agencies need to be
the other end of the spectrum
We did not want to
focus on Shafilea Ahmed’s murder in our Special Report today. It was a
harrowing story; one you couldn’t leave behind. What exactly is this level
of shame — or, shall we say, brutality or hypocrisy — that forces
parents to kill one of their own, in front of their other children.
The details of the trial
were gory enough but the day of judgement was the worst. One could almost
hear the cries of Shafilea’s siblings as they heard the verdict against
their parents. A strange case where one felt angry about the perpetrators
and at the same time felt sorry for the children for having lost their
parents in this way.
The judge Evans almost
said what needed to be said: “You squeezed Shafilea between two cultures,
the way of life she saw around her and wanted to embrace and the one you
wanted to impose upon her by intimidation, bullying and physical violence…
You killed one daughter, but you have blighted the lives of your remaining
It is perhaps too early to
judge if a verdict like this is going to serve as a deterrent to what has
come to be known as honour killing in the UK, though one only hopes that it
does. If the system could not prevent the murder of Shafilea, this verdict
and the lessons learnt might save the lives of other girls from all
communities where such crimes are common.
For us in Pakistan, this
might as well serve as an eye-opener. It is this misplaced cultural
‘value’ — where the woman serves as the repository of family honour
— that the Pakistanis take with them as they go abroad in search of
greener pastures. We are as guilty of honour crimes within the country that
are justified in the name of tribal and feudal customs.
It is this hypocritical
value system that makes women so vulnerable in the Western cultures.
As said earlier, we did
not just want to focus on this particular murder. We wanted to focus on the
actual crimes as much as the psychological, muted pressures on the girls who
are born and raised abroad. At the same time, we wanted to focus on the
positive examples, the Pakistani women who could serve as role models for
other women in Western societies. Baroness Warsi, whose village in Pakistan
is not too far from Shafilea’s, is an example worth emulating.
An effective legal system,
a forward-looking society back home and positive shining examples among
women in their own community may all come to the rescue of those who stand
torn between cultures.
murder of the 17-year-old, Warrington-based Shafilea Ahmed at the hands of
her parents, has grabbed headlines in the media over the past nine years
before the British justice system eventually brought her killers to court.
Shafilea’s offence, it transpired, was that she had been immersed in the
British culture, against the wishes of her highly conservative Muslim
parents of Pakistani origin. More importantly, perhaps, she had resisted an
arranged marriage in her ancestral homeland.
Shafilea’s murder has
raised many a pertinent question, especially for the Pakistani communities
based in the UK. Whereas the media hastened to term this particular case as
another incident of “honour killing”, the investigating team as well as
the state officials have both been cautious with their use of words.
Following the completion of the murder trial, Detective Superintendent
Geraint Jones said, “For me, it’s a simple case of murder. This is a
case of domestic abuse… Domestic abuse is, sadly, something which the
police have to deal with too often. It transcends culture, class, race, and
In today’s Britain, the
terms ‘honour crimes’ and ‘forced marriage’ are both conveniently
attributed to the Pakistanis (Muslims, obviously). The media here sees the
former as a consequence of the latter: when women are accused of bringing a
‘bad name’ to their family by ‘overriding’ the ‘decrees’ of
their elders, especially regarding an arranged marriage within the baradari
(or community), or when they have a liaison with a person of another culture
or religion, they are simply killed off.
A recent BBC Panorama poll
on the attitudes of the younger Asian generation (in the UK?) found that 75
per cent of the males and 63 per cent of the females surveyed were in
agreement that a family must take care of its collective ‘honour’ (izzat
in Urdu). Those aged between 16-24 years (73 per cent) were more likely to
agree on this than the ones between 25-34 years of age (64 per cent). 18 per
cent of those interviewed (both male and female) agreed that certain actions
of a woman are a reasonable justification for corporal punishment.
These may just be hasty
conclusions. If we look deeper into the cultural folds of the British Asian
community, we find that the real issue is actually ‘forced marriages’,
and it is not specific to Pakistanis alone; a majority of cases have been
reported among Indians and Bangladeshis based in the UK. Unfortunately,
though, Pakistanis top any such statistics or data collected by the British
government and campaigners and charities working to deal with the menace.
