"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 Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.