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.