From Toronto Life
The author of “Girl, Interrupted”—Toronto Life’s cover story about the life and death of Aqsa Parvez—discusses honour killings, Islamophobia and how the 16-year-old’s murderers got off easy.
In “Girl, Interrupted,” you describe the reaction on the Internet to Aqsa Parvez’s death. Has the debate about the crime, and what it says about multiculturalism, evolved since she died?
The debate is continuing, especially now that her father and brother have pleaded guilty. What happened, initially, was a typical teen response—very operatic, a lot of grief and drama. But what started to emerge were arguments. Some were highbrow, like on Salon, and others were outright brawls, especially on Facebook. What was interesting was the number of people, especially young Muslim men, who came forward to condemn Aqsa. I found it particularly disturbing. They said that she had brought shame to her family, that she’d been corrupted by Western values, that she was a slut. There were also a lot of people coming forward with a lot of hatred for Muslims. It degenerated pretty quickly.
How did you feel about the intense reaction to your story?
I was maybe a little naive going in. I got caught up in getting to know Aqsa and understanding her struggle. My goal was to humanize her—I wanted the reader to know her. When the criticism came out, especially the accusations of Islamophobia and cultural insensitivity, I was quite staggered. I expected I might get direct criticism from the Muslim community but didn’t. Instead, it came from Toronto feminist groups. There were protests, there were on-line debates and ugly postings saying that the conclusions I had drawn, even if they weren’t wrong, were racist, and this story was another example of the growing persecution of Muslims in North America. I was very shocked by the idea that feminists would be aligning themselves with conservative Muslims. I certainly see it now all the time.
Do you regret using the term “honour killing”?
No, not at all. I think the story’s critics make a wilful and profoundly irrational attempt to distinguish the crime from its context. Let me explain it this way: if someone is walking down the street and killed in the course of a crime, that’s a terrible thing. But if three guys in a pickup truck with a Confederate flag stop a black man, drive him into the woods and hang him, we know something very different has happened, and we have a word for that. Lynching means something very specific. Similarly, a hate crime is a very specific charge. It surprised me that people were so afraid to describe Aqsa’s death as an honour killing. It’s irrational to think that we can’t call something what it is because that community can’t sustain that kind of criticism. Ultimately, I think that’s very infantilizing. If the Muslim community can’t sustain the kind of criticism that other communities go through, then there’s no hope for moving forward.
To research this story, you immersed yourself in a youth culture that was new to you. Would you explain your process and how you found Aqsa’s friends and got them to talk to you?
It was my son, who is about the same age as Aqsa’s friends, who told me I’d never get in touch with them unless I joined Facebook. I did, and when I approached Aqsa’s friends, they immediately agreed to be interviewed. I spent a lot of time with Ebonie Mitchell and Ashley Garbut, who were best friends with Aqsa. They were friends, but they lived in very different worlds. While the Parvezes had a large house in a nice suburb, these two girls had a very limited income. They didn’t have money for a phone card and were in their own ways living on the edge.
What was the reaction when you approached the staff for an interview at Aqsa’s school, Applewood Heights?
They were defensive. The school staff is preoccupied with cultural sensitivity, even though Aqsa went to them and said, “My culture is killing me. My father is insisting I wear the hijab and not see my friends.” The school’s response was to contact Aqsa’s imam, which seemed insane to me. It was like bringing in a Christian brother to speak to an altar boy who complained of abuse by a priest. She was very clear about what the problem was, but the school staff is trained to reach out to leaders in the community. And in the Muslim community, in Aqsa’s part of the world, the community leaders are imams. It was a crazy bind that she found herself in.
Did you find that experts were also reluctant to talk about the case?
When I interviewed the family’s imam, and other Muslim leaders and academics, the universal reaction was that we can’t call this an honour killing because we don’t know if it’s an honour killing. There was a fair amount of resentment that the media was describing Aqsa’s death that way—that it was discriminatory, racist and Islamophobic. But, you know, if it looks like a chicken and clucks like a chicken, it probably is a chicken. And whether you want to bring a feminist analysis to it and talk about patriarchal power, Aqsa’s death had all the earmarks of an honour killing. Here was a girl who was trying to break out of her family’s demands and limited roles that they expected her to play. There was evidence from friends, and from what the school had admitted she told them about her family problems. So it wasn’t like I was taking it out of thin air.
Have you been in contact with Ebonie and Ashley since the story was published?
Yes, I did stay in touch with them. Ebonie has a kid now, and I know that she and Ashley participated in a documentary that’s being made about Aqsa. After the story came out, a lot of people found me on Facebook. I was asked to be friends by at least 100 Muslims who really appreciated the story and wanted to share their stories with me. They didn’t agree with the criticism of the story, and that was heartening.
Are you satisfied that the case against Aqsa’s father and brother has come to an end?
The other day, there was an editorial in the Globe questioning why the Crown accepted the second-degree murder plea and asking why there’s no appetite to pursue the tough cases. It’s clear the murder was planned, and I was disappointed that it ended up as second degree. When Aqsa’s brother gets out of jail, he’ll be a relatively young man, young enough to start a family. They could have pushed for first degree, and I think they would have won.