It has taken the police nine years to secure convictions for murder against the parents of 17 year old Shafilea Ahmed. Murdered by her parents in an honour killing, they spun a web of lies to conceal the true circumstances of her death for years. A wall of silence surrounded the case until 2007 when police finally made a breakthrough, and charged the parents. Cases like Shafilea’s occasionally capture the public attention and then recede from popular consciousness, but what can authorities do to end honour based violence and forced marriages?
There was a distinct lack of political will under the last Labour government to tackle this problem. Most acutely, the problem of honour related crime affects families of Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic origin. According to the Home Office, 85 per cent of those in forced marriages are women aged 15-24, 90 per cent are Muslim, and 90 per cent are of Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage. Labour ministers were, partly at least, worried about alienating a constituency which overwhelmingly supports them.
Some legal reforms have followed, but prosecutions alone will do little to
change this deeply embedded mindset. Ed West suggests making immigration rules harder which would undoubtedly inconvenience many of those wanting to bring over a spouse from “back home,” but that’s all it would do. Loopholes arise, innocent and unintended people suffer, and it doesn’t address the broader issue of violence against women who are believed to have somehow shamed their families, nor does it empower them to resist the pressures they sometimes face when choosing a spouse.
The government needs to tackle this issue the way it has addressed Islamist extremism, by implementing a Prevent programme. That would mean dispelling the idea that such abuses are “difficult”, “sensitive” or “cultural” ones, and confronting them head on. Incoming immigrants are rightly made to learn English, but what about also teaching them normative British values? This need not be controversial, just basic ideas such as the unacceptability of discriminating against people based on gender, sexual orientation, race, and creed. Specific lessons on women’s rights must also be included.
Teachers can also serve as the frontline against honour violence in two ways for second and third generation British Asians. The first is they should more proactively intervene and report cases where they suspect abuse. The national curriculum review launched by Michael Gove last year must also resist the temptation to assail non-traditional and ‘soft’ subjects like civics and citizenship. These are a most necessary medium for modern multicultural states to convey ideas about rights and civic identity, allowing students to explore them in an appropriate place, away
from the closeting environment of community, culture, and family.