Dr Aisha Gill, a Reader in
Criminology at the University of Roehampton, who provided expert evidence
for the prosecution in the case against Shafilea’s parents, spoke to TNS
on the issue. She was of the view that the government should adopt a more
proactive approach in preventing violence against women among South Asian
She said that Shafilea’s
murder could easily have been prevented were it not for a series of
misjudgments on the part of the policy makers regarding the implementation
of domestic violence laws and guidelines in dealing with potential
youngsters and vulnerable adults. She also outlined “a catalogue of
mistakes” made by the state agencies in this connection.
Dr Gill said that no
attention had been paid to why Shafilea would always talk about her
suffering but never seek the help of police or social services. “Even
though Shafilea was a teenager living in constant fear of her parents, no
thought was ever given to finding a way to arrest and prosecute the
perpetrators of domestic violence, despite a number of independent
According to the
statistics provided by the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), set up by the Foreign
and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to give advice and support to potential
victims, 1,468 such instances were reported in 2011. 78 per cent of these
instances involved female victims and 22 per cent male victims. Moreover,
18.9 per cent of the victims were from London, 13.4 per cent from West
Midlands, and 12.7 per cent from North West. 66 instances (4.5 per cent)
involved those with disabilities. 56 per cent cases involved people of
Pakistani origin, 7.8 per cent those from Bangladesh, 6.2 per cent from
India and 1.5 per cent from Afghanistan.
This year, so far, the FMU
claims to have provided advice/support in 594 individual cases. 14 per cent
of these involved victims below age 15; 31 per cent involved victims aged
16-17; 35 per cent involved victims aged 18-21; 87 per cent were about
female victims and 13 per cent males. 46 per cent of the cases were about
individuals from Pakistan, 9.2 per cent from Bangladesh, 7.2 per cent India,
2.7 per cent Afghanistan, 1.5 per cent Turkey and the rest from African and
Middle Eastern countries.
The 2010 statistics quote
cases involving individuals from Pakistan (52 per cent), Bangladesh (10.3
per cent), India (8.6 per cent), Africa (5 per cent), Turkey (1.7 per cent),
Iran (1.3 per cent), Iraq (1.2 per cent) and Afghanistan (1 per cent).
No one better than
Jasvinder Sanghera, a Sikh, knows how ill-fated are the women who dare to go
against the wishes of their families in her community in the UK. A
middle-aged lady who is married with three children, Sanghera says she was
only 14 when her parents showed her the photo of the man they had chosen to
be her husband. She remembered her four sisters who had all had bad
marriages. So she rebelled and ran away.
Years later, she is still
on the run — she hasn’t disclosed her whereabouts lest her folks will
get hold of her.
Nonetheless, Sanghera has
had the gumption to co-found Karma Nirvana, a community-based project that
runs several refuge centres across the UK for those South Asian women who
leave their homes in order to avoid a forced marriage.
Talking exclusively to TNS,
Sanghera says Shafilea’s trial should serve as a wakeup call to all Asian
communities across the length and breadth of Britain. “Such incidents are
taking place across the myriad communities — most of them Asian. It means
these attitudes are being handed down through generations.
“Shafilea’s is sadly
one of the many (over 600) calls we receive on Karma Nirvana’s Helpline
every month, out of which at least 50 per cent are from individuals of
different Asian origins. Most common complaints are violence, forced
marriage and, as Shafilea’s case shows, the risk involved in becoming
intimate with the British culture. “How
can a family put honour before their own child?” she asks, assertively.
According to the figures
compiled by Karma Nirvana — which are often at variance with those
provided by the other charities — in the first half of the current year,
the charity has already received 3,900 calls, averaging 557 calls a month.
47 per cent of the callers were under the age of 21, and 12 per cent were
males “who [had] resisted honour-based violence as well as a forced
marriage”. 36 per cent were first-time callers, 36 per cent had rejected
their family’s decisions for them, 23 per cent had said no to an arranged
marriage, 20 per cent had said no because they were dating the person of
their own choice.
