‘Honour’-killing in the UK

August 13, 2012


DESPITE the blanket coverage the London Olympics has been receiving, the British media devoted considerable time and space to the tragic story of Shafilea Ahmed. When the 17-year old girl’s parents were sentenced to life imprisonment for her murder nine years ago, there was a degree of satisfaction that the killers had finally been brought to justice.

Over the years, there has been much soul-searching over the entirely alien concept of ‘honour-killing’ brought here by certain groups of migrants. Although political correctness still blocks a full and open debate, a few high profile cases have forced this barbaric practice out into the open.

The police in the UK are now more receptive to calls for help, and more cases of ‘honour’-related violence are being prosecuted. Last year, 234 cases were taken to court, and half of them resulted in a ‘guilty’ verdict. In this period, all 39 police forces in the country reported nearly 3,000 cases. Clearly, these numbers do not represent the full extent of these vicious crimes as many children remain silent in the face of abuse from parents and other older relatives.

Sara Khan, the director of Inspire, a women’s human rights organisation, writes in the Guardian:

“Over the past two decades I have heard countless stories from women who were ostracised by their communities and let down by the agencies who should have helped them. One young woman, Laila, had been emotionally blackmailed into a marriage at the age of 18. Forced to live with her in-laws in a house with seven others, she spent her life cooking and cleaning. They didn’t even allow her access to the toilet and she was forced to use a jug in her bedroom, even during labour. ‘I was treated like a slave to the rest of the family’, she told me…”

While sentencing Shafilea’s parents, Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed, the judge said: “Although you lived in Warrington, your social and cultural attitudes were those of rural Pakistan and it was those you imposed on your children.”

Unfortunately, these attitudes are not just rural. Time after time, supposedly educated Pakistani parents living in cities have reacted in exactly the same way the Ahmeds did. Just because a daughter refuses to marry whoever they have picked for her, she is bullied, brutalised and often killed. Just the other day, a man shot his own sister dead in a Hyderabad court because she dared make her own choice about who she married.

Mercifully, forced marriage is now a crime in the UK. But domestic abuse and violence continue as migrant communities insist on trying to impose backward social customs on children born and brought up in Britain. They forget that unlike the countries they migrated from, children have rights here.

Even liberal Britons have a hard time understanding the psychology behind ‘honour’ killing: parents would simply not dream of interfering with their children’s choice of life partners. Thus, they cannot comprehend how a couple like the Ahmeds could bring themselves to murder their 17-year old daughter simply because she refused to agree to marry a man they had chosen for her. She was also too Westernised for her parents.

One friend hesitantly opened a discussion about the case by saying although she was naturally appalled by the killing, she could understand that the parents were motivated by their religious beliefs. I immediately told her there was no compulsion about marriage in Islam. Sadly, many Muslim societies, being violent and paternalistic, condone the whole wretched concept of “honour” killing. In fact, how can there be any honour in killing young girls for wanting to share their lives with men they care for?

According to Anup Manota, a spokesman for Karma Nirvana, a charity set up to help victims of so-called honour-related domestic violence and abuse, around half the calls they receive are from Muslims. Out of the 550 calls they get on average every month, around 70 per cent are from people of South Asian origin, while the rest are from migrants from the Middle East and Africa.

The charity was established by Jasvinder Sanghera, and has a helpline where victims of abuse can call. Karma Nirvana then contacts social service staff, or if somebody is in danger, the police. Ms Sanghera’s own sister was forced into a marriage in which she suffered terrible violence. To escape, she took her own life. For further information about the organisation, the website is: www.karmanirvana.org.uk

The man who brought the Shafilea Ahmed case to a successful conclusion is Nazir Afzal, the chief prosecutor who also pursued the Rochdale sex exploitation ring, and obtained a conviction. Readers will recall that in this unsavoury case, a gang of Muslims of mostly Pakistani origin were convicted of raping and sexually exploiting girls as young as 13.

Both cases have sent a wave of revulsion and anger across Britain. All decent Pakistanis living in the UK have been deeply embarrassed. Violence against women is so widespread in Pakistan that some migrants from our part of the world assume they can go unpunished for similar crimes here. Thankfully, officialdom is finally discarding its attitude of allowing migrants to do whatever they liked within their own families on the grounds of political correctness.

A recent Guardian editorial on the Shaifilea Ahmed tragedy had it just right:

“The police wisely refused to call Shafilea’s murder an ‘honour’ killing. There can be no exonerating circumstance, no licence granted to those who claim cultural protection for brutality. Domestic violence and child sex abuse (a reference to the Rochdale case) happen across cultures and ethnicities. But that only makes it all the more important that those charged with spotting it, supporting its victims and tackling its perpetrators, have the ability to understand what they are seeing and how to respond to it, wherever it is found.”

At least they have identified the problem in the UK, and are moving to minimise its impact on families. In Pakistan, the authorities refuse to acknowledge that a problem even exists.