ON Tuesday, Oct 24, 2017, a British-Pakistani woman appeared at the Old Bailey Court in London. Twenty-seven-year-old Sabah Khan was accused of murdering her sister Saima Khan. But there would be no trial in the case. When it was her turn to plead, Sabah Khan chose to enter a guilty plea. When she reappeared in the same courtroom two days later, the judge sentenced her to life in prison, with a minimum of 22 years to be served.
The sordid saga of jealousy, manipulation and exploitation that took one Khan sister’s life and led to the imprisonment of the other began not last May, when Saima Khan was murdered, but four years ago, when Saima’s husband, 37-year-old Hafeez Rehman, began an affair with Sabah, his unmarried sister-in-law. Rehman kept the affair secret, routinely breaking it off and then starting it again.
A father of four children, one of whom was born a little over a year before the murder, Rehman used WhatsApp to exchange messages with Sabah even while he lived with her sister and the girl’s parents. Unlike the sisters, who were of Pakistani origin but largely grew up in the UK, Rehman had migrated from Pakistan. His marriage to Saima allowed him to obtain a British passport.
The murder of a woman in Britain is illustrative of the complex ills that beset the Pakistani community.
In the years that the affair continued, Sabah became increasingly obsessed with Rehman. At one point in time, she became pregnant with his child. Because the affair was secret (or at least everyone involved pretended not to know about it), she was forced to have an abortion. It was alleged that at one point Rehman inquired whether he could be married to both sisters at the same time. When he learned that this was forbidden in Islam, he chose to continue with the affair.
Even though he claimed he tried to end the relationship, there seems to be evidence to the contrary. Long before then, tensions between the sisters had risen to the point that Sabah was living separately from the rest of the family for some time. In March 2016, the increasingly desperate Sabah, seeing little hope for a change, even contacted a ‘practitioner’ of the ‘black arts’ in Pakistan. Speaking in the third person on the messages exchanged, she asked for assistance in getting rid of her sister. It is alleged that she paid the person £5,000 to make this happen.
But Saima did not die and everything came to a head on the night of May 26, 2016, at around 11:00 pm. Saima, who worked as a healthcare aide for an elderly lady, was at work. The four children, the eldest of whom was a daughter about seven years old, slept upstairs. Sabah was home taking care of them. Her parents and Rehman had gone out. At this time, Sabah texted her sister, asking her to come home. Her youngest daughter, only a year or so old at the time, was crying for her, she said. Not long after, Saima returned home, entirely unaware of any danger at all. CCTV footage released to the media shows that Sabah had already purchased a sharp knife from a supermarket.
As soon as Saima’s key turned in the lock and she entered the hallway, Sabah attacked her. Post-mortem reports show that Sabah stabbed her sister 68 times. One of the wounds was so deep that it nearly decapitated the victim. At least one of the children woke up because of the commotion and asked her aunt if she was killing her mother. Sabah broke a window and threw the black and bloody clothes she had worn to carry out the attack into plastic bags and out of the window. She hid the murder weapon in a bedroom. Then she called emergency services and alleged that a robbery had taken place in the house and her sister had been murdered. When the ambulance arrived, Saima was, of course, already dead.
The sad and gruesome story of the murder of an innocent woman by her sister is in a sense an illustration of the many complex ills plaguing the British-Pakistani community in towns like Luton. Hailing largely from rural areas of Punjab, many in these communities still follow the stunted dictates of a culture frozen on the date of their migration. The desirability of a British passport in Pakistan and the desire to marry daughters within a circle of close relatives has led to increasing problems.
Apart from the current instance, marriages built on the need of one party to migrate are rife with the potential for exploitation. Furthermore, marriage between cousins, as is very common in these communities, is often solemnised under the pressure of parents and family. The statistics are telling: out of more than 1,400 cases of forced marriage reported in the UK in 2016, almost half involved the Pakistani community. In addition to this scourge, Islamophobia among many segments of British society appears to be on the rise. This together with the constant scrutiny by security services creates a high-pressure environment that is highly combustible.
In this case it was Sabah Khan who killed her sister and Sabah Khan who will spend the rest of her life in jail. And while the woman who committed the crime must rightly be punished for it, some anger and attention should also be directed at the man at the heart of it, a man who seems to have evaded any kind of punishment. If Sabah Khan wielded the knife and stabbed her sister, it was Rehman who drove her to it. In love triangles it is often the women who blame each other. While there are no lessons that can be drawn from such a heartbreaking tragedy, perhaps we can pause and wonder why men are hardly ever the ones to blame.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2017