The left cannot remain silent over "honour killings"

We have become complicit in this epidemic of abuse and violence by not doing more to challenge it.

The murder of the teenager Shafilea Ahmed is likely to stand out in British history as a particularly gruesome example of what we now refer to as "honour killings". Shafilea had warned that her parents were trying to marry her off to Pakistan; others knew she had sustained injuries from beatings by her parents; she had even tried to commit suicide in Pakistan. But right until the end, her own life was fated to be out of her control - she went missing in 2003 and her dismembered body was found a year later.

Shafilea's case wasn't a one-off. It took eight years for the murderers of the Sikh woman Surjit Athwal - her own husband and mother-in-law - to be brought to justice in 2007. It took ten years for Mehmet Goren to be jailed, in 2009, for murdering his daughter Tulay, because she fell in love with an older man of a different Muslim sect. Last year Gurmeet Singh Ubhi was found guilty of murdering his 24 year old daughter Amrit because the Sikh girl was dating a white man. There are others too - Heshu Yones, Banaz Mahmod, Nuziat Khan - the list of women murdered in the UK over their "honour" is depressingly long.

Any decent person would be angry and sad when presented with these names. But it isn't enough to be sad: we have become complicit in this epidemic of abuse and violence by not doing more to challenge it. This should be a left-wing cause célèbre but instead there is an embarrassed silence. Left-wing activists robustly challenge racism and homophobia - so why isn't more being done to stand up to this social evil?

Perhaps it's because forced marriages and honour killings are fundamentally about a lack of cultural integration. They almost always happen when parents want to stop their daughters from mixing with British culture and life, instead of abiding by outdated cultural traditions. To these parents, mixing with other cultures or ethnicities has become synonymous with losing the "family honour".

In the past, most left-wing intellectuals and activists avoided the issue of cultural integration for good reason: it was usually a code-word for assimilation and conjured up images of whites telling others their way of life was inferior. But caught between attacks from the right on multiculturalism, and worries that speaking out would look racist, we have become paralysed. Meanwhile, these problems are set to get worse as more second and third generation children of immigrants come of age.

The Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation (Ikwro) found last year that 39 out of 52 police forces across the UK had recorded at least 2,823 "honour" attacks over 2010. Some forces showed a jump of nearly 50 per cent in such cases from 2009. Horrifying stories of friends subjected to subjected to verbal abuse by parents for straying past cultural boundaries are far too common. One acquaintance of mine, under pressure to marry before she was ready, was repeatedly told she was being "too fussy" and would end up "left behind on the shelf". Her self-confidence was broken down with every barbed comment until she eventually gave in. Emotional blackmail is one thing, but the Crown Prosection Service estimates that on average one girl is murdered every month in Britain over "family honour" - while the number of forced marriages could be as high as 10,000 a year.

Jagdeesh Athwal, who fought for nearly a decade to get justice for his sister Surjit, told the Independent that Asian community leaders and religious groups "remain deafeningly silent when these killings happen". The author Sufiya Ahmed, whose book, Secrets of the Henna Girl, is about forced marriages, admits there is "a lot of denial" about the problem. "Aside from not wanting to acknowledge that it happens, there are even those who argue that the subject shouldn't even be talked about for fear of branding all Asians with the same brush."

There is a patronising attitude at work here, too: well-meaning liberals have been known to assume forced marriages and such abuse are an inherent part of Asian culture and therefore must be left alone. A few months ago, activist Jasvinder Sanghera's charity Karma Nirvana convinced a teacher in East London to put up posters at the school that said: "Forced Marriage is Abuse Not Cultural". But the posters were taken down and the charity was told the head was concerned they would upset Muslim parents.

A reluctance to offend will only encourage more silence. If self-appointed community leaders won't speak out, then Labour politicians and left-wing activists have a duty to. I'm not calling for a sneering attitude that says, "if you want to be British, you have to integrate into our way of life". Instead, we need an inclusive narrative about integration which is clear that we, as Britons, are equal regardless of religion, ethnicity or background. It has to appeal to both white and non-white Britons. It has to be about what it means to live in this country collectively and what we do tolerate as a society and what we don't. It would give us more confidence to stop the systematic abuse of thousands of women in Britain. Otherwise, we stay complicit in their fate.

A mourner lays flowers at the memorial to Hatun Surucu, was shot in the head and killed by her youngest brother Ayhan Surucu in an "honour killing" in 2005. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear