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Review: Death or dishonour

Updated September 08, 2013

HONOUR killing. This polite term for murder has long been considered a purely subcontinental phenomenon that leads to the death of thousands of women (and a smaller number of men) every year in Pakistan and India. However, it wasn’t until recently that people realised curry and chicken tikka masala weren’t the only things the burgeoning South Asian community had introduced to the United Kingdom.According to the BBC, the UK police recorded at least 2,823 so-called honour attacks in 2000; nearly 500 of these were in London. And the numbers are rising. Muslim communities from Pakistan and other countries (Afghanistan and Central Asia) are some of the main hotspots for honour-based violence; the conservative Sikh community is another.

Shamed is the story of one such household. It is the story of a girl who was raised to be a good daughter, mother and wife and to always obey her elders — even if they committed murder. Her name is Sarbjit Kaur. Daughter of Sewa Singh and Amarjit Kaur she tells us right in the beginning of the book that “my true parents were called ‘Honour’ and ‘Shame’.” After all, these are the words that govern Sarbjit’s life from the day she is born. She may live in England but her life is regimented along the lines of the most conservative household back East — in fact, even more so. No talking to boys (even classmates during school time), no non-Sikh friends, no socialising, no TV, not the slightest hint of anything that isn’t part of the Sikh culture.

All of this culminating in an arranged marriage at age 19. Moving into a typical joint family, Sarbjit takes on the duties of a good daughter-in-law, holding down a full day job as well as running the house with the help of her sister-in-law, Surjit, who is married to the elder son. While Sarbjit fulfils her role without complaint — even sitting on the floor while her mother-in-law is entertaining her daughters — Surjit is less compliant. She has come from a slightly more liberal family and she refuses to play by the script. And so the trouble starts. Sarbjit’s narrative is straightforward; she is relating the story of her life and does so in painstaking — at times almost tiresome — detail. There is no purple prose or flights of literary fancy and for the Pakistani reader there will be points where Sarbjit’s litany of woes begins to sound a bit annoying. After all, her parents are strict but loving; if she has to do most of the household chores, well so do many of us and what’s wrong with an arranged marriage anyway — Sarbjit herself initially finds her husband to be kind and affectionate.

Surjit is another character that one may feel ambivalent towards; after all a woman who goes expressly against her husband’s wishes, dresses provocatively and has an affair with a married man is hardly the Pakistani idea of a victim. The Sikh community in England obviously feels the same way and this is exactly the kind of prejudice that leads to a conspiracy of silence and encourages the perpetrators of these crimes. Because when Sarbjit’s in-laws decide to get rid of their ‘problem’ no one questions the flimsy excuse they provide for Surjit’s continued absence. The only one who knows what really happened is Sarbjit and will she have the courage and conviction to speak up?

There is no denying that the book is very slow-paced. However, the detailed narrative gives us an insight into Sarbjit’s character and the strength of the conditioning that forces her to preserve the fiction of a happy family even when the members are plotting to kill one of their very own. If you stick with it, you realise the book is not the whining of a British girl railing against a rigid Eastern upbringing but the story of a woman caught between upholding the values she’s been taught as sacred — family, honour, izzat — and the voice of her own conscience.

The reviewer is a Dawn staffer

Shamed: The Honour Killing That Shocked Britain — by the Sister Who Fought for Justice By Sarbjit Kaur Athwal Virgin Books, UK ISBN 978-0753541548 320pp.