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‘Honour’ and impunity

August 09, 2012


LONDON’S spectacular Olympic opening ceremony showed a nation at ease with itself. It mixed England’s green and pleasant land with the grime of the Industrial Revolution before transforming into a modern portrait of a country where everyone has a contribution to make.

A hint of bhangra, a heavy dose of rap and a scene showing West Indian immigrants arriving on the Windrush emphasised the UK’s multicultural present.

One week later, and a different truth about Britain emerged — one that has led to a round of deep soul-searching about the country’s real identity and how to protect vulnerable youngsters.

Last Friday the parents of 17-year-old Shafilea Ahmed were sentenced to 25 years in prison for her murder.

It was a sickening crime. Shafilea’s brother and three sisters watched as their mother and father first strangled her, then stuffed a plastic bag in her mouth. Her body was dumped in a river, to be discovered months later in 2004.

The judge at Chester Crown Court in the northwest of England, Justice Roderick Evans, was in no doubt about the motive, having heard how Shafilea refused a forced marriage in Pakistan and that her mother attacked her after finding boys’ numbers on her cellphone.

“Although you lived in Warrington, your social and cultural attitudes were those of rural Pakistan and it was those you imposed upon your children,” he said. “She [Shafilea] was being squeezed between two cultures, the culture and way of life that she saw around her and wanted to embrace, and the culture and way of life you wanted to impose upon her … an expectation that she live in a sealed cultural environment separate from the culture of the country in which she lived was unrealistic, destructive and cruel.”

Coming so soon after the Rochdale sex grooming case, in which nine men — eight of Pakistani origin — were convicted of exploiting girls as young as 13, Shafilea’s murder has put the British-Pakistani community in the spotlight.

Newspaper columns and blogs have been filled with difficult questions. Why was more not done to protect a young woman when teachers and friends knew she was suffering at home? Was Shafilea the victim of two unloving and desperately cruel parents or was she also killed by that clash of cultures described by the judge?

And ultimately, have we become too accommodating of foreign cultures that land in the UK with outdated ideas of a woman’s place, too scared to sound the alarm for fear of accusations of racism and Islamaphobia?

These are difficult questions that many have shied away from asking in the past. For too long such questions of identity have remained the preserve of the hate-filled anti-immigration campaigners, looking for reasons to exclude foreigners, rather than those seeking an inclusive notion of what it means to be British.

Who knows what the answers are? The point is that the Shafilea’s murder means these are questions that can no longer be ignored.

But what about here in Pakistan? This, after all, is where Shafilea was destined to be a reluctant bride before drinking a bottle of bleach during a visit months before she was murdered. Has such a high-profile death provoked a similar round of soul-searching?

Last year almost 1,000  women and girls were killed in so-called ‘honour killings’, murdered by brothers, husbands or fathers for supposedly bringing shame on their families, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

There are plenty of recent examples.

In Hyderabad last week Raheela Sehto, 22, was shot dead by her brother, apparently because she had refused an arranged marriage in favour of a love match. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the shooter was a lawyer and the crime happened in front of dozens of witnesses inside a courtroom.

And it is still unclear whether four women in Kohistan were killed after being filmed clapping and singing with men at a wedding.

A team of investigators visited and returned before admitting they couldn’t be sure if all the women were still alive.Those are just the tip of the iceberg. Every week the newspapers are filled with stories of young women setting themselves alight, swallowing poison, throwing themselves down stairs or killed in kitchen accidents shortly after rows with family members. How many of those are investigated by the police? How often is the family’s word simply taken at face value?

In Shafilea’s case, her trip to Pakistan might have offered a chance to intervene, to stop her downward death spiral.

When a teenage girl was brought to a local clinic after drinking a bottle of bleach, why was no warning bell sounded? At the end of her treatment, doctors simply handed the medical records to the parents. There were no awkward questions about why a 16-year-old had tried to poison herself.

The truth is that girls like Shafilea don’t matter much in the patriarchal society found across rural Pakistan, whether the towns along the GT road or the villages of upper Sindh. It is a land far from the smart salons of Karachi or the diplomatic circuit of Islamabad where women are only valued as potential brides and jirgas can sentence rape victims to death.

So just as Shafilea tells us something about modern Britain, she also shines a light on a facet of Pakistan in 2012 that many would rather ignore: there is a brutal underbelly that desperately needs reform.

This is not about Islam or its values. It is about murders that aren’t investigated, murderers who walk free and a terrifying culture of impunity.

The writer is the Pakistan correspondent of The Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph.