Landmark case puts spotlight on honour killings in the UK
When Junyad, then only 13, saw his 17-year-old sister Shafilea being suffocated with a plastic bag by his parents, Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed, his reaction was utterly shocking — he totally approved of her murder. Turning to his three other sisters, he said that Shafilea “deserved it”.
Over the last 50 years there have been numerous Asian “honour killings” in the UK of mostly young Pakistani women, but of a few Indians, too, invariably by their male relatives. But the murder of 17-year-old Shafilea Ahmed from a British Pakistani family has been especially horrifying.
The recent trial of her father, Iftikhar, 52, and her mother, Farzana, 49, at Chester Crown Court – nine years after her murder at the family home in Warrington, Cheshire, on September 11, 2003 – revealed that Shafilea had long had a troubled relationship with her parents. Both Farzana and Iftikhar were convicted of murder and sent to prison for life by the judge, with a recommendation that they serve, at least, 25 years in jail.
And their reasons for killing their own daughter? In their opinion, Shafilea wanted to be far too “western”, wear jeans and fashionable tops and talk to boys. Worse, she would have no truck with an arranged marriage and her parents’ choice of a husband for her back in Pakistan – an alien country to Shafilea who was born in Britain.
Post Shafilea, Britain has made “forced marriage” a criminal offence. But when Shafilea was drugged and flown to Pakistan, she drank corrosive bleach as a way of getting back to Britain. She succeeded but paid a high price in the process – her throat was badly damaged and she had to spend several weeks in hospital back home. Her increasingly frustrated parents, who found they could not control her, decided the best course of action was to get rid of their daughter.
As she struggled for life on that fateful evening of September 11, 2003, her mother egged on her husband in strident Punjabi: “Etay khatam kar saro (just finish it here).” They did. It is not only Britain’s one million strong Pakistani community that is agonising about how Shafilea’s life was extinguished by the very people who should have given her unquestioning love and care.
The British people as a whole are also wondering about twisted Asian notions of “honour” and why those who are so much against western culture insist on living in Britain in the first place. Junyad’s attitude is one of the most disquieting aspects of the whole affair for it seems the poison from the father has been passed to the British-born son. The judge Justice Roderick Evans suggested as much.
“As to Junyad, he remains supportive, especially of you, Iftikhar Ahmed,” said the judge, referring to the youth who is now 22. “Whether that is simply out of filial affection or the result of the warped values you instilled in him is impossible to tell.”
The judge emphasised, “I express no concluded view on whether Junyad played any part in the killing of his sister. But I have no doubt that, as the result of the distorted upbringing and values to which you subjected him, he told his surviving sisters within minutes of them seeing Shafilea murdered by you that Shafilea ‘deserved it’.”
Nor does it seem Junyad’s view of life is an isolated example of ultra orthodox thinking. Junyad’s attitudes are similar to those of Ashraf Azad, a 28-year-old who was sent to prison for six months last year for beating up and threatening to kill his 21-year-old famous actress sister, Afshan Azad, because she had a Hindu boyfriend. She is well known for playing Padma Patil in the Harry Potter movies. “Who the f*** do you think you are talking to? Watch what I will do,” Ashraf threatened his sister.
According to Richard Vardon QC, the prosecuting counsel in the case, Ashraf “grabbed her hair and threw her across the room. She began crying and asked him to stop. The defendant began punching her with clenched fists to her back and head area. She struggled to breathe and was scared for her life. She was told she had to ‘marry a Muslim or you die’ “.
With active encouragement from his Bangladeshi father, Abul Azad, 54, and his mother, Nilofar, who called her daughter a “prostitute”, Ashraf went looking for knives in the kitchen of the family home in Manchester. “I’m going to kill you, I’m actually going to kill you,” he raged at his sister.
Judge Roger Thomas told Ashraf, “It must have been a miserable and frightening experience for your sister... The background to this offence lies in the concern that you, and perhaps other family members, had about Afshan’s relationship with a young man who was not of the Islamic faith.”
