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Dying in the Name of Honor

Dying in the Name of Honor

By Ruby Ali-Strayton

SourceGallery Stock


Because families are killing “dishonorable” young women in Britain.

By Ruby Ali-Strayton

A teenager falls victim to murderous parents for not marrying the family’s preferred groom. Another young woman is raped and strangled by family members — because she dared to leave a violent husband. These aren’t tales from the developing world; they involve British women of immigrant descent, and they’re forcing the U.K. government to wake up to the reality of honor killings on its doorstep.

Of an estimated 5,000 victims who die annually worldwide, a shocking number take place in the West — suggesting that this is a cultural practice exported by those who uphold it.

If you are Asian and missing from education, the same questions are not asked as of their white counterparts in Britain.

In the U.K., at least 12 women are murdered in honor-based violence each year, and activists believe the true figure is much higher.

Karma Nirvana, a British nonprofit set up in 1993 by Jasvinder Sanghera (who escaped a forced marriage at age 15), supports victims of forced marriage and honor-related abuse. It has received more than 30,000 phone calls since 2008 — highlighted by a 21 percent rise in the last year alone, from 550 to nearly 700 calls a month.

The extent of the problem, however, is hard to quantify because authorities have not fully grasped the importance of collecting more data. Police and social workers have often been accused of turning a blind eye to possible abuse, fearing they’ll be labeled racist. 

portrait of woman looking to the side.

Diana Nammi, Director of IKWRO

Source Corbis

IKWRO (Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organization), set up by Diana Nammi in 2002, is one of the biggest non-profit organizations in England helping victims of honor-based violence. Its 2013 research showed that one in five U.K. police departments didn’t collect statistics for honor-based violence — despite the fact that IKWRO’s 2011 figures showed nearly 2,800 incidents in London, the Midlands and Manchester.

A study in 2011 found that in the 12 police districts able to provide data from 2009, there was a 47 percent rise in honor-based violence.

Activists also point out that hundreds of Asian girls disappear from school rosters, many being forced into marriages or suffering family abuse, or both.

The prevailing attitude … is that women belong to the husband or the father or the brother, so they can decide about her life or her death.

“If you are Asian and missing from education, the same questions are not asked as of their white counterparts in Britain… . We know there are hundreds going missing off our school rolls,” Sanghera says. 

Part of the problem, she notes, is understanding the breadth of the violence.

“Everything has become part of honor and controlling women,” Nammi explains. “The prevailing attitude among some in ethnic communities is that women belong to the husband or the father or the brother, so they can decide about her life or her death.”

And so it was for Shafilea Ahmed, murdered in 2003. After suffering years of honor-based violence, including a forced marriage attempt in which she was drugged and flown to Pakistan, her parents suffocated her in front of her siblings. It took almost nine years for them to be found guilty of murder.

Group of women crying. Older woman holding a young girls hand while she wipes her nose.

Family of Shafilea Ahmed leave home for Shafilea’s funeral, England, 2004.

Banaz Mahmod, 20, was raped and strangled at home in 2006, her body shoved into a suitcase and driven miles from her native London and buried in a Birmingham garden. Her crime? Divorcing a violent husband and falling in love with another man. Her father and uncle were jailed for life for one of the U.K.’s most-notorious honor killings.

Last year, Manchester-based mother-of-three Rania Alayed went missing. Her body was never found, but her husband was imprisoned last month for 20 years for her murder.

Not surprisingly, the rise in Islamist extremism across Europe hasn’t helped.

“With the rise of extremism, women have become more vulnerable, and honor killings have increased because of that,” Nammi says.

To counter the trend, media efforts are raising awareness, such as the documentary detailing Mahmod’s ordeal, Banaz: A Love Story, and a broader public spotlight is encouraging women to seek help.

Britain is taking stock of the rising tide of honor-based violence in its minority communities, and it’s starting to take prisoners.

British authorities are slowly recognizing and responding to the honor-based violence in their midst. Between 2000 and 2005, out of an estimated 60 honor-related murders in the U.K., officials only prosecuted a few cases, largely due to ignorance about the crimes. 

But officials are increasingly prosecuting and extraditing family members who kill on British soil. Mahmod’s cousins, for example, were extradited from Iraq and jailed in 2010 for helping dispose of her body. 

While new legislation isn’t needed to tackle such crimes, knowledge and understanding are. To that end, the government has launched initiatives to expand awareness of and legislative power against the practice of forced marriage, which often leads to domestic abuse, divorce, abandonment and murder. 

The Forced Marriage Unit, set up in 2005, supported more than 1,300 people last year, with services ranging from safety and legal advice to rescues in extreme cases. And in the most significant development, the government signed the Forced Marriage Act into law last month, making it a criminal offense to coerce people into marriage, punishable by up to seven years in prison.

More remains to be done, but Britain is taking stock of the rising tide of honor-based violence in its communities, and it’s starting to take prisoners.

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