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Where is the ‘honour’ in this killing?

by
10 August 2012

Change must come from inside minority communities, argues Paul Vallely

The conventional view of "honour killing", underscored by the murder of Shafilea Ahmed - a Warrington schoolgirl who had become "too Westernised", and refused to participate in a forced marriage in Pakistan - is that it is about two clashing cultures. And ours, dominated by post-Enlightenment notions of individual freedom and human rights, is correct; while theirs draws on a long-outmoded primitive tribalism that is self-evidently wrong. The only reason why the police have not stamped down more ruthlessly is a fear of cultural insensitivity.

There are certainly two poles of thought here, and we are torn between them. On the one hand, there has been, since the 1960s, a resistance to what was then called cultural imperialism. It overturned the old assumption that assimilation was the best policy. It saw value in diversity, and was wary of racist assumptions about the superiority of one culture over another. The danger of such multiculturalism was clear in the lack of consistent liaison between school, social services, housing, and police over the years when Shafilea was a victim of violence at the hands of her parents.

The other pole is that there are, despite our public authorities' political correctness, absolute values, which even in our relativist world have to be upheld: not being allowed to kill your children is one of them.

Part of the problem is that the reality on the ground is less clear-cut. Arranged marriages are fine, politicians proclaim, but forced marriages - from which many honour killings spring - are not. But the grey areas of family relationships, filial respect and obedience, and emotional and psychological blackmail by parents mean that there is no clean line between arranged and forced. The Government has sent an important signal by creating Forced Marriage Protection Orders in 2008, but they are very blunt instruments for a very subtle problem.

Change must come from within ethnic minorities rather than without. As many as one in ten young British Asians (aged between 16 and 34) believes that honour killings are considered less serious than other murders, according to a poll done by the BBC's Asian Network in 2006. Ten per cent of those questioned said that they would condone the murder of someone who disrespected their family's honour.

What constitutes dishonour varies a great deal. It may be refusing an arranged marriage, or it may just be wearing jeans. A girl was stabbed to death by her Kurdish father in London in 2002 when her family heard a love song dedicated to her, and suspected that she had a boyfriend. What might repay further study is the nature of the "honour" involved. It seems to be more than a regulation of sexual behaviour, and goes further than reproductive or dynastic control. It harks back to some pre-religious tribal sense of sexual purity, which is why blame sometimes attaches even to women who have been raped, so that their blood must be shed to restore social equilibrium.

We once supposed that all this would die out with time. Yet, alarmingly, the practice of honour killings is growing, the United Nations suggests; and it is even growing among the educated classes. In Pakistan, a lawyer shot his sister dead in court last week for marrying against her family's wishes. A study in Turkey has reported that 60 per cent of honour killers are either high-school or university graduates. In the UK, police reported 2823 honour attacks nationwide in 2010, up 50 per cent on 2009.

This is because, some sociologists suggest, the defence of honour is a tactic used by immigration families to cope with the alienating consequences of being caught between two cultures. If so, the problem could get still worse, as more third-generation children of immigrants come of age.

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