38 per cent of these
callers were British Pakistanis, 4 per cent were British Indians, 7 per cent
British Bangladeshis and 4 per cent White British.
Sajida Mughal, who has
been running a project called Mujboor (by JAN Trust) that deals exclusively
with Pakistani women, says the figures of abuse compiled by the government
and the charities are just the tip of the iceberg. “Many cases go
unreported and so the real figures are expected to be a lot higher.”
She further says,
“Generally, the victims do not want to incriminate their family members,
as this would result in a complete breakup with them and their community.
Besides, the victims are often [financially as well as emotionally]
dependent on the perpetrators.”
Mughal claims that a
majority of the victims are “young British Pakistani girls, with family
origins in Mirpur, Azad Kashmir. …The perpetrators (i.e. the parents) use
religion to endorse their actions. This is absolutely uncalled-for. Islam
condemns forced marriage and provides the woman with the right to say no.”
agencies need to be
Sayeeda Warsi stood outside 10 Downing Street in a shalwar kameez before the
first Coalition Cabinet meeting in May 2010, she made headlines for a number
of reasons. Her inclusion in the Cabinet was hailed by equality and race
campaigners but it was also a publicity stunt for Prime Minister David
Cameron who wanted to send out a strong message that under him the party was
on course to change its policies and image and that Tory was no more a
It was noted that Warsi,
Britain’s first Muslim woman Cabinet minister, chose to wear this
particular dress to make a point — chiefly, to show that she took complete
pride in her culture and belongings and also that she is at home with her
multiple identities. She has held dialogues with world leaders over issues
concerning Britain’s national interests and, at the same time, she has a
family in Dewsbury whose everyday affairs she is deeply involved with. She
is equally at ease delivering speeches in English to the upper crust and
switches comfortably to Urdu and Punjabi — the languages of her ancestors.
Britain is her home but
Warsi remains engaged in a number of charitable and educational projects in
Pakistan, especially in a town near Rawalpindi where her parents come from.
Warsi has always spoken
against ‘Islamophobia’ in the UK and has secured measures from the
government to protect the Muslims in the country from racists. She has also
spoken against a culture of complacency within the British Muslims
communities, be it on the issue of children’s grooming or their marriage.
Speaking exclusively with
TNS, following the court’s verdict on Shafilea Ahmed’s murder trial,
Warsi said that the “so-called honour-based violence is unacceptable. We
should condemn the practice.
“To begin with, we must
stop calling murders such as that of Shafelia as ‘honour killings’. That
would imply that the act should somehow be excused, put into context or even
justified because it was undertaken in the name of ‘honour’,” she
said. “However, the supposed pretext of ‘honour’ that the perpetrators
use to justify their act is a farce. The reality is that honour violence is
domestic violence and honour killings are murders.”
Warsi believes there are
lessons to be learnt from the murder of Shafilea Ahmed. “The
responsibility lies with every single one of us — every mother and father,
every political and faith leader, every person from every walk of life. Our
agencies need to be culturally aware but be less culture-sensitive. In other
words, too often, the agencies overlook what takes place within certain
communities because they think that to criticise or probe is to undermine or
attack the people coming from diverse cultural backgrounds. The agencies
must focus solely on supporting victims and tackling perpetrators. We must
remember that domestic violence, forced marriages and murders happen across
cultures and ethnicities, but if these crimes take place within a certain
community that does not make it any less of an offence.”
Warsi said the issues
around forced marriages and other forms of open and subtle discriminatory
practices in certain communities should be openly dealt with — “Shying
away is not the option.”
She admitted that there is
resistance from some communities that do not want any one meddling with
their cultural practices.
“Honour crimes and
forced marriage are against the teachings of all major religions of the
world,” she said. “I have always maintained that turning a blind eye to
these crimes and practices is an inverse form of racism, motivated by not
wanting to offend other cultures or appear racist. So, when we think of the
terrible killing of a Shafelia Ahmed, we must not forget that there are no
honour killings; there are only killings.”
