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Keeping the faith for the sake of all our Aqsa Parvezes --


December 15, 2007


Piety is the worst sin of all.

It excuses and invests with virtue everything else, as if ordained by God.

Muslims obviously don't have a monopoly on sanctimoniousness, although a great many wear their devoutness with moral superiority, just as their women are made pressured, coerced and threatened to wear head covering, at minimum the hijab and at worst the burqa.

Call it modesty, if you like, or submission to faith. I call it submission to faith as demanded by men or simply submission to men.

Subtext: The feminine as shameful, chattel, and sorceress; provocateur of madness in males, just the whiff of her.

In the West, and in scholarly Islamic circles, a scriptural context can be asserted for taking the hijab. Its more absurd defenders, dancing on the head of a pin, have even tried to frame the head covering as feminist expression rejection of our sexually objectifying culture, the right to self-determination.

In my experience, educated and worldly women who wear the hijab, by choice, are more commonly making a political statement anti-West, anti-ecumenical, and anti-homogenization.

All of which can be defended, as I must defend a woman's right to wear the hijab, reasonable accommodation afforded, including inside the voter's booth.

But there is no exculpation for tyranny; certainly not for murder.

It may have happened this past week in diverse and self-congratulatory multicultural Greater Toronto. It most certainly happens, routinely, in hardcore religious societies, not just fundamentalist Muslim countries but wherever faith is wielded as behavioural bludgeon from pockets of polygamous splinter Mormons in the U.S. to rural India to orthodox Jewish settlements on the West Bank and even, until only recent generations, Christian nations that bowed to the sexist catechism of the Vatican.

I don't know if the young, lovely and purportedly disobedient Mississauga teen Aqsa Pervez was strangled by her father, as alleged, because she wanted to break with religious and cultural traditions. I do know that a 16-year-old girl, who poured out her frustrations to friends, and had recently taken what must have been the terrifying step of seeking shelter and safety elsewhere, is dead, buried yesterday.

She had not, as older brother Mohammad Shan Parvez, told trailing reporters, "passed away." Her neck was compressed, the life squeezed out of her. Her father, Muhammad Parvez, by all accounts a hard-working cabbie was remanded in custody on Wednesday; will likely be charged with second-degree murder. Another son, Waqas Parvez, faces a charge of obstructing police in their investigation. Muslim associations decried the alleged killing, sincerely. But there was defensive posturing too and not just from them. Some women's agencies and activists, firmly setting the hijab aside as a factor in this tragedy, reminded us of the boil that is generic domestic abuse.

Yes, let's blame domestic abuse, because who would absolve violence in the home? So much easier to condemn a common denominator than focus on the details and we don't know a great deal of what happened in that tidy suburban house. But we do know some things, even if cultural sensitivities would discourage us from confronting the elephant in the room.

Until informed otherwise the conflict that this girl was experiencing within her family, the collision between her yearning for sameness and the otherness upon which her family apparently insisted, an adolescent who wanted to look and dress and act like her peers, is germane. The patriarchy that demands control and obeisance, the disgrace that demands redress whether violence is spontaneous or planned is undeniably a component in the mistreatment of girls and women.

The religious strand, the cultural strand these can't be pulled from the tightly woven fabric of proscriptions against females, too often viewed as a proprietary adjunct to their fathers and brothers. Faith and communal pressures allowed an insular society to tolerate, and then rally protectively around, a cult-like Mormon "prophet'' convicted as accomplice to rape, the Utah charlatan recently imprisoned. Faith, an adherence to doctrine that cringes at the messiness of bodily functions, sends orthodox Jewish women to purify themselves after menstruating. Faith, exploited by a sometimes-ignorant clergy, has steeped the Catholic Church in misogyny so profound the Madonna/Mary Magdalene dichotomy has seeped into pop culture, virgin versus whore, with precious little in between.

It's all grist for debate. But when the issue is Islam, debate or disagreement is hazardous.

So even feminist warriors, decades after social emancipation rewrote human rights laws, are leery of giving offence. The Baal of multiculturalism recast to incorporate radical interpretation of religious and cultural imperatives has trumped gender equality.

In Afghanistan, before the pariah Taliban regime was ousted, women were stoned to death on the slimmest of accusations but the world took more outrage at the destruction of Buddhist statues.

In Afghanistan, a girl once sobbed in my lap because she was taking the burqa the next day. Do not dare try to tell me she had a "choice.''

Increasingly, in the predominantly Shia section of Iraq, women are being murdered for not covering up sufficiently. In Saudi Arabia, total concealment is the law.

This is infantalization of women, every one an apparent succubus.

The hijab is not the burqa? When coerced, there's no difference.

Some years ago, in Ontario, women won the right to go topless in public, a silly legal benchmark that now feels like it happened on another planet. Such was the agreement in an era of muscular gender emancipation. Now we have human rights complaints over airport uniforms slacks and mid-calf skirts not modest enough to appease one's religious sensibilities.

Where are the feminists? The civil libertarians? The secularists? Browbeaten into silence.

I know all about immigrant families and the desire to retain traditions obsequious conduct from ancestral lands. I know all about leaving the house dressed one way and arriving at school, presto, dressed another. I know all about pining to look and act like one of the group, not an alien. There was a time when I genuinely believed my father would kill me for shaming him. I don't think I have a single female cousin who wasn't beaten for rebelling.

But, in this country, in my lifetime, that was never socially acceptable. In time, assimilation sanded off the rougher edges of that conflict. The in-between existence of immigrant children, straddling two cultures, found its own balance. Time will do that.

There are casualties, though. Occasionally, a senseless death will hit the headlines, filling us with revulsion. But countless more daughters in cages are leading lives of quiet desperation. In the angst of adolescence, more will die by their own hand than be murdered by righteous fathers.

Time, and pity, ran out on Aqsa Parvez, it would seem.

If we massage the cause of it, deny the linkage of authoritarian traditions sanctified by religion and entitled violence, we break faith with that poor, dead girl.

And that's a faith we should all share.

Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.



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