Shafilea Ahmed’s parents are on trial for her murder, highlighting a vicious trend of hidden violence, writes Karen Kissane in London.
Her dreams were so ordinary: to be able to wear jeans and T-shirts, to go out with a nice boy, maybe to go to university and do law. But such dreams, for girls like Shafilea Ahmed, can be deadly.
Shafilea (pronounced Shafeela) was pretty and bright and full of spirit but she died at 17, in 2003. She had gone missing from her home in Cheshire, but her Pakistani-born parents did not report her absence to police. Her younger sister Alesha says it was they who killed her – in front of their other children – to save the family honour.
A taxi driver, Iftikhar Ahmed, 52, and his wife, Farzana, 49, are now on trial for their daughter’s murder. They have pleaded not guilty and the jury is still hearing the evidence.
But the case has turned the spotlight on so-called “honour” crimes in some of Britain’s migrant communities. About a dozen women a year die in acts of revenge over breaches of “honour” that might include refusing to wear traditional clothes or accept an arranged marriage, or choosing a man of whom the family disapproves.
UK police recorded more than 2800 honour attacks in 2010, a figure that is understated because only 39 of the country’s 52 police forces revealed their numbers. Among the 12 forces able to provide comparison figures from 2009, there was an overall rise of 47 per cent in such incidents. Five hundred of the attacks were in London.
The figures were released last December by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation following a freedom-of-information request. Due to under-reporting by women, “the reality is far darker” than the numbers suggest, says its director, Diana Nammi.
She says the victims are mainly of Asian or Middle Eastern backgrounds but also include Eastern Europeans. They die, or are abused, because “it’s easier to sacrifice a son or a daughter than it is to sacrifice a society or your extended family, who you are trying to please all the time”, one young woman in a refuge recently told the BBC.
The suicide rate among south Asian women in Britain is three times the national average, thought to be the result of women taking what they see as the only way out of an intolerable situation – or being forced to kill themselves.
For Shafilea, her sister claims, death was preceded by months of abuse, including at times starvation, beatings, and threats with a knife. Alesha told the court her parents had drugged Shafilea to make her compliant about getting on a plane back to Pakistan in 2003. When there, Alesha said, “My mum told Shafilea she would be staying in Pakistan and wouldn’t be going back.”
She drank bleach so that she would not be forced into an arranged marriage, Alesha said. Shafilea was flown back to Britain for treatment and spent three months in hospital. Her parents told her to say she had drunk the bleach because she mistook it for mouthwash in the dark, but she reportedly told another patient that she had taken it to avoid marriage.
A former patient, Foisa Aslam, told the court Shafilea had said her parents had accepted a formal offer for her but “she didn’t even love the guy … she wanted to get out of there but they had taken her passport from her”.
Nammi says Britain needs a detailed strategy to deal with honour-based violence. It is more usual for domestic violence to involve only a husband or father, but honour-based violence can have wider groups of perpetrators. “Sometimes it’s not only the very close family – father, mother, brother – but members of the extended family or the wider community can be involved. Sometimes a contract killer or a bounty hunter is hired. Some families will pay other people to track them down and find where they are living, and some will pay to have them killed. That’s happened in England a few times.”
She says it will take time to help traditional elements in some communities change their thinking, and meanwhile, the government needs to establish special refuges for women fleeing honour revenge attacks. “It’s not just about domestic violence, it’s about the risk of being killed,” she says. “Refuges are crucial but in the UK many refuges have closed” because of funding cuts.
She warns that some welfare organisations make a mistake in trying to mediate between the threatened girls or women and their angry families. But some women who are forced into reconciliation find themselves taken back to their country of origin, she says.
“There are cases of girls under 14 whose families say, ‘We won’t force her into marriage’, and they sign a piece of paper saying that and then the next day the girl disappears. I always advise social services not to negotiate with the family.”
The prosecutor, Andrew Edis, QC, told the Chester Crown Court that this case had taken a long time to come to trial because Alesha, now 23, did not tell her story to police until 2010, when she snapped after being arrested for taking part in a robbery at her parents’ home.
He said the jury must decide whether she was finally freeing herself of a dreadful family secret that had haunted her since she was 15, as she claimed – she told the court she had feared suffering Shafilea’s alleged fate if she spoke out – or making up “a wicked lie”.
But he questioned why she would make up such a story. Alesha claimed Shafilea died after a row that began over the fact she had worn a T-shirt to work. Her parents suffocated her by stuffing a carrier bag into her mouth and holding their hands over her nose and mouth so that she couldn’t breathe, Alesha said. She claimed she later saw her mother with black bin bags and wide brown tape and saw her father carrying a plastic-wrapped burden out to the car.
More than four months later, Shafilea’s badly decomposed remains were discovered near a river in Cumbria.
Alesha told the court her loyalty to her parents began to unravel when she went to university and found herself wanting the same freedoms her sister wanted – but being told the same things by her parents, who wanted her to go back to Pakistan and find a husband.
“That is when I saw that it is not normal and that what happened to my sister was wrong. When it’s your own parents, you don’t see things like that because you love them.”First published in The Sydney Morning Herald.