On April 8, renowned Toronto neurosurgeon Dr. Mohammed Shamji pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of his wife, Dr. Elana Fric Shamji, whom he beat and choked to death just 2 days after she served him with divorce papers.
(Image from From Elana Fric Shamji’s Twitter Feed, April 2016: “@MoShamji Thanks for the once in a lifetime trip to #Dubai.”)
His plea brings to light the dangerous consequences that can occur when domestic violence & divorce collide. It is a reminder that domestic violence is not an issue limited to those who are socially and financially disadvantaged: it exists on every level of society, including the most educated, respected, and wealthy.
Michelle Smith, a family and domestic violence lawyer at Trainor, Billman, Bennett & Milko and a leader in the field of domestic violence in Maryland, says that when victims decide to leave an abusive relationship, they put themselves in immediate danger: “As this tragic story illustrates, the most dangerous phase of the victim’s process toward liberation from abuse is immediately after the initial notice that he or she intends to separate and hold the abuser accountable.”
Domestic violence in any setting is always dangerous and potentially life-threatening – and when divorce is thrown into the equation, it can lead to devastating consequences.
It also serves as a reminder of just how perilous it can be to alert an abusive spouse to any plans to leave them, and the urgent need for victims of domestic violence to get help to plan and execute a safe exit from an abusive marriage.
“A Complaint for Divorce can be a triggering event for a violent altercation,” says Patricia Dulinski, a family lawyer at Williams Law Group with a special interest in domestic violence litigation. “It is important that the victim anticipate this and have a safety plan. Surprising the abuser with the news of an impending divorce is never a good idea.”
What can happen when domestic violence & divorce collide: the tragic story of Dr. Elana Fric Shamji.
On November 30, 2016, well-respected physician Dr. Elana Fric Shamji was reported missing by her mother. Fric Shamji had filed for divorce from Dr. Mohammed Shamji just two days before she was reported missing.
Her body was found in a suitcase near a river the very next day.
Mohammed Shamji was arrested and charged with first-degree murder 24 hours later. After over two years behind bars and just days before jury selection was set to begin, the neurosurgeon pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
It was revealed in court that Shamji had brutally attacked his wife, broken her neck, choked her to death, and placed her dead body in a suitcase. He then dumped the suitcase in Toronto’s Humber River and planted “clues” to mislead the police regarding her killer.
With the guilty plea came the disturbing details of the couple’s volatile and toxic marriage, plagued with physical and emotional abuse since the couple married in 2006. The murder occurred after the couple got into an argument at the family’s home on November 30 while their three young children were within hearing distance.
Domestic Violence & Divorce: Women are 10 Times More Likely to be Murdered by their Male Partners than Men are to be Murdered by their Female Partners
According to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability (Observatory), there is an exponentially greater risk that a woman will be murdered by her male partner than vice-versa.
In 2015, 48% of solved female homicides were found to be perpetrated by a spouse, boyfriend, or intimate partner. In stark contrast to this statistic, a man’s chances of being killed by his spouse or partner were a paltry 4%.
In 2015, men were most often killed by a casual acquaintance (45%), a criminal acquaintance (16%), or a stranger (16%). In contrast, only 14% of women were killed by casual acquaintances, 6% by strangers, and 3% by criminal acquaintances.
“As such, the motivations and circumstances in which women and men are killed differ significantly, underscoring the relevance of the term ‘femicide’,” according to “Trends & Patterns in Femicide,” an informational article posted by the Observatory. “Both female and male victims are killed primarily by male perpetrators.”
The murder of Dr. Elana Fric Shamji is now another statistic to add to the growing data associated with femicide, which the Observatory defines as “the killing of all women and girls primarily by, but not exclusively, men.”
Femicide in America
The situation is even worse in the USA: in 2016, 1,809 women were murdered by men in single-victim or single-offender incidents submitted to the FBI – and 85% of them were murdered by a man they knew.
