There was no ‘honour’ involved in the murder of Shafilea Ahmed.
As with other so called ‘honour’ killings, this was a sexist homicide, based upon an assumption of female subordination and the false premise that girls have a duty to be compliant and obedient – firstly to fathers and to a lesser extent mothers, then to brothers and even brothers-in-law and subsequently husbands whom they may not even have chosen.
Shafilea was not alone. There have been many so called honour killings over the past few years and many more reported and unreported incidents of violence and torture of rebellious girls and women. Most have involved violence by fathers, brothers and brothers- in-law – and a few mothers and mothers-in-law. An estimated 8,000 forced marriages have taken place.
There were 3 other sisters living in the Ahmed household with murderous parents and a brother who, according to Shafilea’s sister Alesha’s evidence in court, allegedly excused the violence saying Shafilea “deserved it”. Alesha alleged her brother Junyad, then 13, actively assisted by handing the plastic bag which killed Shafilea to her mother who passed it to her father. He denied these allegations in court and insisted on his parents’ innocence. The girls must have experienced unimaginable extremes of terror.
There are questions which urgently need to be answered. How is it that a teenage girl could have been taken to Pakistan, return requiring weeks of hospitalisation having drunk bleach while abroad and not receive effective protection from Social Services? Why, despite the best efforts of her teacher, was Shafilea’s distress not recognised or effectively acted upon by education and other authorities? And following Shafilea’s disappearance, why were no effective steps taken to offer her siblings assistance and facilitate disclosure? Was this another instance where ‘cultural’ sensitivities were allowed to trump girls’ rights to safety?
It took 9 years to prosecute this case, despite clear evidence of a pattern of abuse against Shafilea and covertly recorded evidence of discussions within the home about DNA and evidence required for conviction. The Ahmeds were finally charged with Shafilea’s murder in September 2011 by the new CPS chief prosecutor for the north-west, Nazir Afzal, who decided there was sufficient evidence to bring charges. Afzal recently told the Guardian newspaper that he was not afraid of tackling “honour” crime within Asian communities. It was he who intervened to ensure the prosecution of the Rochdale child sexual exploitation case earlier in 2012.
The statements of the Ramadhan Foundation and other bodies condemning honour killing are to be welcomed. However, it should be taken as read that such attacks are un-Islamic. What For Our Daughters most wishes to hear from religious and community leaders, politicians and newspaper editors alike, are unequivocal statements condemning sexism and supporting women’s rights and equality before the law – including girls’ and women’s absolute right to free choice in respect of marriage, lifestyle, education, career, dress, religion and politics.
Shafilea was a girl of rare ability and courage. She made many attempts to resist the violence and oppression which scarred her daily life and her death is a tragic waste. If her death is to have any meaning, it needs to be a catalyst to stop sexist violence and the obscene waste of life that goes with it. For that to happen this government and all future governments must have the courage to protect the rights of all women and girls – and confront sexist violence wherever it is found – without fear of backlash or regard to sectional interests and cultural sensitivities.
Jean Calder, 3rd August 2012