Some are strangled, some are suffocated, and some are taken abroad and killed.
On July 14th we remember Britain’s lost women #DayOfMemory. Those who have died in so-called honour killings. This Day of Memory is held on the birthday of Shafilea Ahmed, a young British-Pakistani girl, who was murdered by her parents when she was 17 years old, for being too ‘westernised’ and for refusing an arranged marriage. Shafilea was suffocated with a plastic bag in 2003 in Warrington, Cheshire, while her younger brother and sisters were made to watch.
In 2014, the charity Karma Nirvana, Cosmopolitan magazine, change.org and the advertising agency Leo Burnett, jointly campaigned for a National Day of Memory for victims of Honour Based Abuse (HBA). It’s known that about 12 honour killings take place every year in Britain, although the real number may be far higher, as many women are taken abroad, where they’re forcibly married off or murdered. On a global scale, it’s estimated 5,000 honour killings occur every year; the victims are predominantly women, although men can also be killed in the name of family honour. Forced marriage, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and virginity testing also come under honour-based abuse.
‘Honour Killings in the UK’, a report by the Henry Jackson Society notes that “HBV is not associated with a particular religion or religious practice, and has been recorded across Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities. However, in the UK, the communities deemed by women’s rights activists to be most at risk are those with links to South Asia;”
Additionally, statistics reveal that young women, under the age of 24 of South Asian origin, are 2 to 3 times more likely to take their own lives than their Caucasian peers.
In its response to the ‘Call for Evidence on Honour Based Abuse’ by the Women and Equalities Committee, Karma Nirvana identified this interpretation of ‘honour’ “as something starting, ideologically, at birth, and lasting the entirety of a woman’s life.” Women live under a culture of surveillance and can be ‘punished’ for any number of perceived transgressions, such as wearing unapproved clothing or make-up, resisting an arranged marriage, being suspected of not being virgins, seeking divorce, being LGBTQ+, reporting domestic violence and more.
Those who inflict HBA, show no remorse and are proud of themselves for having protected family honour. In the Oscar winning documentary A Girl in the River – The Price of Forgiveness, the father who attacked and attempted to kill one of his daughters, talks of how his status has risen in the community, and that his other daughters have received marriage offers – they are now deemed to have ‘fear in their minds.’
“A girl is like a tissue,” girls are taught in some communities, meaning men will want to use you and then throw you away. Such injunctions are part of a girl’s training from childhood onwards, instilling ideas of modesty, morality and immorality, behaviour and responsibility; imparting the cruel truth that men can do whatever they want, but women must always be pure, guarded, obedient, and not bring shame on their families. Ideas foregrounding the trade in virginity testing and hymenoplasty.
Virginity tests are often demanded by future mothers-in-law, mainly from conservative Muslim communities, particularly where the ‘white sheet’ practice still exists (a new bride must place a white sheet on her bed to prove she bled on her wedding night). Linked to child marriage and forced marriage, humiliating, controlling and invasive, with dangerous consequences for those women who refuse a virginity test, the government has made it an offence. “It is illegal to carry out, offer or aid and abet virginity testing or hymenoplasty in any part of the UK. These offences carry extra territorial jurisdiction and carry a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.”
Nevertheless, virginity tests and hymenoplasty (the temporary reconstruction of the hymen), can still be accessed, for those determined to do so, as exposed in the documentary by Sahara Zand, Britain’s Virginity Clinics Uncovered.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), sometimes known as ‘female circumcision’ or ‘female genital cutting’ is also illegal in the UK. It is an offence to perform FGM or take a child abroad for FGM. Often performed by traditional circumcisers or cutters who don’t have any medical training, FGM can happen without a girl’s consent, girls may have to be physically restrained during the cutting and often suffer long term consequences such as constant pain, infections, and even death. FGM is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of women and girls, and is predominantly practiced in communities from sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab states. Despite being illegal in the UK very few police investigations have occurred into incidents of FGM, probably because victims or witnesses are reluctant to report it – and thereby bring ‘shame’ upon the family.
Honour killings: two of the lives violently taken….
Somaiya Begum. A life brutally cut short. On 15th March 2023, Somaiya’s murderer, her uncle, Mohammed Taroos Khan was convicted and sentenced to a minimum term of 25 years.
Somaiya had been brought up in a strictly traditional way, but when her father, with threats of violence, tried to marry her to a cousin from Pakistan, brave Somaiya, who was only 16 at the time, sought help from the authorities and a Forced Marriage Protection Order was imposed. Somaiya moved out of her father’s home and went to live with her elderly grandmother and an uncle. Finishing school, she started studying for a degree in biomedical sciences at Leeds Beckett University, worked part-time as a carer to support herself, and was diligently and contently getting on with her life.
Mohammed Taroos Khan, one of her father’s brothers, already had a conviction for punching his own daughter and holding a knife to her throat in an argument about her lifestyle. A restraining order had also been imposed on him to prevent him contacting his mother – the grandmother Somaiya was living with.
In contravention of the restraining order Mohammed Taroos Khan went to his mother’s house. During that visit, in the living room, Somaiya was fatally stabbed in the back, and her body removed by Khan, who then went to extreme lengths to hide his crime. During his trial, Mr Justice Garnham told him: “You showed absolutely no respect for the dead body of your niece in the way you dumped it unceremoniously, wrapped in carpet and covered in scrap material, amongst rubbish on waste ground. You left it there to rot in the summer heat.” Eleven days passed before Somaiya’s decomposed body was discovered.
Justice Graham also said to Khan, “Inevitably the loss of this bright, vibrant young woman is felt acutely by other members of her family.”
Described in court as “an intelligent young woman of real spirit and courage,” Somaiya had a right to live her life to its fullest and happiest extent.
It could be said, Jessica Patel lost her life not to honour abuse, but to marrying the wrong man: a man who was controlling and violent. Perhaps more pertinently, secretly gay. Same-sex relationships are still considered to be shameful and taboo in many South Asian communities. Often propelling gay people to enter marriages of convenience, as a way of appeasing parents and presenting a socially acceptable façade. The victims in such marriages are the unsuspecting spouses, who imagine they’re embarking on a ‘normal’ marriage with a heterosexual partner. The tragic murder of Anni Dewani, who was killed on her honeymoon in South Africa, raised questions about her husband, Shrien Diwani’s involvement; it was widely suspected he’d hidden his true sexuality and lured Annie into a sham marriage, and then organised a hit on her. When brought to trial, Shrien Dewani revealed he was bisexual. Anni’s uncle has said if the family had known the truth about Dewani’s sexuality, they would never have allowed Sweden-born Anni to marry him or travel to South Africa with him. Reports of Dewani appearing to have a new boyfriend have been circulating.
Mitesh Patel was convicted of Jessica’s murder. Both Jessica and Mitesh were pharmacists, running their own business. Mitesh, 37, first subdued Jessica with an insulin injection and then strangled her with a plastic bag. He’d spent 5 years planning her murder so he could use her frozen embryos to have a family with his lover in Sydney. Prosecutors said Patel’s motivation had always been to escape his strict Hindu upbringing and flee to Australia to be with his lover and start a new family. He also stood to inherit a £2m life insurance policy.
During the course of the trial, Patel admitted: “I should have been honest with myself and I should not have married Jess. I cannot explain how I felt. It was the fear of being exposed as an Asian gay man…”
Divya, Jessica’s younger sister, condemned Patel’s actions as “evil, cruel and malicious”.
To counter the stigma against same sex marriages, Jasvir Singh, a family law barrister and the main Sikh contributor to Radio 4’s Thought For The Day, went public with his marriage to his partner Nick, male, English and non-Sikh.
Says Jasvir, “Just as my Sikhism is part of me, so is my sexuality. So is my turban. So is my identity. I can’t divorce any one thing from the rest of me. That is who I am.”……… “Sadly I have seen some Sikhs who have come out to their family members who have been kicked out of their homes, who have been beaten, who have been called paedophiles, and have had so much thrown at them.”
The core truth of so-called honour killings is the idea that a woman’s life is worthless if she dares to challenge a powerfully held idea, no matter how wrong or false, the idea of male unaccountability. True honour lies in acknowledging the equal rights of women to be stewards of their own destiny and full participants in society. Neither does honour reside in persecuting anyone whose sexual orientation may differ from the majority.