The price of honour

April 06, 2013

Riahana was smuggled into the UK when she was only 19. After a rudimentary education in Kurdish Iran, she found herself in the Midlands married to a man who abused her, and forced her to abort her baby. At 24— pale with luminous dark eyes—she was clearly terrified. “I can’t trust anybody, I am too afraid. At night I dream about my baby, I think he has come to say goodbye to me. One day I may kill myself, I have already tried.” She spread her hand on the table helplessly, “Really, I am lost.”

Riahanna was a victim of honour violence, a practice which has led campaigners to criticise government policy which they believe has appeased traditional ‘community leaders’ who don’t go far enough in condemning such attacks. One well known case was that of Kurdish teenager Tulay Goren, who’s father was sentenced to 22 years in prison for her murder in 2009. “Tulay’s father was treated like a hero in his community for ten years,” said Diana Nammi, who runs the Iranian and Kurdish Rights Organisation, IKWO, that helped Riahana escape from her husband. “You can see how the community feels about women killed in honour crimes – they usually do not get a gravestone.”

A growing debate about honour violence, homophobia and racism has led to calls for a profound rethink about whether Britain faces a dichotomy of values about how to forge a ‘mature multi-culturalism’ in which cultural sensitivities do not excuse moral blindness.

Last year in the UK, the 234 cases taken to court, and the 3,000 reported cases, may have been only the tip of the iceberg, according to experts. Though honour crimes often involve murder, rape and assault, Commander Steve Allen, who led the 2009 ACPO report into Honour Violence, said that a separate designation was important. “Honour-based crimes always involve a family conspiracy. There is usually a grave threat to other siblings in the family, and there is often an international element.” Allen confirmed that there were gangs of ‘bounty hunters’ operating in the UK who contracted to find and capture women who might have escaped from abusive situations. (Commander Mak Chisty of the Metropolitan Police took over from Commander Allen, and now heads the ACPO team in this area).

Riahana feared that one day her family would find her, and kill her—and she sought sanctuary with Diana Nammi and her colleagues at IKWO. Nammi began her campaign when her own interpreter was murdered in an honour killing shortly after she arrived in the UK. “A woman’s life must not be sacrificed for culture. That part of the culture is criminal, it needs to be changed. We have to give the community the confidence to come forward and talk. We are not living in a country where there is no law to support women. We are in a country where, by law, women are equal. This type of discrimination between immigrants and British citizens, and even between British citizens of a different background, must be abolished.”

Nammi said that despite an increased commitment by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service towards tackling the issue, the government policies of the early 2000s entrenched backward-thinking beliefs, with dangerous, and sometimes fatal, consequences. In particular, faith-based initiatives: “There are people who bring very backward ideas, and cling to them.”

In the wake of counter-terror activities following 9/11 and the July 7th London bombings in 2005, spending on ‘faith leaders’ rose dramatically, but for women that was a double-edged sword.

“There are interesting links between the counter terror agenda and forced marriage and honour violence,” Steve Allen said. “When you head in the direction of radicalisation you also head in the direction of traditional views of men and women, and honour and shame. We thought this issue was associated with first generation immigrants and would disappear, but it is becoming more acute rather than less, and in my view it is a growing problem.”

Hannah Stuart, who worked on a 2008 study on honour based violence for the Centre for Social Cohesion, agreed that research illustrates a profound contradiction at the heart of faith based leadership in attitudes towards human rights: “After 9/11 the government wanted to show that it is was listening, so it went to faith groups, or community forums with no legitimacy,” Stuart said. “If politicians were pandering to the white working class BNP voters in the same way we would be rightly disgusted. In this country we have one law and equal rights for everyone.”

The call for “one law for all’ led Maryam Namazie to begin a campaign four years ago against the rise of sharia law in the UK, and faith schooling. “Sharia councils, and Islamic and faith schools, go hand in hand with the political Islamic movement and we will see an increase in repression, violence and intimidation which women will bear the brunt of.” She stated that women are often pressurised into resorting to the sharia tribunal system, which allows them no automatic right to divorce, and grants custody to the father of children over a certain age. Sharia courts were established in the UK in 2008 through a clause in the 1996 Arbitration Act, and have the power to issue enforceable rulings through the county courts or High Court.

Southall Black Sisters in West London began in the 1970s as a secular organisation set up to help women from all religious and ethnic minorities escape abusive situations and has been at the forefront of landmark domestic abuse and honour violence cases. On this issue SBS co-ordinator Hanana Siddiqui said, “Traditional community leaders, and sharia councils, all seek to keep women in the home and divert them from the criminal justice system.”

In August 2012 the judge sentencing the parents of Shafilea Ahmed for her horrific murder told them: “Although you lived in Warrington, your social and cultural attitudes were those of rural Pakistan and it was those you imposed on your children.”Writing about the case in Pakistan’s DAWN newspaper, Irfan Husain compared Britain and Pakistan and commented:

“Unfortunately, these attitudes are not just rural. Time after time, supposedly educated Pakistani parents living in cities have reacted in exactly the same way the Ahmeds did. Just because a daughter refuses to marry whoever they have picked for her, she is bullied, brutalised and often killed. Just the other day, a man shot his own sister dead in a Hyderabad court because she dared make her own choice about who she married.

Mercifully, forced marriage is now a crime in the UK. But domestic abuse and violence continue as migrant communities insist on trying to impose backward social customs on children born and brought up in Britain. They forget that unlike the countries they migrated from, children have rights here.”

In Southall two young mothers, Noor and Tamana, coo over their babies. “Love” says Noor, pointing to the word spelled out on one of the baby’s romper suits. “She is the love of my life,” Tamana replies proudly. “She is your princess,” Noor tells her.

Both women fled abusive marriages, and risked their own lives to protect the safety of their daughters, who are now lying in their cots – each only two months old.

Noor, 19, was brought into the country from India as little more than a domestic servant. She says she was raped and beaten by her husband, and abused by other members of his family who did not want her to give birth. “My sister in law told me to lie down and sleep, but when I woke up the bedroom was on fire.” Noor’s daughter is the result of her second pregnancy. Her first baby miscarried after she was pushed down the stairs, and Noor says her mother-in-law then forced her to flush the foetus down the toilet. Neither woman can return to their families, or countries or origin, and for the moment they are living in hiding.

“A divorced woman in Pakistan is like an open treasure,” Tamana says, “She is like an open safe, everyone can dip into her. If I am sent back I will not survive.” Both tell of repeated encounters with police and social workers, “They did not know what to do with me,” Tamana explained. “The police wanted to put me in a taxi and send me hundreds of miles away to another distant relative of my husband. Then a social worker said I should give my baby to my husband, who beat me, and go back to Pakistan,”

Noor, who speaks little English, appears tearful and bewildered by her experiences with the British authorities: “Why can’t the world open its eyes. Sometimes I think women were created just to exist in the realms of pain.”

Campaigners believe ongoing cases of honour based violence in all religions are linked to an unwillingness to tackle intolerance in other areas. To speak out is to be risk being called Islamophobic, or racist.

At it’s heart however, the question remains—can Britain encourage human rights, tolerance and equality for some, while also supporting those that would deny those rights to others?

For young women like Riahana, hiding from her abusive husband and from her family in Iran, how that debate is resolved may determine her future – and her life. Searching back through her memories, Riahana’s eyes widened when she suddenly recalled one brief moment of expectation. Her father had just told her she was to be married to a man she had never met, and that she would probably never return to her country, but “when I found out that I was being sent to the UK, I did have a small hope,” she said: “I hoped that I might be free.”

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