Honour Based Violence Training & Conference
Honour Based Violence Training & Conference
Shafilea Ahmed’s murder is a crime meshed in migration and modernity
The case of Shafilea Ahmed’s murder is much more complex than a tale of backward parents and progressive children
What should we learn from the case of Shafilea Ahmed? At first glance, it might seem simple. A young girl is murdered by her father because she refuses to submit her sexuality to his law.
Across England and Wales, with chilling regularity, women are murdered by men (two women per week according to recent statistics). Not all of these by any means fall under the rubric of “honour” crimes, but they are nearly all domestic, the product of the most intimate ties. It was Hitchcock who famously described television as bringing murder back into the home “where it belongs”. I lost count of the number of times that newspapers showed a picture of the Ahmed’s Warrington home, as if its front should have vouched for its safety. Instead, this case reminds us that it is under the veneer of normality that we should be looking for the most hideous crimes.
But this is not just a story of fathers and daughters. The mother was a full party to the act. Testifying on behalf of her dead sister, Alesha Ahmed described how their mother had stuffed a plastic bag into Shafilea’s mouth while egging on her husband: “Just finish it here.” When Shafilea swallowed bleach to avoid a forced marriage in Pakistan, her mother looked on stony-faced, “like she was thinking”, Alesha observed, “‘It’s better that she’s done it herself’.” Shafilea fell so ill as a consequence that she had to be rushed back to hospital in England where her weight plummeted to five stone. The fact that the mother turned evidence against her husband halfway through the trial only exacerbates the heartlessness of her crime (apparently happy up to that point to leave her daughter floundering against the joint testimony of her parents).
We can attribute the mother’s actions to the brute domination of a husband whose physical and verbal violence was never in doubt. But then we make her the mere puppet of her own life. So the case pushes us up against an impossible question. Which is preferable: the image of women as powerlessly subject to male control, or a woman as full agent in a story that, for many, seems to defy all understanding?
Most strikingly of all, however, this is a story about sisters. About one – Alesha – who spoke up, at huge personal risk, on behalf of her murdered sister, and another, Mevish, who continued to vouch for the innocence of her parents against the evidence of her own diary, which she had handed to a friend to give to the police “if anything happened to her”. When extracts were read out in court, Mevish insisted the diary was “free writing” or “fiction”. Perhaps this would have had some credibility if the diary had just told its horrific story, instead of bearing all the signs of a hidden tale struggling to be told: “They think I don’t know but she told me everything in Pakistan, every little thing but they think I don’t know.” Like Alesha, Mevish was haunted. These young girls had watched their sister die: “Why did the rest sit and watch?” she writes, “It is weird how at night these things come to me even in my dreams.”
How do you go on living in a home where your parents have murdered your sister? What would it do to your mind? When Alesha, 14 at the time, told friends at school what had happened, she appears to have embellished and distorted her account, saying her father had hacked her sister to pieces. Then she went quiet for nine years, under parental instruction – a police bug recorded the mother ordering her children to say that Shafilea had disappeared. She only told the police the truth when she herself had been charged with organising a robbery at the family home (for which she is yet to be sentenced). Mevish had also been involved in stealing money from the family several years before. Both sisters had therefore felt the need to violate the abusive sanctity of the home – which might also have been their way of declaring its criminality to the world. In court, the defence tried to use Alesha’s exaggerations and the robbery to discredit her testimony: her accusation was a “wicked” concoction designed to get her out of trouble. “It didn’t get me out of any trouble,” she simply replied.
Missing in the court room, in pretty much any court room, is the idea of fantasy, of how we all make our lives bearable by elaborating stories about ourselves. For both Alesha and Mevish lying was a way to survive. If, in the judges own words, this case has been “extraordinary”, it is not least by bringing these contortions of the inner world, the agonies of attachment and belonging, so painfully to life.
Recognising this complexity might also be a way of avoiding the most obvious cultural cliches that attach to the idea of “honour” crimes. Repeatedly the prosecution insisted, with a certain relish, that this was a case of a Pakistani family refusing to accept the reality of modern life – one more migrant family failing to keep up with the times. Without question Shafilea wanted educational, sexual and professional freedom as a woman. Going to university allowed Alesha fully to recognise that life in her family was “wrong”. We can support those freedoms – and celebrate the justice Shafilea has now received – without using the case to stigmatise a minority community, or as proof that west is best. Rather than attribute a crime like this to backwardness, we would do better to see how deeply it is woven into the fabric of migration and modernity in which all of us are implicated.
Griffin Care provide Honour Based Violence Training & Conference in many city in UK.