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Sunday 5 February 2012

Twisted concept of honour shames any civilised society

Forget cultural sensitivities, there are no excuses for domestic terrorism, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

You probably saw last week the terrible story of the Shafias. Mohammad Shafia was an Afghani, who -- after making money in property in Dubai -- emigrated to Canada.

With him he brought two wives. Rona Amir Mohammad, his first, had been unable to bear children and he had taken a second, Tooba (Muslims are permitted four), by whom he had seven children. Rona, who was passed off as a cousin, helped to rear the family.

In June 2009, Rona, 52, and her step-daughters Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, were found drowned in a submerged car. Wiretaps later recorded Mohammad saying: "God curse their generation, they were filthy and rotten children."

Their crime, in the eyes of their parents and brother Hamed, 21, all convicted last week on four counts of murder, was that the girls had Western habits that shamed the family and Rona was sympathetic.

In the UK last year, there were 2,823 victims of 'honour-based' violence, a figure revealed by (limited) UK police statistics for 2011 obtained by the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation through a freedom of information request: about a dozen killings happen every year.

Apologists wish us to lump honour killings in with domestic violence, to avoid having to ask any awkward questions about other people's values, but they are, in fact, very separate. In domestic violence, an individual (mostly men) batters or murders another individual. Honour killings and honour violence are a family matter.

These crimes are under-reported but annually the killings run into many, many thousands worldwide. From an in-depth academic study of 172 honour killings, based on information obtained from English-language media world wide, here are some striking statistics and conclusions.

Yes, it's a cultural rather than a religious thing, stemming from some nasty tribal customs of South Asia and the Middle East, but though Hindus, Sikhs and the odd Christian might be perpetrators, the blunt truth is that honour killings are mainly Muslim-on-Muslim (91 per cent worldwide, 84 per cent North America, 96 per cent Europe).

Worldwide, two-thirds of victims (93 per cent women) were killed by their families of origin: 49 per cent in North America, 66 per cent in Europe and 72 per cent in Muslim countries. More than half the victims died in agony, having been either gang-raped or burned or stoned or beheaded or stabbed many times.

Being 'too Western' did for 58 per cent: this includes being insufficiently subservient, rejecting Islamic dress, wanting a career, having non-Muslim friends or boyfriends, rejecting an arranged marriage or leaving an abusive husband. This criterion covers 91 per cent of North American murders, 71 per cent of European and 43 per cent in the Muslim world. Offences against sexual propriety (eg being raped or accused of adultery) were the justification for the other murders.

A recent poll by the BBC's Asian network of 500 Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims alarmingly reported that one in 10 would condone the murder of anyone threatening their family's honour. Mohammad Shafia's declaration that "even if they hoist me up on to the gallows, nothing is more dear to me than my honour", has deep cultural roots.

We are kidding ourselves if we think there is no violence in the name of honour going on in our immigrant communities. We should be making our opposition to it very clear, warning likely perpetrators and giving courage to their likely victims.

European countries should follow the example of Canada, where, since 2009, the pamphlet given to all new immigrants to prepare them for the citizenship test says: 'Canada's openness and generosity does not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, 'honour killings,' female genital mutilation, forced marriage or other gender-based violence. Those guilty of these crimes are severely punished under Canada's criminal laws.'

The judge, as he sentenced the three Shafias to a minimum of 25 years each, didn't temper his words: "It is difficult to conceive of a more despicable, more heinous crime ... the apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your completely twisted concept of honour ... that has absolutely no place in any civilised society."

It's as simple as that. Forget cultural sensitivities. There are no excuses for domestic terrorism.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards