The Rise of Honour Killings
On her 18th birthday, British teenager Shamima Akhtar celebrated by going out for drinks with friends and sharing a kiss with one of her colleagues at the end of the night. So far, so ordinary. But unlike most teenagers, Akhtar didn’t call her friends the next morning to gossip about the previous night’s events; instead she was recovering from an assault. When she arrived home she had been imprisoned by her own siblings, who hacked off her waist-length hair, punched her and threatened her with knives. Her innocent kiss had been spotted by her family as they collected her, and they were punishing her for the ‘crime’.
There are few people who would describe Shamima Akhtar’s terrible situation as ‘lucky’ – her siblings are currently facing time in prison as a result of their vicious attack, and she was only able to escape further brutality when she made a desperate phone call to the authorities – but, in reality, many victims of so-called honour violence are not as ‘lucky’ as Shamima was.
Banaz Mahmod was one such girl. Forced into an abusive arranged marriage as a teenager, she finally found a better life when, aged 20, she escaped from her marriage and fell in love with another man. At a time when most young women are dreaming of the future and have so much to look forward to, Banaz’s life ended. Her body was found buried in a back garden in 2006. She had been beaten, raped and killed on her father’s orders. The ensuing criminal case resulted in 30 arrests, five convictions, the first ever extraditions from Iraq, and a change in the way ‘honour’ cases are handled.
But there is still a long way to go, and, six years on from Banaz Mahmod’s tragic death, honour based violence inthe UK is hitting the headlines once again. Statistics obtained by the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation (IKWRO) have revealed that there were 2,823 incidents of honour violence recorded by UK police in 2010 alone, while the organisation itself took almost 2,000 calls in 2011. While most people could think of few things less honourable than harming a relative, IKWRO director Diana Nammi explains that for some families in Britain, ‘honour’ violence is not only acceptable, it is seen as necessary to protect the family’s reputation.“They do everything to keep their family’s honour,” she explains. “One way [to protect their family’s reputation] is forcing their daughters into marriage before they start talking to boys (around the age of 13 or 14), another way is keeping them at home, controlling them, beating them or sending them back to the country their parents came from. Finally, there is the ultimate way: when they believe the girl did something to bring shame on them and theybelieve there is no way to take the shame back, in order to clean the family’s name, they may attempt to kill their child.”
Means of control
The sad fact of honour-based abuse is this: that people, mainly women, are ostracised and forced to suffer punishments such as torture, mutilation, imprisonment and rape based on perceived injustices which can amount to as little as wearing make-up or sharing a kiss with the ‘wrong’ boy.
Karma Nirvana, a UK charity which supports victims of honour violence, explains that if a victim is deemed by their family to be too ‘Westernised’ they may be subjected to ‘a campaign of terror which can include verbal, emotional, psychological, sexual or physical abuse.’
IKRWO’s Nammi confi rms that honour violence is, in its simplest form, a means of control – preventing women from living freely and forcing them into subservience. “The history of honour violence goes back a long way, and has been operated and adopted by many religions and different cultures and I’m afraid it is still part of the practice in very male dominated communities and societies,” she says.
“In some countries, human rights and women’s rights have been pushed back and this has been accepted and respected, so when people from these communities come to European countries, they try to keep their male dominated culture and they keep the sensitive issues about their communities to themselves.
“Things like honour violence, forced marriage, child marriage, and exchanging women still occur within the community. Some people worry that their children will get lost within the Western community, so they try to keep their culture in their way - especially focusing on women to keep them virginal and ensure they marry within the community; those things become of huge value to them,” continues Nammi. “Their family’s honour or the community’s reputation becomes extremely important – they don’t want anyone to jeopardise their good reputation or bring shame on them, and because of that, they easily make sacrifices against women to defend the honour of the family or community.”
Reaching out to communities affected by honour violence is a key part of the work Karma Nirvana and IKWRO do; they believe that education is one of the best weapons they have to combat such instances of cruelty. But the charities are up against generation-old beliefs, which are only now being challenged.
“Some families who practice honour-based violence and believe in the honour system see it as acceptable to abuse another family member to regain control,” a Karma Nirvana spokesperson explains. “Some perpetrators of abuse will have the idea of honour drilled into them from an early age, and what we find from callers to the help line is that the family will practice honour-based abuse to regain the control over an individual they perceive to have dishonored the family. This will become normality for them, so when their children grow up and start a family they will impart the same ideals, continuing the honour idea and advocating violence as a method of control.”
