HONOUR KILLINGS: Our first excerpt from new book Without Honour details why Patriarch Mohammad Shafia married twice

The discovery of four female bodies in a submerged car on the Rideau Canal in Kingston, Ont., more than three years ago led to one of the most high-profile murder trials in Canadian history. Last year, the Shafia family trial cast a spotlight on honour killings in this country as the public struggled to come to terms with what led to the death of teenage sisters Zainab, Sahar, and Geeti Shafia, as well as Rona Amir Mohammad. In his new book, Without Honour, Rob Tripp reveals new details about the case and the tragic story behind it.

Mohammad Shafia. Submitted photo

Tooba Yahya. Submitted photo

EXCERPT 1

Eighteen-year-old Rona Amir and Mohammad Shafia were a picture-perfect bridal couple, the beautiful eldest daughter of a retired army colonel and the handsome Kabul businessman. Shafia, accomplished at age 25, smiled for snapshots with his porcelain bride on his arm. It was 1978, the year that Rona would later lament that her lot in life “began a downward spiral.” That day, in the crush of well-wishers and glare of flashbulbs that froze her mask of happiness, she did not see the turmoil ahead.

Many people attended their elaborate wedding at the Intercontinental, the finest hotel in Kabul. The surroundings were posh, adorned with chandeliers and carpets in rich red tones. The teenaged bride wore a gauzy baby-blue dress. Two blue roses, fashioned from the fabric, protruded from the satiny waves of dark hair near her left ear.

It was a refined beginning.

Shafia’s mother, Shirin, had arranged the marriage two years earlier. She had found him this good girl when she attended the wedding of a distant relative, Noor. At the reception, Shirin noticed the bridegroom’s younger sister Rona. The slender sixteen-year-old had beautiful skin and a round face with delicate features. She was quiet and reserved, perhaps even timid. Shirin was pleased. This girl was attractive, and she came from a reputable, middle-class family. Rona would surely make a good wife for Shafia and mother for his children.

Shirin was careful to comply with the strict tradition of khwastgari, the ritual that dictated rules of betrothal. First she asked Rona’s family for the girl’s hand in marriage for her son, and then she visited Rona’s home several times to see the girl with her family. The visits did not diminish her first impression that Rona was a good mate for her son. Rona and her family were also invited to Shirin’s home, as custom required. The visits afforded Shafia a chance to get a good look at the girl that his mother had selected for him. He approved.

Rona’s elder brother asked her if she would accept the proposal to marry Shafia. Rona didn’t fully comprehend what it would mean to become a wife, but she recognized that it was her fate to be given away to a man she did not know or love.

“Give me away in marriage if he is a good man,” she replied. “Don’t if he is not.”

And so Rona’s family investigated Shafia. They learned that his father, Akbar, had died in a car crash when Shafia was only two. Shafia had completed Grade 6, but in the absence of a patriarch in his family, and out of economic necessity, he was thrust at a young age into a position of leadership and responsibility. He began apprenticing with extended family, learning to repair televisions and radios. By the time Shafia was a teenager, he had opened a small electronics shop with a loan from his grandfather. Shafia proved adept at electronic repair and was soon able to open a larger shop in downtown Kabul. He expanded from selling primarily radios to importing and reselling other electronics.

Learning this, Rona’s family decided Shafia was a simple, hard-working young man who would succeed in business — an acceptable suitor. With the blessing of her family secured, the bright young high school student who had just completed Grade 11 was betrothed to a stranger seven years her senior. In a country where girls as young as two were offered up by their families as wives for men in their sixties and seventies, it was a reasonable arrangement viewed as a highly compatible match.

And so, in 1978, Rona and Shafia were wed, beginning their new life together in the same year that Afghanistan began its descent into three bloody decades of war and chaos that would reduce Kabul to rubble and displace millions of Afghans. President Daoud Khan was assassinated in a coup in which thousands died. War planes fired on the presidential palace in Kabul as military units loyal to Daoud battled troops sympathetic to the Soviet Union, which had long provided financial and political support to Afghanistan.

Rona and Shafia were still relative newlyweds when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. Soviet commandos stormed the palace and killed the president, setting the stage for the installation of a puppet leader and a deadly, decade-long occupation that would see one million Afghans die.

Rona Amir Mohammad. Submitted photo

In the Shafia home, an unexpected problem was festering: Rona could not get pregnant. At first, Shafia was not troubled by her failure to give him a child. He was busy with his expanding business empire. He launched a company, Babul Ltd., to import and distribute products from Japan. Rona visited several doctors, received injections and assurances, but still failed to conceive. Shafia took her to India for treatment from experts, but the expensive intervention did not help.

After several childless years, Shafia began to hear derisive jokes from his acquaintances and business associates. People were ridiculing him for his failure to impregnate his wife. Maybe something was wrong with him, they were saying. There were crude taunts about farm animals.

Shafia trained his anger upon his barren wife. He began to snipe at Rona and became more controlling, telling her to stop leaving the home to visit her mother. “He would find fault with my cooking and serving meals and he would find excuses to harass me,” Rona would write in her diary, years later. Until that point, she had considered his treatment of her to be kind. But Shafia could not contain his growing bitterness over his wife’s failure to give him children.

Rona’s younger sister Houma arrived for an overnight visit. She was sitting with Rona when Shafia came into the room and snapped at his wife.

“You are a land without crops,” he complained. “You cannot give me kids.”

Houma spoke up: “Shafia, you shouldn’t say these kinds of things to my sister. This is from God.”
Rona would not let the slight pass. “Please don’t say these things in front of my sister,” she implored, challenging her husband.

Shafia stepped forward and began slapping Rona on the face. Horrified, Houma retreated to her room. She did not confront Shafia and she never spent the night at her sister’s home again. Houma feared for Rona but custom dictated that she should not meddle in the affairs of another family.

Rona’s frustration with her husband’s resentment and anger led her to a distasteful but, she believed, necessary decision. Feeling there was nothing else she could do, she told Shafia to marry again.

“I will take a second wife but you also I will have treated,” Shafia said, promising to continue to seek a medical solution to Rona’s infertility.

As Shafia recalled it, he did not have to look far for a second mate. The wife of his longtime friend Aziz visited the couple’s home in Wazir Akbar Khan, an affluent Kabul neighbourhood. She noted that the big house Shafia had built was quiet, devoid of the sounds of scampering little feet on the tile floors. The woman suggested her seventeen-year-old sister Tooba would make a good bride and mother. The educated girl, one of seventeen children of a well-to-do pharmacist, met with the suitor in a restaurant, according to Tooba’s recollection years later.

“I have a good life but I have no kids,” Shafia told her. “If you’re not in agreement, no one can force you and I don’t want this marriage to be forced.”

Excerpt from Without Honour published in the English language in Canada by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright (c) 2012 by Rob Tripp. All rights reserved.

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