Honour violence in the UK: an untold story
Image: Pikist

Every year, thousands of people around the world are murdered in honour killings and are affected by other honour-based violence (HBV). Western democracies, including the UK, have slipped into the trap of thinking this is not an issue for its peoples, but this kind of violence is vastly more common in the UK than is generally understood.

As defined by The Honour Based Violence Awareness Network (HBVAN), HBV is when an individual is subjected to violence, and in extreme cases, murder, in order to restore ‘honour’ that an individual has supposedly lost by dint of their behaviour. The apparent crimes that are met with violence in order to restore honour include; refusing an arranged marriage; entering a relationship with a ‘disapproved’ person; divorce; renouncing faith or dressing in an inappropriate way. 

The abuse itself – which affects women more predominantly than men – can take the form of emotional manipulation, abduction, forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) and beatings, in addition to murder. 

Looking at the worldwide picture, the United Nations Population Fund estimates that at least 5,000 women and girls are murdered each year in the name of so-called ‘honour’. However, organisations and advocates working in the field believe that this figure is an underestimation and that the true number is at least four times higher.

“They’re not encouraging families to allow women to be more independent and Western”

More than most countries, the United Kingdom has a significant issue with overlooking honour violence on its shores, in part due to this drastic underestimation of its prevalence. Sarbjit Kaur Athwal, the founder of charity True Honour, argues that one of the main reasons that HBV still occurs in the UK is because of ingrained attitudes within predominantly Asian communities: “They’re not encouraging families to allow women to be more independent and Western in their behaviour. This mindset is so entrenched, it can permeate a community and lead to honour crimes against women, who are still seen as property to be controlled.”

Honour-based violence is widely underreported in the UK media, feeding the assumption that it simply doesn’t happen here; this is both incorrect and damaging. The annual Day of Memory was established on 14th July 2015 to remember the victims of HBV in the UK. Evidence of this country’s negligent attitude toward honour-based violence lies in the fact that this day is a low profile event, rarely highlighted by public figures.

According to HBVAN, there are at least 12 honour killings per year in the UK. In addition to these recorded killings, a report carried out by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) revealed that between 2010 and 2014, UK police recorded more than 11,000 cases of non-fatal honour-based violence. These cases were recorded across every UK police force, making it a widespread issue for the country. 

“The figures do not even show the real extent of the problem”

However, the Executive Director of IKWRO, Diana Nammi, said that “the figures do not even show the real extent of the problem” – a view that is reinforced by many experts on the issue, despite it being difficult to estimate the true extent of HBV because of the culture of silencing surrounding these crimes. Victims are unlikely to report to the police out of fear of implicating their family and community, and the potential consequences of doing so. In addition, abuse and murders are often concealed through family and community networks, providing alibis for one another and setting the crime up as accidental or suicide. As such, many abuses are never recorded. Natasha Rattu, the executive director of Karma Nirvana, Britain’s only forced marriage and honour violence helpline (which receives around 800 messages every month), told ITV news: “What we know about honour-based abuse is just the tip of the iceberg.” 

Karma Nirvana’s founders have called for more forensic research in Britain – “there is no data set evidence (to accurately say) how grand a scale this issue is.”

HBV is not an adult-only issue. In the UK, children have been known to go missing from schools without explanation, with many of them understood to be at severe risk of exploitation, including forced marriages and FGM. In one period in 2006, 250 Bradford girls aged 13-16 did not return from visits abroad and were subsequently taken off their school registers without investigation. Karma Nirvana’s founder, Jasvinder Sanghera, who herself was forced to marry at 14, urged that the UK has “to start focusing more on the issue of girls going missing from school” and commented on the Bradford figures: “if that is how many girls are at risk in one city, imagine how many possible victims there could be across the country”.

The case of Shazia Qayum is a troubling reminder of the individual reality of honour violence in the UK. She was 15 when her parents took her out of education after she refused to marry a cousin in Pakistan. Qayum recalled in an interview that “day after day, I sat in my room praying for someone to find me, I was convinced my school or the authorities would start asking questions but, to my knowledge, no one bothered”. This is evidence of the crucial role that schools should, but too often are failing to, play in aiding the eradication of HBV in the UK.

There is no excuse for authorities to be dismissing these crimes.

Former Labour MP Ann Cryer argues that authorities’ lack of interest in pursuing what happens to these children is unsatisfactory: “those [in authority] that come face-to-face with these problems are now far more capable at helping potential victims of honour killings and forced marriage”. There are now many resources that allow schools to recognise honour violence within their communities, including the teacher guidelines produced by The Forced Marriage Unit. As a result, there is no excuse for authorities to be dismissing these crimes because of a reluctance to intervene – any intervention may potentially save a child’s life. 

This lack of intervention by UK authorities, including central government, is one of the main reasons for the persistence of HBV. Nazir Afzal, a British solicitor who specialises in child exploitation and HBV, stresses the importance of a preventative approach; we should “not just concentrate on the victims but also potential victims … Often, if a girl or boy is taken out of school early, it’s a trigger that a forced marriage may be on the cards”. The reason for inactivity is often because community and school leaders are reluctant to intervene on these issues for fear of accusations of racism or Islamophobia, due to the vast majority of crimes being committed against those from an ethnic minority background.

Religion continues to be a key factor in the negligence toward honour violence in the UK; because it is seen to have a religious value to a select few, some feel uncomfortable challenging it on these grounds. The British media – tabloid newspapers in particular – have encouraged the assumption that honour violence and killings are solely associated with Muslims by focusing their headlines on Islam being the only cause of the violence. In reality, honour violence is a “social issue that is deeply rooted in the eastern societies” – many of which are populated by people of Muslim faith – but it is not directly attributed to one religion. Evidence of this is the condemnation of honour killings by “several high-status religious leaders” of all faiths. Violence is often ‘justified’ with accusations of a person becoming “too western”, as was the case for Shafilea Ahmed, a British girl who was murdered at age 17. This an inherently cultural, rather than religious, accusation. 

“It is seen as politically incorrect to put too much focus on the fact this is happening within certain cultures and communities”

Clive Driscoll, a retired Detective Chief Inspector and trustee of True Honour, says: “It’s seen as politically incorrect to put too much focus on the fact this is happening within certain cultures and communities” but, he goes on, “understanding the motivation behind a crime is essential” to both solving it and preventing future cases. Driscoll is clear that “whitewashing” the full cultural context of the violence is not helpful to victims, as perpetrators can then hide from the police who are reluctant to intervene. Conservative MP Nus Shani has drawn attention to the worrying culture of avoidance when it comes to police investigating honour violence, especially in the north of England; “the term brings in so much other baggage” and that is “too complicated to deal with”

Pranga Patel, director of the campaign group Southall Black Sisters, spoke at a campaign event in Parliament that was calling for a UK investigation into the death of a British woman and noted the differing police responses to the deaths of white British nationals, compared with that of non-white people. She cited the cases of Madeleine McCann and white British backpackers who go missing overseas and go on to receive “a more proactive response” in terms of both police attention and media coverage, than young Asian girls who go missing in cases of honour violence. Labour MP Naz Shah spoke at the same event: “Until we send a clear message to people not just in this country but abroad that actually you cannot commit this crime and get away with it – until we have some prosecutions from the British police – I’m not convinced we’re going to get there”. 

Honour-based violence and killings must become a political and judicial priority in this country. UK authorities must confront head-on the reality that HBV is a western issue, rather than one confined to the realms of the (derogatorily named) third world. The acceptance of the existence of honour violence is the first step toward progress, as ignorance regarding these deeply human crimes costs lives, and will continue to do so until its systematic change is brought about.