In the Shafilea case, the conviction of Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed became inevitable because the main prosecution witness was Shafilea’s sister, Alesha, who was only 15 at the time of the murder.
It was Alesha’s organisation of an armed robbery at her own family home – she was alleged by the defence to be in debt to criminal gangs – which led to her remarkable admission, after seven years, that her parents had killed her older sister.
Crying in the witness box, Alesha, now 23, told the court that her parents held down a terrified Shafilea on the settee in their living room as a plastic bag was forced into her mouth. “You could tell she was gasping for air,” she said, before adding that Shafilea “wet herself because she was struggling somuch”.
Asked what happened next, she told the court: “That was it, she was gone.” Alesha described how the other sisters ran upstairs to their bedrooms in shock and she saw her father carry Shafilea’s body to the car wrapped in a blanket. The children were later told to say nothing to the authorities and warned they would otherwise suffer the same fate as their sister.
Among the siblings, apart from Alesha, there is Mevish, 21, who was 12 when her sister was killed; brother Junyad; and the youngest Ahmed daughter, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was just seven years old. She is now 16.
Shafilea’s decomposed remains were discovered in the River Kent in Cumbria in February 2004. But it was not until 2010 that Alesha provided the “final piece of the puzzle” about her death, the prosecution said. When the trial began, both Iftikhar and Farzana said they were innocent. Then Farzana dramatically changed her evidence and claimed only her husband was responsible for Shafilea’s disappearance.
Alesha’s version of events was corroborated by the written notes Mevish gave to her close friend Shahin Munir in 2008 — their existence emerged shortly after the start of Alesha’s evidence.
After Mevish had confided how Shafilea had been killed, a shocked Shahin made a note in her diary: “Oh my god. Today I met up with Mev..... Eventually she told me what happened with her sister Shafilea.....That night ...Shafilea came home from work and they started shouting at her because she had a T-shirt on and she forgot her coat. They sat her down on the chair. Her Dad went mad and started proper hitting her. Mev tried to stop it but her Mum pushed her away... Shafilea was still weak from the whole bleach thing. Then (they) got a plastic bag...They used the bag to suffocate her, 1-2 minutes gone.”
Justice Roderick Evans told Iftikhar and Farzana, “Your concern about being shamed in your community was greater than the love of your child.” The judge asked them: “What was it that brought you two, her parents, the people who had given her life, to the point of killing her?”
He continued, “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. You wanted your family to live in ‘Pakistan in Warrington’.”
He said, “However, you could not tolerate the life that Shafilea wanted to live. ...Although she went to local schools, you objected to her socialising with girls from what has been referred to as ‘the white community’. You objected to her wearing western clothes and you objected to her having contact with boys.”
He said, “On the evening of September 11 2003, you berated her for her behaviour and in temper and frustration you two suffocated her. It was you, Farzana Ahmed, who said to your husband, ‘Finish it here.’ "
He analysed the dilemma of the parents. “In order to rid yourselves of that problem, you killed Shafilea by suffocating her in the presence of your other four children.”
“Thereafter, you got rid of her body by dumping it or having it dumped in undergrowth on a riverbank in Cumbria and you told your children what to tell anybody who asked about the disappearance of Shafilea,” the judge said. “You killed one daughter, but you have blighted the lives of your remaining children. Alesha escaped but she is unlikely to be able to avoid the legacy of her upbringing.”
He went on, “Mevish, after a period of trying to live independently, was recaptured and brought home, and has since become compliant with your wishes.” He concluded, “There is only one sentence that I can impose upon you and that is a sentence of imprisonment for life.”
Speaking after the sentencing, Paul Whittaker, Chief Crown Prosecutor of Mersey-Cheshire, said, “Shafilea Ahmed was 17 when she died and her 26th birthday fell during the course of this trial.....The statement of Alesha Ahmed, Shafilea’s younger sister, was crucial to our case and the result is a testament to her courage over the last two years.”
