"Honour killings" are just murder - it's as simple as that

The tragic murder of Shafilea Ahmed reminds us how limiting the term "honour" is when it comes to crime.

The tragic murder of Shafilea Ahmed has dominated the headlines recently. The 17-year-old girl was murdered by her parents, Iftikar and Farzana Ahmed, at their home in Warrington, because she was resisting a forced marriage and was too influenced by British culture. It took nine years to bring them to justice, but on Friday they were found guilty of her murder and sentenced to at least 25 years in prison.

During the investigation and trial, the Cheshire police force deliberately chose not to refer to the case as an “honour killing”, although it bears all the hallmarks. Explaining this decision after sentencing, Detective Superintendent Geraint Jones said:

"Over the years, many people have asked me - is this a so-called honour killing? For me, it's a simple case of murder. This is a case of domestic abuse by two parents towards their children. Domestic abuse is, sadly, something which the police have to deal with too often. It transcends culture, class, race, and religion."

I am inclined to agree with him. To an extent, the label of “honour-based” violence is helpful shorthand. It refers to crimes where someone is murdered because they are seen to have dishonoured their family or community. More often than not, it is a means to control women and their sexuality – though incidents against men are not unheard of. It is not restricted to any ethnic or religious group, with cases recorded in Latin America, and across Asia. In December 2009, after a concerted effort to raise awareness of these crimes, the Metropolitan Police reported that there had been a huge rise in recorded incidents related to honour, with 211 episodes reported in London between April and October of that year. The increase was probably related to an instruction to police in September 2009 to assume honour crimes had been committed in more situations than they previously did.

There is no question that it is a good thing to heighten awareness and understanding of why crimes happen, particularly if this encourages young people to come forward and seek help. It is important to recognise that crimes do take place in certain communities – in the UK, it tends to be prevalent among South Asians (of all religions) and those from the Middle East – so that those crimes can be tackled. It is equally important to raise awareness that these incidents are just that – crimes – rather than acceptable expressions of culture.

And that is where the problem can arise. What makes an act of violence based on a perception of “honour” different to any other act of violence? Earlier this year, I interviewed Polly Harrar, the founder of South Asian women’s group the Sharan Project. Asked whether we are doing enough to tackle honour killings, she said “In essence, it is murder, taking someone's life. It is killing somebody in cold blood, for whatever misguided reason.”

This is the crux of the matter: murder is murder. Violence is violence. Abuse is abuse. The flipside of the shorthand “honour killing” is that there is something exonerating in the phrase. Of course, as Paul Whittaker, Chief Crown Prosecutor in the case, pointed out, it is a contradiction in terms: “There is no honour in murder.” There is also the risk that in classifying this violence as something different – belonging to “them”, the immigrants, rather than “us”, the British – we hinder discussion of it, due to discomfort on one side and defensiveness on the other. This discomfort allows the authorities a “hands-off” option, which simply fuels its impetus – just as it does in countries such as Pakistan, where more often than not, a blind eye is turned and these crimes continue with impunity. Note that the Ahmeds accused the authorities investigating them of racism.

In fact, there is no need for this to be an issue of cultural sensitivity. The errors that blighted Shafilea’s case – a failure by the authorities to join up the dots and notice that she was in desperate need of help, even when she made a plea for emergency housing – are sadly reminiscent of the cases of many hundreds of British women who are failed every day. Domestic violence accounts for a quarter of all violent crimes in the UK, and the problems in dealing with it are the same as the problems often cited in policing honour-based crimes: a reluctance by women to come forward, difficulty in getting them to testify against their family members.

So yes, by all means, resources should be targeted on tackling violence in certain communities, and on encouraging people to come forward. But while the term “honour killings” has its uses, it can also be limiting. It is vital to understand the causes of crime, but the use of a tagword like this is unusual, particularly when the very notion of “honour” is nebulous and inaccurate. The real shame is in murder, not in disobedience. To come back to the words of Detective Superintendent Jones, domestic violence “transcends culture, class, race, and religion". We should not forget that.

 

Pakistani protestors march against a spate of "honour killings" in the country: Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder