Her angelic face is hard to get out of your mind. Five-year-old Farah Khan's brutal death has been the main news item in most of Canada for the past few weeks. The beautiful young girl was allegedly abused and killed by her own father and stepmother. The couple then reportedly dismembered her body and tried to dispose of the parts in two Toronto parks. Police have found her head and some body parts, but her torso is still missing.
The case has gripped Toronto's Pakistani and wider Muslim community. How could this happen in our community, many ask? Indeed, the Muslim community and the South Asian community are perceived -- both from within and outside the community -- as not being capable of such deeds. Interestingly, even the lady who witnessed the couple attempting to hide a garbage bag containing Farah's body parts told police the suspects looked Hispanic. For weeks the police focused on Hispanic suspects. Only after forensic tests disclosed that the child was of South Asian origin did the police start looking into the South Asian community.
In the last few weeks, I have been to many gatherings where people blamed the media for focusing on the fact that the parents were from Pakistan. Some initially even denied that the suspects were Pakistani. One person even had the audacity to inaccurately tell one of my friends -- an Indian -- that the man was not a real Pakistani; he had immigrated to Pakistan from India. Who cares? Clearly, the media will focus on the story given its human-interest value and the Pakistani connection will be played up as the biological mother is still in Pakistan and the father has been here less than a year.
But these are not the real issues. The fact of the matter is that our communities are just as prone to spousal and child abuse. The perception of family harmony in Asian homes is just that -- a perception. The reality is far from this. This incident is a wake up call for us to take the issue of family violence seriously. The first step is to accept that there is a problem.
Talking to any counselor, social worker, doctor or lawyer who deals with these communities will quickly confirm the deplorable state of family violence. In my own practice as a lawyer, I have been approached by many women whose husbands routinely batter them and their children. In fact, I had one case where the wife would leave home every morning when her kids left for school and she would wander the streets until her children came home from school. Her husband stayed home and threatened to kill her on numerous occasions. The only protection she had was her 17-year-old son. She put up with it until her husband put her in hospital a few times and had even put a knife to her throat. Her decision to seek a divorce made her into a black sheep in the Afghan community. She was deemed a "feminist" for calling the police and publicly airing the family's dirty laundry.
Another woman whose husband is a prominent member of the Muslim community is beaten on a weekly basis. His most recent fit of rage ended with him throwing scissors at her stomach. Her cut was stitched up as a kitchen accident and life went on as usual. Her life has been torture for the past 20 years. He refuses to seek counseling. Some in the community have advised her that she would jeopardize her daughter's chance of getting married in the Pakistani community if she ever got a divorce.
In both these situations, and many others, community elders and even some mosque officials had advised the women that they should stay with their husbands in the relationship. One official even had the audacity to take a prophetic tradition out of context and counseled her that this life would be a hell for believers so she must be patient.
I could go on and on. Suffice it to say that the problem has reached crisis levels. Denying it will not make it go away. And keeping quiet has only made it worse.
The community must move beyond just reacting to these situations. The fear among many working in the field is that the issue will die once Farah Khan's story disappears from the nightly newscasts and daily papers. The community has scored big with the media by holding collective prayers and coming together to give little Farah an Islamic funeral and offering to pay for the airfare to bring her mother to Toronto. Indeed, many of the mosques in Toronto are competing in the press for the right to conduct her funeral. Her memory would be better served if her brutal death were a turning point to help others who are going through similar abuse. What better way than to continue this mobilization into the realm of funding social services organizations, women's shelters and putting in place support mechanisms. There are a number of early intervention and support initiatives under way in the Muslim and Asian communities and Farah Khan's suffering can be the impetus to move these initiatives forward.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto lawyer and writer and is also columnist for the Washington Report On Middle East Affairs