— Murtaza Ali Shah
Shafilea Ahmed was
the daughter of taxi driver Iftikhar Ahmed who, at the time of her birth,
was married to a Danish woman named Vivi Lone Andersen. Years later, she was
to be killed for having become “westernised”.
Andersen was Ahmed’s
first wife whom he married in 1982 in Copenhagen where they also had a son.
“Iftikhar was a very happy boy who enjoyed dancing, drinking beer and
going to discos,” she is quoted as saying.
The couple stayed in
Denmark till 1986 when, bowing to pressure from his relatives Ahmed agreed
to an ‘arranged marriage’ with cousin Farzana (complicit in Shafilea’s
The story that has made
headlines around the world and garnered several hours and inches of valuable
airtime and column space even during the recent London Olympics is sad as
much as it points to a stark reality.
Shafilea was a resilient
child who ran away from her home at the age of 11 and, a few years later, in
September 2003. Her parents did not report her ‘absence’ this time over;
it was a schoolteacher who had overheard Shafilea’s younger siblings
discussing her disappearance, who reported it.
When the police came to
investigate, Iftikhar Ahmed told them with disgust that Shafilea had fled in
her “western clothes”.
Earlier, her parents flew
down Shafilea to Pakistan, on a one-way ticket, in order to marry her off to
an older cousin but when Shafilea drank bleach at her grandparents’ home
as an act of resistence, she was brought back to Warrington for emergency
A few weeks later, her
parents killed Shafilea brutally in front of her siblings by gagging her
with a plastic carrier bag. Why, because she had (supposedly) brought bad
name to the family.
The last words that
Shafilea is said to have heard were those of her mother who was shouting to
her husband: “Ethay khatam kar saro!” (Just finish her).
sister Alesha, a prime witness in the case, told the court that she saw her
father punching her sister’s dead body in the chest after he had killed
her. Also, she spotted her mother preparing sheets, bin bags and rolls of
tape in the kitchen so that Shafilea’s dismembered body could be dumped in
Due to massive
decomposition, the exact cause of Shafilea’s death still remains a
mystery. But, suffice it to say that this cold-blooded ‘honour killing’
was nothing but a ‘vile murder’ because her body was only identifiable
from her dental records and jewellery.
In today’s Britain,
which is a melting pot of world’s communities and cultures, a host of
Pakistani immigrants have integrated well, but there are numerous households
where rural and feudal mindsets are still a potent force.
“Shafilea isn’t the
only one to have suffered this kind of a fate,” says Sameem Ali, a
Manchester councillor who herself was forced into a marriage in Pakistan
when she was barely 13.
“Such incidents do not
happen overnight,” she adds. “These are well planned out. The
authorities must look into them without fear of being labelled as
In the present-day UK,
most victims of honour killings are nearly always Muslim women, mostly of
Pakistani origin. Though, a high-profile case in 2006 involved a 20-year-old
Iraqi Kurd, named Banaz Mahmod, who left her violent husband to be with her
boyfriend, only to be killed by her father and uncle. This, despite the fact
that she had repeatedly told the police her life was in jeopardy.
Recent research by the
Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) has found that
more than 2,800 incidents of ‘honour’-based violence, which include
cases of acid burns, abduction, mutilation and beating, were reported to
police across the UK last year. But those figures are considered a vast
underestimation, given that 13 of the 52 police forces did not respond to
the charity’s request for a breakdown in November 2011.
Talking to TNS, IKWRO’s
campaigns officer Fionnuala Ni Mhurchu says, “These figures are important
because they demonstrate that this is a serious issue affecting many people
who are likely to suffer high levels of abuse before they seek help.”
Nazir Afzal, chief
prosecutor and the man who brought the case to a successful conclusion,
seconds Mhurchu by saying that the degree of honour crime in Britain —
including murders meant to preserve a family’s ‘honour’ within their
own community — is unknown.
He estimates that there
are 10,000 forced marriages in Britain every year, and that a measure of
multicultural sensitivity is likely part of the problem. “Forced marriage
is the earthquake and what follows is a tsunami of domestic and sexual
abuse, child protection issues, suicide and murder. If we can tackle forced
marriages, we can prevent all the other things from happening.”
