Torn Between Cultures

The real devil behind the many incidents of honour crimes among the British Pakistani communities is a strong resistance to immersion in western culture and the spectre of ‘arranged marriage’

The cold-blooded murder of the 17-year-old, Warrington-based Shafilea Ahmed at the hands of her parents, has grabbed headlines in the media over the past nine years before the British justice system eventually brought her killers to court. Shafilea’s offence, it transpired, was that she had been immersed in the British culture, against the wishes of her highly conservative Muslim parents of Pakistani origin. More importantly, perhaps, she had resisted an arranged marriage in her ancestral homeland.

Shafilea’s murder has raised many a pertinent question, especially for the Pakistani communities based in the UK. Whereas the media hastened to term this particular case as another incident of ‘honour killing’, the investigating team as well as the state officials have both been cautious with their use of words. Following the completion of the murder trial, Detective Superintendent Geraint Jones said, ‘For me, it’s a simple case of murder. This is a case of domestic abuse’ Domestic abuse is, sadly, something which the police have to deal with too often. It transcends culture, class, race, and religion.’

In today’s Britain, the terms ‘honour crimes’ and ‘forced marriage’ are both conveniently attributed to the Pakistanis (Muslims, obviously). The media here sees the former as a consequence of the latter: when women are accused of bringing a ‘bad name’ to their family by ‘overriding’ the ‘decrees’ of their elders, especially regarding an arranged marriage within the baradari (or community), or when they have a liaison with a person of another culture or religion, they are simply killed off.

A recent BBC Panorama poll on the attitudes of the younger Asian generation (in the UK?) found that 75 per cent of the males and 63 per cent of the females surveyed were in agreement that a family must take care of its collective ‘honour’ (izzat in Urdu). Those aged between 16-24 years (73 per cent) were more likely to agree on this than the ones between 25-34 years of age (64 per cent). 18 per cent of those interviewed (both male and female) agreed that certain actions of a woman are a reasonable justification for corporal punishment.

These may just be hasty conclusions. If we look deeper into the cultural folds of the British Asian community, we find that the real issue is actually ‘forced marriages’, and it is not specific to Pakistanis alone; a majority of cases have been reported among Indians and Bangladeshis based in the UK. Unfortunately, though, Pakistanis top any such statistics or data collected by the British government and campaigners and charities working to deal with the menace.

Dr Aisha Gill, a Reader in Criminology at the University of Roehampton, who provided expert evidence for the prosecution in the case against Shafilea’s parents, spoke to TNS on the issue. She was of the view that the government should adopt a more proactive approach in preventing violence against women among South Asian communities.

She said that Shafilea’s murder could easily have been prevented were it not for a series of misjudgments on the part of the policy makers regarding the implementation of domestic violence laws and guidelines in dealing with potential youngsters and vulnerable adults. She also outlined ‘a catalogue of mistakes’ made by the state agencies in this connection.

Dr Gill said that no attention had been paid to why Shafilea would always talk about her suffering but never seek the help of police or social services. ‘Even though Shafilea was a teenager living in constant fear of her parents, no thought was ever given to finding a way to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators of domestic violence, despite a number of independent witnesses.’

According to the statistics provided by the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU), set up by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to give advice and support to potential victims, 1,468 such instances were reported in 2011. 78 per cent of these instances involved female victims and 22 per cent male victims. Moreover, 18.9 per cent of the victims were from London, 13.4 per cent from West Midlands, and 12.7 per cent from North West. 66 instances (4.5 per cent) involved those with disabilities. 56 per cent cases involved people of Pakistani origin, 7.8 per cent those from Bangladesh, 6.2 per cent from India and 1.5 per cent from Afghanistan.

This year, so far, the FMU claims to have provided advice/support in 594 individual cases. 14 per cent of these involved victims below age 15; 31 per cent involved victims aged 16-17; 35 per cent involved victims aged 18-21; 87 per cent were about female victims and 13 per cent males. 46 per cent of the cases were about individuals from Pakistan, 9.2 per cent from Bangladesh, 7.2 per cent India, 2.7 per cent Afghanistan, 1.5 per cent Turkey and the rest from African and Middle Eastern countries.

The 2010 statistics quote cases involving individuals from Pakistan (52 per cent), Bangladesh (10.3 per cent), India (8.6 per cent), Africa (5 per cent), Turkey (1.7 per cent), Iran (1.3 per cent), Iraq (1.2 per cent) and Afghanistan (1 per cent).

In today’s Britain, the terms ‘honour crimes’ and ‘forced marriage’ are both conveniently attributed to the Pakistanis (Muslims, obviously). The media here sees the former as a consequence of the latter: when women are accused of bringing a ‘bad name’ to their family by ‘overriding’ the ‘decrees’ of their elders,
No one better than Jasvinder Sanghera, a Sikh, knows how ill-fated are the women who dare to go against the wishes of their families in her community in the UK. A middle-aged lady who is married with three children, Sanghera says she was only 14 when her parents showed her the photo of the man they had chosen to be her husband. She remembered her four sisters who had all had bad marriages. So she rebelled and ran away.

Years later, she is still on the run ‘she hasn’t disclosed her whereabouts lest her folks will get hold of her.

According to the figures compiled by Karma Nirvana’ which are often at variance with those provided by the other charities’ in the first half of the current year, the charity has already received 3,900 calls, averaging 557 calls a month. 47 per cent of the callers were under the age of 21, and 12 per cent were males ‘who [had] resisted honour-based violence as well as a forced marriage’. 36 per cent were first-time callers, 36 per cent had rejected their family’s decisions for them, 23 per cent had said no to an arranged marriage, 20 per cent had said no because they were dating the person of their own choice.

38 per cent of these callers were British Pakistanis, 4 per cent were British Indians, 7 per cent British Bangladeshis and 4 per cent White British.

Sajida Mughal, who has been running a project called Mujboor (by JAN Trust) that deals exclusively with Pakistani women, says the figures of abuse compiled by the government and the charities are just the tip of the iceberg. ‘Many cases go unreported and so the real figures are expected to be a lot higher.’

She further says, ‘Generally, the victims do not want to incriminate their family members, as this would result in a complete breakup with them and their community. Besides, the victims are often [financially as well as emotionally] dependent on the perpetrators.’

Mughal claims that a majority of the victims are ‘young British Pakistani girls, with family origins in Mirpur, Azad Kashmir. ‘The perpetrators (i.e. the parents) use religion to endorse their actions. This is absolutely uncalled-for. Islam condemns forced marriage and provides the woman with the right to say no.’

By: Murtaza Ali Shah

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