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In the name of honour

By: Talat Farooq

Over the last few weeks one of the main news items in the UK pertained to the trial of the Pakistani born Iftikhar Ahmed, 52, and his wife Farzana, 49. On Friday, August 3, Chester Crown Court in Cheshire found them guilty of murdering their teenage daughter, Shafilea Ahmed, in 2003. They have been sentenced to serve a minimum of 25 years each. According to the prosecutors the couple killed their daughter because her “western” habits such as wearing makeup, dying her hair or talking to boys brought shame upon their family.

Shafilea had disappeared in September 2003, and her body was found five months later on a riverbank in north-west England. The court heard that in February 2003, she had been drugged and flown to Pakistan by her parents to force her into marrying a much older man. She was however taken back to Britain after she drank bleach; she spent several weeks in hospital. She disappeared in September 2003 and her parents were arrested on suspicion of kidnapping but were released due to lack of evidence. They were rearrested in 2010 after Shafilea’s sister Alisha came forward to give evidence against her parents. She told the jury that as her parents forced a plastic bag into Shafilea’s mouth in front of their other children, her mother said, “Just finish it here.”

Passing sentence, Judge Roderick Evans told the couple, who live in Warrington, Cheshire: “Shafilea was a determined, able and ambitious girl who wanted to live a life which was normal in the country and in the town in which you had chosen to live. You wanted your family to live in Pakistan in Warrington. She was being squeezed between two cultures.” Judge Evans then added poignantly, “Your concern about being shamed in your community was greater than the love of your child.”

The culture specific question regarding the communication gap between immigrants and their children as highlighted in the judgment is valid. So too is the fundamental tension between trying to live in Pakistan while living in Warrington. However, it is the factor of ‘shame’ or ‘honour’ being greater than one’s love for one’s offspring that is so frightening

‘Honour killing’ is as inexplicable as it is tragic. Why would seemingly normal parents or siblings or close relatives be willing to kill their own near and dear ones for the sake of reputation? Why should parents be obsessed with a perverse morality that forces them to discard humanity in the name of honour? How could a mother go against her natural instincts and snuff out the life with which she shares most genes – a life she gave birth to and nurtured for years? It doesn’t make any sense from an evolutionary point of view, according to psychologists. However, from a psychological and cultural point of view, ‘honour’ killings are usually linked to an extreme form of ‘status anxiety’ – the fear of losing face and the obsession to protect it.

More importantly ‘honour’ killings are linked to male dominance and low female status. In patriarchal societies females are usually perceived as ‘property’ of the male members of the family. The elusive honour of the high and mighty male is linked to her honour and she is supposed to protect it if she wants to be loved and protected. No such thing as unconditional love here. She has to forfeit her God given right to make choices in order to receive human acceptance.

In such societies the would-be-murderers suffer from a deep sense of inferiority complex which they are unable or unwilling to offset with positive accomplishments that could help them grow as strong and noble human beings. Instead they resort to delusions of grandeur, legitimising their narcissism in the name of religious or cultural traditions. Instead of inculcating a sense of respect for the female, who is no way lesser than him, the male gets a false sense of power by hurting and harming the female who in turn has been socially conditioned to think of herself as physically and emotionally dependent on him. It is this social conditioning of the women that urges them to obey the ‘superior’ male and follow his instructions. Sometimes, as in the case of Shafilea, the woman takes her obedience to ‘new heights’.

The commandment to ‘obey thy husband’ was perhaps too well ingrained in Farzana’s mind because of her own cognitive experiences in life. This then becomes the classic case of the abused becoming the abuser. She could identify more with the pathological inclinations of her husband than with her helpless daughter.

This ‘face saving’ obsession is the downside of our ‘biraderi’ system within which we are constantly under pressure to obey collective rules in order to inculcate a social identity so as to satisfy our need to belong. We are a prisoner to this system even when we live thousands of miles away because we carry the conditioned responses within ourselves without ever questioning their validity. Sadly, although this feeling of security is an illusion, many of us would rather live this lie than have the courage to rock the boat. It then becomes justified to murder a 17-year-old because she wanted to live life on her own terms. Since she is the property of the male, she must die because she wants to live. You can then kill your daughter in 2003 and for the next nine years eat, sleep and make money and live with this horrible knowledge without dying of remorse or going mad with grief. Something must really make it worth it!

From another perspective, this is the story of three females whose lives were hostage to male ego – Farzana, the mother who killed, Shafilea, the daughter who rebelled but could not save herself and Alisha, the sister who finally mustered the courage to stand up for her murdered sibling. Within this triangle is the beginning, the middle and the end of the story; it contains the cause, the effect and the remedy.

Shafilea wanted to become a lawyer but instead she became a legal case herself. When they could not kill her spirit they killed her body and got over with it. Her siblings saw it happen and their psychological scars will never go away, denying them normal lives. Yet, Alisha’s courage in standing up to the authority figures is what brings a touch of hope to this darkly evil drama – a drama which is in fact a replay of female infanticide that the Prophet forbade nearly fifteen hundred years ago.

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