Thursday, 2 August 2012

Honouring Shafilea Ahmed.

“Feelings of sympathy and revulsion” should be set aside, the jury have been told, as they retire to consider their verdicts in the trial of Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed. The couple, of Pakistani origin, stand accused of murdering their 17 year old daughter, Shafilea, at the family home in Warrington in September 2003, in a row over her desire for a western lifestyle.

During the three month trial, the court heard details of how the teenager drank bleach on a family holiday to Pakistan, fearing she would be forced into an arranged marriage and denied a return to the UK. Having also listened to the testimony of  the couple’s younger daughter Alesha, who claims to have witnessed her parents forcing a plastic bag into Shafilea’s mouth to suffocate her, setting aside sympathy and revulsion may yet be the hardest task the jury have faced.

Honour killings are hidden crimes by nature, statistics are therefore challenging to collate and likely to depict a picture that falls short of the true scale. However, in March of this year the issue was the subject of a Panorama investigation by the BBC, revealing that a national helpline for “honour” related domestic violence receives 500 calls per month. In addition, the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, in a survey of UK police forces, found the number of honour crimes to be 2,823 per year, which is almost eight a day.

Before being taken to Pakistan on a one way ticket, Shafilea Ahmed approached Warrington Borough Council for emergency housing. Her application suggests her father Iftikhar was all too adept at setting “feelings of sympathy” aside, going beyond a simple cry for help into a catalogue of alleged abuse. She mentioned her not-unfounded fears of an arranged marriage, “regular incidents of violence” from the age of 15, and having been prevented from attending college and her part time job. Depicting a build up of violent treatment at the hands of her parents, the 17 year old had clearly felt that the involvement of the police and social services would be enough to secure her safety. Instead, she disappeared in September 2003, her body discovered on the banks of the River Kent in Cumbria in February of 2004.   

Did authorities with the power to intervene suffer inertia to avoid a charge of racial intolerance? Did they lack the legal teeth to react as robustly as the situation demanded? When lives are taken within our borders through a sense of honour that does not belong, our collective honour rests on these questions being asked and answered. In order for the judicial system to be beyond reproach, society’s representatives in the jury must indeed endeavour to transcend sympathy and revulsion, as Mr Justice Roderick Evans indicates. If however, as a wider community, we ever cease to be so stirred then we will have failed Shafilea Ahmed for a second time.

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