There’s a reason why Mohammed Shamji — the murderer who was sentenced Thursday to life in prison with no chance of parole for 14 years — was often identified by his profession in headlines about the case.
He was the “Toronto neurosurgeon,” the “Toronto doctor,” the “prominent neurosurgeon,” who beat and strangled his wife, physician Elana Fric, in their bedroom, within earshot of their three children.
He was the highly educated surgeon who stuffed her body in a suitcase and dumped it in the Humber River, while clumsily trying to frame someone else for his crime. He was the doctor who was cool and composed when cutting into patients’ heads, but lost his mind when his wife served him with divorce papers. Shamji was a contradiction; he saved lives at work, while destroying them at home.
That’s what makes his profile — and profession — so remarkable, and fed the instinct to include it prominently in coverage: it doesn’t fit the stereotype many of us think of when we talk about domestic violence. Prominent, wealthy neurosurgeons aren’t “supposed” to also be pathetically insecure husbands who abuse and murder their wives and try to frame someone else. Shamji was supposed to know better.
Stereotypes about the perpetrators and victims of intimate partner violence arise partly from statistics that appear to show a correlation between household income, education level and domestic violence. Much of that data comes from the United States, where a systematic review of 228 studies, published in 2012, supported a “significant association” between unemployment and intimate partner violence.
A smaller review of 29 studies conducted a decade earlier found that household income was the strongest predictor of intimate partner violence across white, black and Hispanic populations in the U.S. This correlation is echoed by the World Health Organization, which lists poverty and low education among the risk factors, along with other conditions such as young age, patriarchal social norms and exposure to violence as a child.
Canadian data is less definitive, with some statistics of self-reported spousal violence — which is of course different from occurrences of spousal violence — showing no significant difference across income or education levels.
Nevertheless, when we think of intimate partner violence, we tend not to think of the family in the spacious Toronto home, where the Yale-, Duke- and Queen’s University-educated doctor is living with the University of Ottawa- and University of Windsor-educated doctor, chronicling their happy-seeming lives on social media.
Instead, we think of the families where economic insecurity festers and morphs into enormous resentment and stress, and where abuse victims typically don’t have the economic means to leave. “Man kills wife,” is a tragically unremarkable headline. “Neurosurgeon kills wife,” on the other hand, is. That detail was always going to lead early news reports of the crime.
That said, it is entirely understandable why the constant repetition of Shamji’s profession years on — particularly in headlines, since many readers might recognize Shamji’s name without the descriptor — would infuriate people, including and especially those who knew and loved Fric. It comes off as conferring status or dignity where it is no longer deserved, connecting one of his best accomplishments to one of the most despicable things any person could do. Shamji is not a neurosurgeon anymore; just a cowardly murderer. Why identify him as anything else?
Some news organizations, including this one, have indeed shifted the way they cover this case, now reporting that a “Toronto man” has been sentenced in the killing of his physician wife, which is just as well. Ultimately, one man’s lost title matters far less than the fact that a woman was robbed of life, and that her kids have been effectively orphaned.
But the instinct to highlight what seems to be an unusual profession for a violent murderer does have one potentially positive effect, which is to remind us that, despite the trends, intimate partner violence isn’t the exclusive domain of the uneducated, or the poor, or the unemployed.
Accomplished, successful women — and men — can still find themselves trapped in abusive relationships, which can be doubly crushing because of the guilt that they should have “known better,” or how to get out. Yet we know that women are at the greatest risk of being killed by their partners — six times the risk, in fact — when they try to leave. Elana Fric’s death is an unfortunate testament to that.
Domestic violence may be disproportionately a problem for the poor, but it can nevertheless be a problem for anyone. Some abusers pull in commanding salaries while spending their days, paradoxically, trying to heal others. Mohammed Shamji — husband, father, renowned neurosurgeon — is a walking example of how intimate partner violence doesn’t discriminate.
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