Forced marriages disgrace Islam

The first step to dealing with honour killings in the UK is to criminalise forced marriage.

According to official figures, up to 17,000 women in Britain are subjected to honour-related kidnapping, sexual assault, beatings and murder every year. A new report by the Centre for Social Cohesion suggests these figures underestimate the true extent of honour-based violence. And what is even more worrying is that this crime is not limited to older, first- generation immigrants. Honour killings are now also being perpetrated, according to the report, by second and third generations of immigrants. Parents are passing on the customs they brought with them to their children.

Most cases of honour killing in Britain, such as the murder of Banaz Mahmod, involve Muslims. Twenty-year-old Banaz was killed because she refused to abide by a forced marriage. Her body was discovered in Birmingham in 2006; she had been raped and tortured by men hired by her uncle to kill her. Her father, who had unsuccessfully tried to kill her earlier, her uncle and one of her killers were sentenced to 60 years in total for her murder. Before Banaz, there was the case of Sha filea Ahmed, murdered in 2003, and before her a string of other unfortunates. Hardly surprising that, in the minds of some, honour killing and Islam go together.

In reality, honour killings are a direct outcome of forced marriage and have nothing to do with Islam. Indeed, one of the first acts of the Prophet Muhammad was to condemn and forbid such practices. In Islam, honour is connected with virtue, with righteous behaviour, obligations to one's parents and the elderly, good works and community development. It is all about human dignity and how that dignity should be upheld.

For many Muslims, however, Islamic ideals are often subservient to tribal custom. Honour killings and forced marriages are tribal practices. Among certain tribes in Asia, honour is asso ciated with women: izzat, as honour is called in Urdu, is quite literally located on the female body. Thus, women have to be guarded, protected and passed on to another member of the tribe. A woman dishonours her family and tribe if her body is violated - even by force. The shame can be cleansed only by killing the body in question.

Such primitively brutal ideas are not uncommon among British Muslims hailing from tribal areas of India, Pakistan and the Middle East. Brit ish Asians perpetuate tribal customs through what is known as the biradari system. This system, much in evidence in Asian communities in the Midlands, combines caste and honour with notions of blind loyalty to the clan. To guard the honour of a clan, marriages take place strictly within a biradari. These are not marriages of arrangement by mutual consent, but forced marriages where one partner is coerced into a union - sometimes both.

The first step to dealing with honour killings is to criminalise forced marriage. The Home Office is supposed to be drawing up an action plan to tackle these killings and improve police response, but before anything else we need to prevent victims from becoming victims. Making forced marriage illegal will send a strong message to those who maintain this obnoxious tribal custom that it has no place in contemporary Britain. It will also encourage potential victims to come forward and report the crime.

There is equally a need, I think, for a national strategy to identify potential victims. Schools, for example, ought to be able to recognise which girls are most likely to be victims of forced marriage by their background. Airport staff should be able to spot girls who are being forcibly carted off to India, Pakistan or Bangladesh to be married off to biradari cousins. The police must be able to offer potential victims adequate protection from any retribution.

Ultimately, honour killing is a conceptual phenomenon, and to beat this loathsome practice we need to undermine the very concept of tribal honour. The notion that honour has anything to do with the female body should be erased by the basic education of every Briton of Asian or Middle Eastern heritage. Tribal practices associated with honour bring not honour to biradari, clan, family and Islam, but disgrace.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?