Whittaker urged other victims of abuse to come forward. “There are many ways to describe what happened to Shafilea: child abuse, domestic violence and honour-based violence being just three. However you choose to characterise it, the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) is committed to convicting perpetrators such as the Ahmeds. But to do that, we need victims and other family members to break ranks and give evidence as Alesha Ahmed did. If you do come forward, this case has shown that the justice system will not let you down.”
He commented, “The word ‘shame’ has been heard many times during the course of this trial, but the shame is not on Shafilea, it is on her parents… There is no honour in murder and Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed are now starting life sentences for abusing and killing their daughter.”
It emerged after the trial that Iftikhar was not so much against western culture — for himself. He had gone from Pakistan to Denmark via the UK where he had been a biscuit factory worker. In June 1982 in Copenhagen he married a Danish woman called Vivi Lone Andersen. They had a son, Tony Andersen.
But in 1986, Iftikhar returned to Pakistan on receiving a letter from his family and married his cousin, Farzana — their marriage had been fixed when they were children. In May 1986, from his new home in Bradford, Iftikhar sent for his Danish wife. She arrived and assumed the heavily pregnant Farzana was one of her husband's relatives. A local health visitor told her that the father of the unborn child was her husband, who now admitted he was also married to Farzana. At this, a distraught and betrayed Biwi No 1 packed her bags and returned to Denmark.
Andersen recalls subsequent conversations with Iftikhar in which he said he could leave his son to grow up without his influence because he was a boy. But if their child had been a girl, he would not have allowed her to grow up “without his guidance in the Islamic ways”.
Andersen gave an interview to a British paper in which she said that as a young man in Denmark, Iftikhar, who had the nickname “Bazza”, was liberal, dated white girls and cut quite a dash at parties and discos in his tight jeans and sunglasses. “Bazza was the life and soul of the party,” remembered Andersen. “He was completely westernised: he loved fashion, he loved parties and discos and he loved girls.”
The tragedy of Shafilea is she was let down by everyone. She told her teachers at Great Sankey High School, which she and her siblings attended, that she had been abused at home from the age of 15. On occasions, she even ran away. But she would then come back home and withdraw her complaints, partly because she did not wish to be parted from her youngest sister, her favourite. Shafilea has left behind some amateurish poems in which she had expressed her feelings. “I don’t pretend like we're the perfect family no more Desire to live is burning My stomach is turning But all they think about is honour....”
The chorus ran:
“I feel trapped so trapped I’m trapped I’m trapped, so trapped I’m trapped (I don’t know wot do) I feel trapped.”
Blood in the family: Viewpoint
Shafilea is a case of a Pakistani woman in the UK but honour killings are taking place here in India too. Shockingly, these are not just confined to rural areas but have taken place in cities too. In many instances, they are expertly couched so it is difficult to term them as honour killings.
The honour killing is perhaps one of the hardest to prove, simply because it is an ‘inside’ job done by relatives majority of the time. The Supreme Court of India has advocated the death penalty for those convicted in honour killing cases.
How can India call itself an emerging superpower when archaic and abhorrent practices like honour killings still happen not just in rural but also urban areas? Opposing marriages in various ways like branding women prostitutes for having an affair, locking up women in rooms and homes, controlling them by curbing their freedom, hiding their passports and even policing who they can talk to or whether they can go to work at all, this is still present in urban areas too.
While well-meaning parents may object to their daughter meeting and seeking to marry a particular person, maybe, sometimes for justifiable reasons, that objection is different from using patriarchal or other power to put chains on women. Honour killings are an extreme manifestation of this power. Women are made to feel that they have brought shame on the family by their deeds.
That guilt is thrust upon them, while men are not made to feel this pressure whatever they do, because the ‘honour’ of the family is supposed to be vested in women, whatever that means. The sensational ongoing Talwar-Aarushi-Hemraj murder case has a possible honour killing angle to it. Honour killings are a sinister, dangerous and dastardly way to control women through shame, guilt and when that does not work, extreme violence.