The latest Home Affairs
Committee report on forced marriages in 2011 validates the same point that
recent years have seen a progressive and constant increase in the number of
forced marriages dealt with by the government’s Forced Protection Unit (FMU).
In 2008, at the time the
previous report came out, FMU’s caseload was about 300 per year. This
increased to 430 in 2009 and remained at approximately 400 in 2010 and 2011
and 594 between January-May this year, out of which 44 per cent involved
children under 18.
Nowhere does Islam say
that the honour of a family, community or an entire village is represented
by the morality, chastity and proper behaviour of its women alone. Yet, the
rate of incidents of suicide among women of South Asian descent is three
times the national average. Sadly, for a lot of these women, suicide is the
only way out.
Having said that, a more
worrying reality is the prevalence of these attitudes and beliefs among the
younger generation. About two-thirds of the young British Asians are said to
conform to their elders’ notions of ‘honour’.
A poll for BBC Panorama
suggests that out of the 500 young Asians questioned, 18 per cent felt that
certain behaviour such as girls not obeying their father and wanting to
leave an existing or prearranged marriage justified corporal punishment.
Thankfully, only 3 per cent were found to believe that honour killings are
marriages and a breach of the Forced Marriage Protection Order (FMPO) are
due to be criminalised in the UK when legislation comes into effect next
year. But the maximum sentence for the offence is still to be decided.
Critics like Dr Muhammad
Abdul Bari who is also a parenting consultant and a founding member of The
East London Communities Organisation, is of the view that criminal
proceedings will only serve to deter the victims and ultimately result in
forced marriages being driven underground. On the other hand, there are
advocates who say it will act as a deterrent — just as it is doing in
places where it has been recognised as a crime, such as Austria, Germany,
Belgium, Cyprus and Denmark.
Plan UK, the British arm
of the global children’s charity, has launched the nation’s first
specialist film and lesson plan for use across the schools that have long
shied away from discussing the issue, even though hundreds of girls go
missing every year — they are cast away (usually for a forced marriage)
during the summer holidays.
When Judge Evans sentenced
Shafilea’s parents, he aptly concluded: “You squeezed Shafilea between
two cultures, the way of life she saw around her and wanted to embrace and
the one you wanted to impose upon her by intimidation, bullying and physical
violence… You killed one daughter, but you have blighted the lives of your
About 98 per cent of the
population of Warrington is white and only 0.8 per cent is that of people of
Asian origins. It is no surprise that most of Shafilea’s friends were
white and that their culture was what Shafilea warmed up to. But the girl
who would have turned 26 this year was betrayed — not by the foreign
culture but by her very own folks within her own home.
The writer is an Editorial
Assistant at The News in London and can be contacted at email@example.com
A workshop on forced
Uttam, a backward
village in Punjab, with lots of rain water collected in its unpaved streets,
has another (completely contrary) side to it: the occasional large,
multi-storey villas that indicate the existence of some connection to its
several inmates who are now settled abroad in Scandinavian countries and the
Some eight kilometres from
the part of the GT Road that cuts through Kharian in district Gujrat, at
least one member of almost every other household in Uttam is based overseas.
Ironically, even though
these overseas Pakistanis have been living and working abroad through a
couple of generations, their mindset belies imbibing any positive values
within the foreign culture. In fact, they become more resistant to change
overtime. Iftikhar Ahmed, a British Pakistani and a former native of Uttam
village, is just a case in point. Almost a decade ago, he and his wife
Farzana killed their 17-year-old daughter Shafilea Ahmed in their hometown
Warrington, because she had become too “westernised.” The murder was
proved only recently, when a British court of law sentenced them to 25 years
of life imprisonment.
Uttam is home to a rural
community from pre-partition times when Sikhs were in majority. “Within
this community of around 200 families, over 80 per cent have at least one
member of the family working abroad, usually driving a cab,” says Imtiaz
Ahmad, a resident of the village who is settled in Holland for the past 30
The smallish convenience
stores such as Madni and Hilal Chicken, one-room set-ups crammed into the
narrow and congested streets of the village, speak volumes for the poor
living conditions of the locals. Those settled abroad are guilty of being
illiterate and, as Ahmad puts it, “confused. They don’t properly teach
their children about their religion and culture when they should, and later
they force them not to blend in the western culture.”
