial, when they released 17 pink and white balloons into the sky.

Early in the summer, I drove with Ebonie to the Parvez house. We sat in the car and watched painters puttering in the driveway. Ebonie pointed out the spot where Muhammad Parvez stood and tried to stare her down. She talked again about all the people who were in the house when she visited and wondered if they were all there the morning Aqsa was killed. Then we spotted Aqsa’s mother as she stepped outside. She was wearing a traditional, pale blue Pakistani dress that covered her legs and arms. Her head was also covered. She was carrying a bucket and knelt on the front step to wring out some rags. She moved slowly, like an old woman.

By the end of the summer, there was a for sale sign on the house’s lawn and a realtor’s lock box on the door. It was listed for $524,000. A month later, the house still unsold, the price was reduced.

Aqsa Parvez lived in two worlds. Devout Muslims reject any division of life into the religious and the secular. By the time she was killed, she knew her father was never going to accept her decision to travel back and forth across the two.

I visited the Meadowvale cemetery one last time. At Aqsa’s grave, I found the bangle and key chain her friends had left behind. Standing there, it occurred to me that for her last year and a half, Aqsa lived in fear. That’s a long time to be running away and getting nowhere. The horror of the way she died, the physical act itself, is compounded by something a Muslim sociologist told me: when a Muslim child disobeys her parents, the emotional stakes are higher than for other kids. “It’s a religious issue. You’re not just violating your parents’ rules; you’re violating God’s rules. This will affect you in the hereafter.” What if this was true for Aqsa? What if, after all that bucking and fighting and standing her ground, Aqsa was scared not just of her father and brother, but of the possibility that they were right?

 

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