That honour violence is ingrained in some communities will come as no surprise to any of the people who worked on bringing Banaz Mahmod’s killers to justice. During the four year investigation, police reportedly faced a ‘wall of silence’ from the local Kurdish community and suspected at least 50 people of trying to mislead them. IKWRO’s Nammi confirms that communities often become unwillingly complicit in honour-based abuse through their reluctance to report such crimes, saying, “Within these communities, not everyone is doing it, really it is just a handful of families or tribes [who participate in honour-based abuse] but they are so powerful, they [the perpetrators] may scare other people within the community into keeping quiet, so these poor women suffer in silence and will be killed.”
While the charities are working on educating local communities about the reality of honour violence, they are also working to inform the police about how best to handle instances of honour-based abuse. Although the officers working on Banaz Mahmod’s case were praised for their work, the system is still far from perfect. Banaz herself visited the police on several occasions prior to her death, telling them that she feared for her safety and thought her life was in danger. Unfortunately, the investigating officers failed to take her claims seriously, although she was urged to find a safe house away from her family.
“I have seen cases from other countries and I think that police in the UK are doing more than [police] in other countries around the world, but I believe that there is still a lot to be done,” says Nammi.
“Research shows that many of them [police offi cers] don’t understand what honour violence is, so they need to be trained properly. However, it is still important for police totalk to organisations like ours because we know the mentality;we are from the same community. If a family from the community is going to do something to harm their child, we know what their next step will be and it is vital for police to understand this mentality in order to provide the best support for women,” she adds.
The government, too, is making attempts to provide increased support for women suffering from honour-based abuse, with current plans to criminalise forced marriages. It is an initiative which Karma Nirvana fully believes will help cut down the volume of honour violence.
Governmental support will certainly lend some gravitas to the fi ght for female equality in the communities where forced marriages and honour violence occur (although some organisations have expressed concerns about women being taken abroad to wed if forced marriages become criminalised). However, it is the perpetrators themselves who must be targeted, and forced to adapt to the laws that are already in place to protect women.
It is illegal to beat someone, illegal to rape and kill them, yet the idea of doing so for ‘honour’ is still very much alive. As Nammi sadly reflects; “In these communities, honour is so important – more important than the life of a woman.”
Noreen* is a survivor of honour-based violence. She managed to escape a forced marriage, with the help of UK-based charity Karma Nirvana.
“I was a victim of both honour based violence and a forced marriage at the age of 15, which lead to me fleeing my home. My teenage years were full of confl ict and characterised by tensions created by my wish to be fully integrated in British life, in contrast to the wishes of my parents for me to be allied more closely to their Pakistani-Muslim cultural norms and traditions.
I felt increasingly isolated and an outcast. I was often belittled for wearing ‘Western’ clothes, having white friends and wanting the freedom to socialise outside of the house.
As a result of the intense pressure I found myself under, my work at school suffered badly although, in any case, my parents would not allow me to apply to go to college. As a result, I found a job at a bakery which I enjoyed doing but within a matter of weeks my mother informed me that they had found me a man to marry, as they felt that I was ‘going off the rails’ and was capable of bringing dishonour to the family. To them, this was the worst thing that could happen.
I was hurt and confused; I had no life outside of work and home and couldn’t understand why they wanted to force this on me. Against my wishes, the marriage was arranged, rings were exchanged and the date was set. I was forced to hand in my notice at work and my parents argued with me constantly about my refusal to marry.
Seeing Jasvinder (Sanghera, founder of Karma Nirvana) in the news and coming across her book, Shame, was the fi rst time I’d heard of the charity, and I contacted the helpline without any hesitation. For the first time in my life, I was speaking to someone who could understand my needs and most importantly, believed me. From then on, I was supported all the way to now, while I am rebuilding my life. Karma Nirvana helped to organise a police escort and a place in a refuge, as my family was looking for me when I left. I wrote them a note, telling them that I’d gone, but didn’t give any clue as to where I was going. To date I haven’t spoken with any of my family and I do miss them, but then I reflect on what they put me through.
Looking back, I often think of how much a lifeline Karma Nirvana have been to me, particularly when I ran away from home. After becoming aware of the organisation through my personal experience I now try to help them in return by telling my story.
Since then I have rebuilt my life and want to assist others to do the same. I currently work in retail and have my own network of friends. I passed the training at Karma Nirvana and now volunteer as a call handler on the helpline. I’m so glad that I get to do this as I feel immensely satisfi ed when I help someone in need; whether I’m lending a sympathetic ear because they’re severely depressed or assisting a victim to escape a forced marriage like I was in, I am proud to be a part of their work.”