Shafilea Ahmed: it is not politically correct to continue ignoring the plight of ethnic minority women
“We must not allow political correctness to lead us to moral blindness” – Mike O’Brien, former Labour MP.
On Friday, Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed were found guilty of brutally murdering their 17-year-old daughter Shafilea Ahmed, whose dismembered body was found in Cumbria eight years ago.
Sentencing them to life imprisonment at Chester Crown Court on Friday, Mr Justice Roderick Evans told Ifitkhar and Farzana Ahmed: “Your concern about being shamed in your community was greater than the love of your child… You chose to bring up your family in Warrington but although you lived in Warrington your social and cultural attitudes were those of rural Pakistan and it was those which you imposed upon your children.”
Mrs Ahmed told the jury that she was very traditional: “In our culture, a wife doesn’t question her husband.”
It may be astonishing to some that such beliefs are still strong today, but to those in the Asian communities these views are all too familiar; they are the norm.
Shafilea Ahmed’s murder is labelled as an ‘honour crime’ – two words that should not go together, for there truly is no honour in murder.
Hannah Irfan’s article, ‘Honour related violence against women in Pakistan’, defines and contextualises this notion of ‘honour’ perfectly:
Crimes committed allegedly for honour are so defined because they occur in a social setting where the “ideal of masculinity is underpinned by a notion of ‘honour’ – of an individual man, or family, or community – and is fundamentally connected to policing female behaviour and sexuality.” Honour of the male members of the family is understood to reside in the bodies of the women of the family, and in protecting this honour the men aim to regulate and direct women’s sexuality and freedom to exercise any control over their own choices/lives.
Although many like to believe that ‘honour’ killings are practiced mainly in Muslim communities, such crimes occur in various states and regions around the world, including Latin America and Africa, as well as amongst the Hindu population in India and the Christian population in Pakistan.
We like to think that these horrific crimes happen in far-away lands where there is little respect for the rule of law. But what about when such crimes happen here, in a so-called ‘democratic’ nation?
Too often, authorities take no action for fear of ‘offending’ minority communities. As Sara Khan, of Inspire, wrote in the Guardian, “as a British woman of Pakistani origin, I find the argument of ‘not wanting to offend cultural sensitivities’ offensive in itself”.
It is outrageous that the parents’ feelings and sensitivities are placed above that of the victims’. When white children are thought to be abused by their parents, social services are quick to step in. When Shafilea Ahmed complained to a teacher that she was to be married off, no action was taken. In a desperate cry for help, she even drank bleach in Pakistan, for which she needed several treatments back in England, to no avail.
If these were white, English girls, would so-called cultural sensitivities or political correctness factor into the equation? I doubt it.
In a country which prides itself on its liberal values and rule of law, there should be absolutely no place for ‘honour’ killings, forced marriages or female genital mutilation.
We do not discuss these issues out in the open, for fear of being labelled as ‘racist’ – that there are groups within our towns and cities that refuse to integrate into their new country, creating ghettos and enclaves for themselves and their children, away from corrupting ‘westernisation’. Ironically, the same people move to Western countries in order to create better lives for their children, who would not have had the same opportunities in their own countries.
Dishonour can be brought about in a number of ways: from ‘serious’ actions such as having pre-marital relations, to small misdemeanors such as smoking. It is usually the women who get into trouble for doing so.
The men are permitted to do as they wish (they are never accused of being ‘westernised’), either openly or on the basis of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, whereas the women are constantly monitored and given strict curfews, because their actions affect the entire honour of the family.
Take Ifitikhar Ahmed, Shafilea’s father. After the trial, Ahmed’s ex-wife, Vivi Lone Andersen, said Iftikhar was “a very happy boy” who enjoyed dancing, drinking beer and going to discos when he lived with her in Denmark.
Ms Andersen left the UK the same month she had arrived and recalls conversations with Iftikhar in which he said he could leave his son to grow up without his influence because he was a boy. He said, if they had had a girl, he would not be able to allow her to grow up “without his guidance in the Islamic ways”.
Again, men are able to enjoy the benefits of living in the liberal West, but heaven forbid if their women were to enjoy those same benefits. Such a thought, to them, is repulsive, downright ‘disrespectful’.
This view might be repulsive and shocking to those reading it – we are living in the 21st century, are we not? – but for many South Asian communities, it is the norm. Men can do whatever they wish without the burden of bringing ‘shame’ on the family, whereas it is the exact opposite for women. And some women have, grudgingly, come to accept it.
We are quick to condemn the atrocities of other nations with appalling human rights records such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, countries where women are treated as second class citizens, yet when the same happens in this country, we are greeted with silence. Here, we are told, we must be ‘culturally sensitive’.
These girls are British-born and bred, yet subject to different rules and values. Their parents, one or both of whom will have been raised in another country, tell them otherwise: you may be British by birth but our values, culture and history lie elsewhere.
So what happens now? The nation will remain outraged for a few days, weeks at the most, and then the matter will cease to be important. There will be many more Shafilea’s, many more girls and women who feel trapped with no one to turn to in tough times, because no one really cares enough to actually do anything.
Exactly how many more girls and young women must suffer before we do anything? They say that charity begins at home; so must democracy, human rights and self-empowerment.
Countless women have been left marginalised by their society and political representatives; this must change. Public bodies and organisations must be set up, working at the heart of certain communities to ensure this never happens again. The year is 2012 – we should not, still, be having this conversation.