"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.

Richard Burden
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The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016

Xenophobia does not usually lead to Srebrenica. But it can do.

Two weeks ago, I joined a visit to Bosnia organised by Remember Srebrenica. If you have ever seen one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Northern France, you will have a sense of what the cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, is like. Row upon row of identical white headstones stretching into the distance. Whereas in France, of course, most of the headstones are marked by the cross, in Potocari they are white obelisks. Overwhelmingly, they mark the graves of Muslims.

In the 1990s, the old battery factory of Potocari was the headquarters of Dutch troops. They had been deployed to uphold the United Nations designation of the enclave as a safe area. Their presence, however, did not stop Serb troops from rounding up around 25,000 people sheltering at the base in July 1995. Once the UN troops stood aside, families were divided. Most of the women and children were loaded and sent west to areas of the country still controlled by the Bosnian government. The men and boys were loaded on to separate trucks. Within days, most of them were systematically shot.

Many other men and boys had already taken to the woods to escape, only to face shells, snipers and ambush on the way. Some, like 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic, made it through to free territory around Tuzla. Many did not. Those did not die in the woods were either persuaded to give themselves up, or were captured. Like the men and boys who had been taken from outside the UN base at Potocari, most simply disappeared. To this day, their bones are still being found in or near mass graves in eastern Bosnia.

And so, 21 years on, I met Hasan at Potocari. July1995 was the last time he saw his twin brother Hussein, his father Aziz or his uncle, Hasan.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Srebrenica massacre as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War. Indeed, the word massacre doesn’t convey the enormity of what happened. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 1990s Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of involvement in genocide. The verdict in the trial of military leader Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

Nobody who visits Potocari can fail to be moved by what you see there. For me, it brought back memories of how, as a new MP back in the 1990s, I was one of those calling for more assertive international action to stop the carnage that was unfolding in Bosnia. It was an unfamiliar position to find myself in. All my political life until that point, I had been amongst those opposing involvement in military action abroad. Now I found myself supporting intervention. For three years before the Srebrenica genocide, people in Sarajevo had been starved of food, medicines and even the means to defend themselves as their city was remorselessly pounded from the hills that surround it. We knew it. We could see it on TV. We also saw that neither Europe nor NATO nor the UN were taking action that could have stopped it.

There were always so many geopolitical reasons not to intervene effectively. I heard them day after day from Ministers in the House of Commons. But that did not help the men, women and children who were dying in Sarajevo, and in 1995 it did not save Hasan’s twin brother, his father, his uncle or the 8,000 others who ended up in the mass graves around Srebrenica.

Since I have returned from Bosnia, two things keep dominating my thinking. The first is about Syria. The political circumstances that have led to the destruction of Aleppo today are not the same as those facing Sarajevo in the 1990s. For people trapped there though, the parallels must feel much more real than the differences. I don’t claim to have an off-the-shelf action plan for what the international community should do today any more than anyone else does. I just keep thinking how in twenty years’ time, people visiting Aleppo - hopefully reconstructed as Sarajevo has been today - will ask: “How could the world have let this happen in 2016?” What will be our answer?

The other thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.

What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.

Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being "them" not "us", don't shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and a Shadow Transport Minister. He visited Bosnia with the Remembering Srebrenica charity in October 2016. You can find out more about the Remembering Srebrenica charity here.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.