More than half (962) of the 1,809 women killed were wives, ex-wives or current girlfriends of their killers. Since the FBI doesn’t include ex-girlfriends in its reporting, the 962 figure under-represents the true number of intimate partner murders.
Between 2014 and 2016 (the most recent year available) the percentage rose 11%, and many domestic violence murders occur right after recent breakups or during separations.
Although the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) doesn’t offer services directly to the public, you can find local resources on a map on their website. The national domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), but the OVW urges all women who believe they are in immediate danger to call 911.
10 Signs You May Be in an Abusive Relationship
When divorce is involved, domestic violence can turn deadly – which is why it is crucial for anyone in an abusive situation to know what signs to look for and what they should do if they are considering divorce or leaving their abusive partner.
Yellow Brick House, a shelter and an emergency support system for women and children in domestic violence situations near Toronto, says that there are certain telltale signs and behaviors to look for if you think you may be in an abusive relationship. Some of these signs and behaviors include, but are not limited to:
- Frequent accusations of lying.
- Demanding to know your whereabouts at all times.
- Jealous and angry when you spend time with friends or family.
- Threatens to harm you or themselves if you leave.
- Puts blame on you for their actions.
- Calls you derogatory and offensive names.
- Isolates you from friends or family members.
- Disapproves of the way you dress.
- Humiliates you in front of others.
- Jealous of the time you spend with friends and family.
Domestic Violence & Divorce: What to Do When You Want to Leave
Yellow Brick House states that if you are in an abusive relationship and want to leave, there are certain key steps to take in order to protect yourself and your children. It is imperative to follow these steps before considering divorce or leaving your abuser. Some of these things include, but are not limited to:
- Do not tell your partner you want to leave.
- Plan an emergency exit.
- Take your children.
- Tell a close friend or family member about your plan.
- Set money aside.
- Take valuable documents.
- Make photocopies of important documents and leave them with someone you trust.
- Save as much money as possible.
- Bring clothes and other personal belongings to a friend or family member’s house.
- Prepare an emergency suitcase.
Michelle Smith says anyone considering leaving an abusive relationship should take the right precautionary steps first: “It is imperative that these individuals avail themselves of as much professional assistance as possible in order to safely navigate these waters.”
If you – or someone you know – is a victim of domestic violence, you should make contact with a local domestic violence lawyer, who can connect you with emergency shelter and services in your area before you consider leaving your abuser. “An attorney can assist the victim in navigating service issues so that the victim is not present when the abuser is served and is given notice when service has been accomplished,” says Patricia Dulinski. “This would give the victim the chance to build in a cooling-off period before returning to the home. If a domestic violence altercation ensues upon the victim’s return, then the victim should call 911 immediately, follow their safety plan and give serious consideration to obtaining a Temporary Restraining Order for their protection.”
Making plans and covering your tracks – digital and otherwise – could protect a victim of domestic violence from a dangerous or even deadly situation.
“The victim should seek out a lawyer who is familiar with the panoply of options in both the civil and criminal arenas, including Divorce filings, Civil Orders of Protection from Violence, criminal charges and violations of probation for crimes such as Assault, Stalking and Harassment which the victim should use to protect herself during the process of separation and divorce,” Smith adds. “It is most effective if every member of the process, including the victim, family members, friends, medical providers, employers, police, advocates, and Judges all work in tandem to provide a unified message of protection and consistency to the abuser.”
Domestic Violence & Divorce: Don’t Become a Victim of Femicide!
With statistics showing that spousal femicide is a tragic reality in our society, there is an urgent need for women to recognize the signs of abuse, admit it is happening to them, and know what to do when they are in an abusive relationship.
Domestic violence occurs in all types of settings and relationships regardless of age and social status – and when domestic violence & divorce bump up against each other, it can lead to devastating and deadly consequences.
It is impossible to emphasize this enough: if you are in an abusive marriage, don’t file for divorce until you have secured a safe place for both yourself and your children. Seek the right help, professional assistance, and guidance, and always make your and your children’s safety a priority.