By ROBERT LIWANAG
Canadian news coverage of “honour” violence against women perpetuates negative Muslim stereotypes and raises questions about whether culture and religion should be the focus in such stories, said members of a panel that examined the media’s use of the term “honour” killing.
The discussion received mixed reviews from Ryerson journalism professors who attended the Nov. 18 event with their first-year students.
“My students thought it was good that the whole topic had come up, and it made them think about the nature of reporting certain things,” said instructor Dan Westell. “When is it relevant to mention somebody’s race, colour, religion and ethnicity? And the answer is, mostly never. But there are exceptions.”
Journalism professor Anne McNeilly, meanwhile, expressed concern over the discussion’s lack of specifics on how the news media should cover such stories.
“I think it’s often very easy to blame the messenger for problems in a culture or in a society. They’re easy targets,” said McNeilly. “I’m not saying the media is perfect by any extent, but if we’re going to have a discussion about it, we want to talk about how we can improve the reporting.”
The coverage of “honour” killing cases, such as the 2007 murder of Aqsa Parvez in Mississauga, and the 2009 Shafia family murders in Kingston, Ont., prompted ongoing debate about whether “honour killings” was an appropriate term for journalists to use in stories.
In the Parvez case, for instance, the 16-year-old had a strained relationship with her parents over their conservative values. After she was found strangled in her bedroom, her father Muhammad and brother Waqas both pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and were later sentenced to life in prison. Debate over news coverage of the case focused on whether the teenager’s murder was “honour” related or whether it should have been characterized as domestic violence.
“When I was growing up, the only coverage I saw about violence against women featured white women. I didn’t see bodies like mine talked about,” said panelist Farrah Khan, a counsellor from the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which provides a variety of services for female survivors of violence. “Years later, part of me thought, ‘Yes, they’re finally talking about racialized violence.’ But then the conversation started turning when we saw how the media constructed things.”
Khan argued that the Canadian media’s coverage of the Parvez case helped perpetuate the view of Muslim women as oppressed, of Muslim men as violent and of violence against women as something that is mainly brought into Canada by immigrants.
Instead, she argued, the media should be looking at the bigger picture of violence against racialized women, such as the more than 1,000 documented cases of murdered or missing aboriginal women in the last 30 years.
Panelist Chenthoori Malankov, a York University student and member of the Izzat Project, a collaborative arts project geared towards South Asian women, criticized news coverage of violence against racialized women as often being “all about sensationalism…without even looking at the content, it’s often just the title that people read.”
“We need to critically analyze the way in which violence is complex, and how we choose to present it in the media,” said Malankov. “It’s important to appreciate the complexity of other people’s religious experiences. There are multiple causes – historical, social, political, economic – that make up the foundation of these problems.”
When McNeilly asked for examples of the type of coverage Khan considered sexist and discriminatory, Khan pointed to the work of Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente and National Post columnist Barbara Kay as examples, as well as Mary Rogan’s Toronto Life cover story about the Parvez case. McNeilly later noted, however, that it is important to distinguish between news reporting and opinion writing in columns.
“Both Margaret Wente and Barbara Kay are columnists, not reporters,” said McNeilly. “They’re not reporting stories, they produce commentary and opinion, and both of them are quite well known for their dramatic positions.”
Journalism professor Asmaa Malik also asked the panelists about how the media should balance the need to tell the victim’s story versus the story about the systemic origins of violence against women. Panelist Amina Jamal, a sociology professor at Ryerson, emphasized the need for stronger context and objectivity in such stories.
“I liked what they were saying, but I could understand why some students and faculty were up in arms about the whole thing,” said Madison Good, a first-year journalism student. “The panelists were talking about it from a social change perspective, and the students were talking about what would be the most hard-hitting story. It also didn’t seem very organized.”
Concerns about “honour” killings made headlines most recently on Nov. 5 when Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander introduced the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act,” which he says is designed to combat polygamy and “honour” killings. But the act’s critics argue that it is discriminatory against Muslims and immigrants alike.
A 2012 study by the University of Sherbrooke identified 12 “honour” killing victims in Canada since 1999. In every case, at least one of the victims was female. All of the perpetrators were immigrants, and most of them were male.
The panel, entitled “Is There ‘Honour’ in Violence? An exploration of the media coverage,” was open to faculty, students and the public. It was organized by the Media Education Knowledge Exchange Group and the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children and hosted by the Ryerson School of Journalism and the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.