On Saturday, Canada granted asylum to Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun. Detailed in a stream of tweets, the Saudi teenager had refused to board a flight from Bangkok to Kuwait, barricading herself into her hotel room to escape her abusive family. “My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things. My life is in danger,” she told journalists.
It is just the latest example of the fear and abuse many women experience in communities in which ‘honour-based violence’ is the norm. This is nothing short of a disgrace – and the fact that so many police and prosecutors take a ‘softly, softly approach’ shows us the level or cowardice and incompetence in dealing with this issue.
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Originating from tribal customs, primarily in the Middle East and southern Asia, honour crimes can occur in Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian and Jewish communities. But the victims are mainly girls and women living under Islamic law.
Male family members are required to spy on the female members, with the focus on virginity, chastity and the family’s reputation. If the women are seen as violating the ‘honour code’ by behaving in a way that is forbidden – for example, if she refuses an arranged marriage, is accused of adultery, liaises with a man from another religion, or becomes ‘Westernised’ – she can be punished for disgracing her family. In countries such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, that punishment could be rape or murder.
But honour crime is not restricted to Middle Eastern communities. While the UK may pride itself on being a liberal democracy with one of the finest criminal justice systems in the world, many so-called ‘honour crimes’ are being committed on British soil – and the UK is tragically failing the women and girls who are the victims.
Across the world, there are an estimated 5,000 honour killings every year, and in the UK, officials estimate that at least a dozen women are victims of honour killings annually, often within Asian and Middle Eastern families.
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In 2003 in London, for example, Heshu Yones was murdered by her father for “becoming too Westernised”. Heshu had run away with her Christian boyfriend but her father tracked her down and cut her throat. In Ireland last year, Thomas Ward was sentenced to 16 months in prison after he punched and kicked his niece as punishment for her escaping an arranged marriage. Ward screamed “prostitute” and “whore” as he carried out the attack.
Honour-based violence is the most extreme end of an ideology that says female sexuality should be totally controlled by men. In England and Wales, there were 137,000 women and girls affected by female genital mutilation (FGM) in 2015, and last year the UK’s Forced Marriage Unit provided support in well over 1,000 cases.
UK police forces recorded 11,744 honour-based crimes between 2010 and 2014, including forced marriage, FGM, sexual and physical assault, and murder. Between 2014 and 2017, the number of incidents reported to the police increased by 53%. And given that honour crimes are often unreported, these figures are likely to underestimate the true scale of abuse. Shockingly, in 2016/17 just 5% of incidents were referred by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service, the lowest in five years.
In 2015, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary had reported that while there are “pockets of good practice”, most police forces need to do more to improve the way they deal with honour-based violence. What on earth is going on here? How can police still be lacklustre in their approach to this so many years after Henshu’s death, and with the significant number of training courses available to them?
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The first murder in the EU that was recognised as honour-based violence was that of Fadime Sahindal in 2002. She was 26 when her father shot her in the head during a visit to her mother. Fadime, whose family moved to Sweden from a small village in Turkey, had fallen in love with a Swedish man named Patrik. Her father had discovered the relationship and was appalled that she had chosen for herself a man outside of her culture and religion. The case highlight how women from these cultures are treated like chattel; nothing more than goods to be owned and traded.
Fadime’s case helped Sweden recognise the dangers women face from communities that impose strict sanctions on them. Fadime was threatened endlessly by her father for four years. Then one day he saw her with Patrik in the street and attacked her, spitting in her face and shouting: “Bloody whore. I will beat you to pieces.” He murdered his daughter in cold blood. It is mainly because of Fadime that Sweden is the centre of an EU-supported cross-European project on honour crime.
In 2006, the Swedish Liberal politician Nyamko Sabuni popularised the campaign against honour crime when she published her book The Girls We Betray. As integration and equalities minister until 2010, Sabuni was responsible for producing the government’s first action plan for honour crime.
As well as denouncing what she deemed the “honour culture” of some immigrant groups, Sabuni proposed banning the veil for girls under the age of 15, compulsory medical examinations to check for FGM, outlawing arranged marriages and ending state funding of religious schools.
For this, Sabuni has been labelled ‘Islamophobic’ because she has said migrants should try to adapt to the cultural norms and laws of their adopted countries, and has suggested a ban on religious insignia in schools. “A lot of people misread their rights,” says Sabuni. “They think that freedom of religion means that they can do anything in the name of religion, or that human rights means that they can act however they want against others.”
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There can be no doubt that Sweden pays less heed to so-called ‘cultural sensitivity’ than the UK when it comes to dealing with the perpetrators of honour crime. In 2017, the Equalities Minister announced a 10-year national strategy to prevent and combat men’s violence against women, including honour-related violence, refusing to see it as a ‘cultural’ issue, but a criminal one.
When I write about religious and cultural oppression of Muslim women, including honour crime, I am routinely accused of inciting ‘Islamophobia’. I press ahead regardless, taking my lead from the numerous Muslim-born feminist campaigners that also rail against the niqab, FGM, and forced marriage. Meanwhile, many white liberals, including some politicians and criminal justice agents, shy away.
But change is slowly taking place, thanks to feminists and other human rights campaigners such as Iranian-exile Maryam Namazie, who tirelessly fights against the normalisation of sharia imposed on Muslim-born women in the UK.
However, the UK still lags behind, particularly in respect to female genital mutilation (FGM), which, even though it was made a criminal offence in 1985, to date, there has not been one conviction, despite an increase in reporting. The UK criminalised forced marriage in 2014, but only after a torturous debate as to whether or not to do so would ‘stigmatise’ the Muslim community.
Honour crime is committed in any community where women’s and girls’ lives are deemed worthless, and where laws fail to protect those vulnerable to male dominance and abuse. Any country or community that fails to afford dignity and equality to women should, in my view, be at the very least stigmatised. The word ‘honour’ has no place in any discussion about rape, murder and violence, and the perpetrators should bear the brunt of the shame and stigma, not the victims.