The bravery and legacy of Aqsa Parvez

Aqsa Parvez was a 16-year old Muslim student living in a suburb of Ontario, Canada when her father allegedly strangled her to death. Aqsa was, according to the press, a young woman whose father brutally ended her life because she chose not to wear the hijab – a Muslim headscarf. The story is nothing short of bone-chilling. As a young woman – and particularly as a young Muslim woman – I found my core especially shaken by Aqsa’s untimely and unthinkable end.

Aqsa’s story has been covered by several international media outlets, both mainstream and independent. Most, I’ve found, have treated both Aqsa and Islam with a respect and dignity rarely employed by the media when such a tragedy occurs.

I can’t say the same for all of my fellow Muslims.

I recently read a commentary on Aqsa’s case by a progressive Muslim activist.  The writer advised his audience not to “read too much into” Aqsa’s death. After all, perhaps Aqsa’s father hadn’t killed her. Perhaps it was an “accident”. We were told that what happened to Aqsa shouldn’t be seen as evidence that honor killings are becoming an epidemic (though even modest figures as to their frequency suggest otherwise).  We were also cautioned against making all Muslims look bad by being outraged at a cultural – not religious – system condoning the death of countless innocents. We should, he seemed say, lay low. Let this one slide.

This response, or non-response, is nothing short of complacency in the face of murder. The writer should be ashamed of himself. Equally shameful is whatever permits him to sleep at night without speaking out, unconditionally, against the slaying of his Muslim sister.

Am I worried about making Islam look bad? No. My faith is secure enough to tackle the question of why Muhammad Parvez joined the many Muslims who have deemed death a reasonable punishment for the “crime” of dishonor. I am also able to recognize, as many Muslims are, that honor killings are not an Islamic practice – but a cultural one its defenders justify by employing Islamist dogma, not Islamic faith.

Most of all, I am not worried about making Islam look bad because I know that Islam itself calls on us to fight injustice whenever we find it – and no matter who may not like us for doing so. In other words, the above writer, in his defensiveness about Islam, did both Aqsa and our faith a major disservice.

How can Muslims treat Aqsa with the dignity she deserves? By living up to the best of our faith.  Aqsa made the inherently Islamic choice to exercise free will. Aqsa was brave enough to not just realize, but also to live chapter 4, verse 135 of the Qur’an: “Believers, conduct yourselves with justice, and bear true witness before God, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, or your family”. This ayat (verse) tells me that we have a fighting chance of defeating those who manipulate our faith to further their own malignant intentions.

When Muslims also invite non-Muslims to criticize unjust practices happening under the banner of Islam, rather than playing victim to post-9/11 prejudice – claiming that non-Muslims have “no business” messing in “our business” – we demonstrate that our faith is, in fact, one capable of reconciling faith with human rights and religion with reason. Unless we live this ideal ourselves, we have no right to utter the phrase “Islam means peace”.

Aqsa Parvez paid the ultimate price for bravely exercising her God-given right to be true to herself, even in the face of terror.  May Aqsa rest in peace, and may we, the Muslim faithful, finally recognize that it is we who hold the power to end the kind of fear in which she lived daily. No culture, no society, and no religion should be exempt from examination, and Islam and Muslims are no exception. Until every Muslim takes ownership for the ills that plague our faith, Aqsa’s death is just as much on our hands is it is on her father’s. 

Reform-minded Muslims recognize our responsibility to act. To that end, we have started Project Ijtihad, an initiative to create the world’s largest network of reform-minded, human-rights focused Muslims and non-Muslim allies. Our lives are dedicated to making sure that one day, young women like Aqsa no longer fear for their safety or their lives. We call on all Muslims to live up to Qur’an 13:11 – “God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves”.

 God bless you, dear Aqsa. May we not permit your passing to be in vain.