Ahmad, who drives a taxi
in Amsterdam together with his two young sons, says he did not take his wife
and daughters with him to Holland. “You should be able to decide on your
own what is good for you and your family. I decided to keep the women in my
family away from the [western] culture because that could have an adverse
effect on their religious values,” he says.
Hafiz Shahzad, a resident
of Kharian, recalls a few incidents in Denmark where the women in the family
were killed by the father or the husband because of their moral excesses.
Prior to her killing, poor
Shafilea had made a visit to Uttam, in the year 2003, when her uber-conservative
parents tried to force her into marriage with an older relative. As a show
of protest, Shafilea drank bleach and had to be taken to a local clinic
where she was kept for many days.
Kharian is one region which is most inclined towards a conservative version
of Islam and its local culture associates womenfolk with a family’s ‘honour’.
Every second school in the district offers special Quranic and Islamic
education. This is true even of the English medium schools.
On a recent visit to
Kharian, it was observed that the locals know about Shafelia’s incident
but they avoid talking about it in public. Besides, they do not necessarily
believe her parents did anything wrong by killing her.
Kharian is most inclined
towards a conservative version of Islam. Photo by Rahat Dar
In the midst of
the din around Shafilea Ahmed’s tragic end, it may be relevant to look at
stories within the British Asian communities, of women who have made a
success of their lives by combining the best of eastern and western values.
A young, educated business woman, Scotland-based Shazia Saleem is just a
case in point.
Much of Shazia’s
extended family migrated to the UK in the 1950s. Her father had passed away
when she was only two years old and she was raised by her mother and her
maternal uncle who hail from Faisalabad, the industrial hub of Punjab,
Over the years, Shazia’s
family developed an affinity with Scotland’s close-knit local culture, its
rich folk music and a passionate political history. (It is no wonder why
more than 45,000 Pakistanis choose Scotland as their second home.) Her
mother ensured that both Shazia and her elder sister, a high-flying London
city law lecturer, receive due support and encouragement in pursuance of
higher education. The family has long owned a chain of local restaurants,
takeaways and shops based on Asian cuisine. This eventually meant that
Shazia would grow up benefiting from both worlds.
Her mother inspired
confidence in Shazia to become a well-groomed and independent person, and
also insisted on adopting the best values of Asian culture. Shazia was able
to speak Urdu fluently — a rarity among most British Asians her age. At a
Business school, she studied Accountancy and Marketing before joining a
successful web and media marketing company. “I had a few female cousins,
older than me, who had studied away from home. So, when it was my turn to
move out, there were no raised eyebrows or issues,” she tells TNS.
Her success story does not
end here. All this autonomy and self-reliance was simply preparing her for
the next big step towards Florence in Italy where she wanted to study
Fashion. “I must admit that my family treated my decision with some
trepidation initially,” she says. “They were concerned about me leaving
a secure job in favour of a degree in Fashion. Actually, they didn’t see
it as an industry. For them, it was a risky career choice.”
Shazia says she was
determined to prove her detractors wrong and headed for London after
finishing her education, to take up work with well renowned designer Betty
Jackson. In 2007, she founded her own company in the city. Today, her
hand-woven textiles and designs are sold around the world, from Los Angeles
to London and Shanghai.
She was also recently
hailed by Ernest & Young as a Future Entrepreneur. “In hindsight, I am
sure my parents are proud of my achievements. And, I’m glad they pushed me
into Business education without which I would have crashed in designing.”
Is her mother looking to
find a good match for her, as most Pakistani parents do? “Oh, that’s a
tricky one,” she says, laughing. “It’s true that my mother would love
it if I had been married and worked as an accountant, preferably in
Edinburgh, but I have never been pressurised by my family to settle down.”
This is a refreshing
picture of a young British-Pakistani woman coming from an otherwise regular
household. The extraordinary thing about the Saleems is they respect their
women’s choices and are willing to give her her due space.
— Anaam Raza