December 6, 2005

Britain grapples with gruesome “honor” crimes

By Gideon Long

LONDON (Reuters) - Rukhsana Naz was 19 when her mother
pinned her to the floor of their family house and her brother
strangled her with a length of plastic cable.

Sahjda Bibi, 21, was preparing to celebrate her wedding
when her cousin stabbed her 22 times with a kitchen knife. The
father of 16-year-old Heshu Yones slit her throat because he
disapproved of her Western habits and non-Muslim boyfriend.

All were victims of "honor killings," murdered by relatives
who believed they had brought shame on their families through
their behavior or choice of boyfriend, husband or lover.

Until recently, honor crime was rarely reported and often
misunderstood in Britain, viewed as something which happened
elsewhere -- mainly in the Middle East or southern Asia.

But a series of gruesome killings has forced Britons to
recognize that such crimes, although still rare, are committed
here too, often within the country's large ethnic Bangladeshi,
Indian and Pakistani communities.

Girls and young women have been killed, abducted,
physically abused and held prisoner in their own homes. Police
believe scores have been taken out of the country, often to the
Indian subcontinent, and have disappeared.

Nazir Afzal, director of Britain's Crown Prosecution
Service (CPS) in west London where there is a large south Asian
community, says there have been at least a dozen honor killings
in the country in the past year.

"And murder is just the tip of the iceberg," he said.
"There are other crimes, like rape, abduction and physical
violence, which we would consider steps on the stairway to


The CPS, which decides whether to press charges against
suspects in British criminal cases, says such crimes are on the
rise, particularly since the July 7 London bombings.

The bombs, which killed 52 people on the city's transport
system, were planted by four Islamist suicide bombers, all of
them British.

That shone a harsh spotlight on the country's 1.6 million
Muslims and, according to the CPS, prompted some Muslim
families to turn in on themselves, with worrying consequences.

"I've certainly seen more cases of honor crime since July
7," said Afzal. "When communities perceive themselves to be
under threat they tend to turn in on themselves, regardless of
whether that perception has any basis in fact.

"They try to restore and reinforce their own social norms.
They put pressure on their own members to conform, and if they
don't conform there is sometimes some kind of retribution."

Specialists on violence against women also say social
cultural changes, partly spread by globalization and mass
media, have left men from southern Asia feeling threatened and
women are bearing the brunt of their fear.

The CPS stresses honor crime is not just a Muslim issue.

"I'm aware of crimes being committed in Eastern Europe,
North Africa, the Middle East, Brazil, Spain, France, Italy,
and also within those communities in this country," Afzal said.

"That said, the bulk of these crimes involve the South
Asian community and in particular the Muslim community."


Jasvinder Sanghera set up the Karma Nirvana center for
women from the Asian subcontinent in Derby, central England,
because of her own experiences.

At 14, her family showed her a photograph of the man she
was told to marry. Her mother refused to heed her objections
and a week before her wedding day Sanghera ran away, never to

Her sister failed to escape.

She accepted her parents' choice of husband, found herself
in an abusive relationship and eventually committed suicide.

"She suffered horrific violence in her marriage but when
she turned to my family, they sent her back to an abusive
partner because of 'honor', because of the family name, because
of the family's reputation," Sanghera said.

"Within days she killed herself. She set herself on fire."

Sanghera says she has dealt with cases of children as young
as 11, betrothed to husbands against their will.

Reunite, a charity which campaigns to stop child abduction,
estimates that around 1,000 British Asian girls are forced into
marriage each year. Between a third and a half are minors.


While young women are the primary victims of honor crimes,
two court cases have shown how men have been targeted too.

In early November, two brothers aged 16 and 19 were
convicted of murdering a British Iranian because their family
disapproved of his relationship with their sister.

The brothers, from an ethnic Bangladeshi family, stopped
their victim in his car, pinned him to the seat and stabbed him
46 times in the chest.

Less than three weeks later, a Muslim man was convicted of
hacking a 21-year-old Afghan to death with a scimitar after
finding out he was having a relationship with his sister.

Honor crimes, often carried out behind closed doors in
tight-knit communities, are notoriously difficult to prevent,
and police say they struggle to garner enough evidence to bring
suspects to trial.

Two years ago, London's police force set up a task force to
tackle the issue and it is re-examining over 100 unsolved
murder cases to see if they may have been honor crimes, even
though they were not recognized as such at the time.

The government is also considering changing the law to make
forced marriage a criminal offence.

Ultimately though, campaigners say that what is needed to
bring an end to honor crimes is a change of attitude among more
conservative elements within some of Britain's communities.

Until then, young girls and women like Rukhsana Naz, Sahjda
Bibi and Heshu Yones will remain at risk.