The honour killings that blight Britain

Two women helping to stop forced marriages in the UK talk about their harrowing ordeals and why the price of preserving family honour can simply be too high.

Sameem Ali, who suffered terrible abuse at the hands of her family, is now a Labour Councillor in Manchester, England.
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Sameem Ali simply thought she was going on a family holiday. Pakistan, a world away for a British-born 13-year-old, was a thrilling prospect for a teenage girl. The sights, the sounds, the smells - a trip to her family's native country should have been a magical experience. But Ali wasn't there for a childhood vacation - nor for any other kind of innocent adventure. In a plan cooked up by her family in the UK, and unbeknown to Ali, her future life had already been mapped out - beginning with a forced marriage to a man she didn't know in a land equally strange and unfamiliar. It was the start of a nightmare that would shatter her childhood and scar her almost beyond repair.
"I didn't know why I was going to Pakistan, but I was just told by my family that I was going on holiday," recalls Ali, a soft-spoken woman, now 42, speaking from her home in Manchester, England. "A holiday to me meant a beach, happy times, so I was quite excited that I was going on a trip. But when I got there it was a whole different story."
Within two months of arriving, and after being told of her fate by her mother only a week before, Ali was thrust into married life. Her husband was a grown man in his late 20s, twice Ali's age and clearly much too old for a girl just embarking on her teenage years.
"I was forced into a marriage to this guy who was older than I was and the only way I could get back to the UK was if I got pregnant," says Ali, who, alone, frightened and confused, tried to take her own life in Pakistan. "I didn't know how I could get pregnant and so all I could do was pray. So I did, I prayed. And, my mother kept an eye on me and she knew the signs - so as soon as I was pregnant I was brought back to the UK."
Her family thought that were Ali to become pregnant and have a British-born baby then that would strengthen her husband's case to come and live in the UK.
Deeply traumatised by her experience in Pakistan, Ali found that life didn't get any easier on her return to the family home in Glasgow, Scotland - not even when, at 14, she gave birth to a baby boy. Subjected to cruel and cowardly beatings by her family well before she left for Pakistan - Ali had spent the first seven years of her life in an English children's home before being retrieved by her birth family, who, she says, used her "as a domestic slave" and punished her if she "didn't do things properly" - she eventually summoned up the courage to escape a decade of violence that was now being wrought upon her son.
"My son was three-and-a-half and I was 18 at the time when the abuse got worse and worse, and when they started abusing him, which was unacceptable, I decided to run away," says Ali. Her escape took her to Manchester, where she now works as a local government councillor. "I managed to flee, but the consequence of that was that my brother and three other people came after me to find me and kill me. But, fortunately, the police stopped them on a routine check into Manchester, and found my address, and swords and baseball bats in the boot [of their car]. The police took them in and they confessed that they had been paid £50 [Dh289] by my brother to kidnap me or my son by any means possible. My brother was imprisoned for four years."
Although some years ago now, Ali's story is all too common today in the UK, where cases of forced marriage and honour violence have been recorded across all four constituent countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with the UK Home Office estimating the number of cases of the former at up to 8,000 per year in England alone. Despite suffering the most unspeakable cruelty and being coerced into a marriage she was too young and too frightened to refuse, Ali was at least fortunate in being spared her brother's brutal and misguided attempt to "cleanse" the family's honour.
According to a freedom of information request by the London-based Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation (IKWRO) last year, some 3,000 so-called honour attacks were recorded in the UK in 2010. Honour violence includes acid attacks, abduction, mutilations, beatings and in some cases, murder. In the UK, its victims are almost always Muslim women, most commonly those of Pakistani origin, though one of the most high-profile British cases involved that of Banaz Mahmod, an Iraqi Kurd from London who left her violent husband to be with her boyfriend, but was killed by relatives in 2006.
"That number shocked me but it didn't tell the whole truth," says Diana Nammi, the Iranian-Kurd director of Ikrwo. "The real problem is much, much, much bigger than that. When we sent this freedom of information request to the 52 police forces in the UK, we only received records from 39 of those forces. So this number of 2,823 - the cases of honour violence - comes only from those who responded. And it seems that the understanding of what constitutes honour violence varies from force to force. One of them believed that it was just forced marriage, another that it was just the motive of the crime, while the other 13 (forces who didn't respond) may think that it doesn't exist in their area at all, even though they have large communities of Asians, south Asians, Middle Eastern and eastern Europeans living amongst them. So there is a huge problem of having a common understanding about this issue. It's very clear that the police don't have a system or a base for all police officers to respond to all honour violence cases appropriately."
Jasvinder Sanghera, the CEO of Karma Nirvana, an English-based charity that supports victims and survivors of forced marriage and honour violence, agrees. She laments the lack of statutory requirements for police forces in the UK to record the rates of honour violence and forced marriage, in which the victims are also, on occasion, young men and boys. This despite the vast majority of UK police forces adopting a 2008 report from the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which recommended the recording of all honour-based incidents.
"The only thing that shocked me about the statistics were how woefully underestimated they were," says Sanghera. "No police force in England and Wales has a duty to record an honour crime. For example, if you have an offence of parking on a double yellow line or burglary or rape, there is a statutory requirement for it to be recorded as an offence, but there isn't a statutory duty to record an honour crime as an honour crime. So all these police forces are doing just now - where you see them recording it - is simply doing it off their own back and thinking, 'I think we need to record this'. One of the arguments I'm making, then, is that honour crimes and forced marriage should be made a Her Majesty's Inspectorate area, which means it has to be recorded and has to be monitored. This is a hidden crime right now, so the 3,000 number for me - tripling it wouldn't be enough."
Sanghera herself knows only too well the horrifying prospect of falling victim to a forced marriage, which should be differentiated from an arranged marriage in which both parties, irrespective of their parent's wishes, have free will to accept or decline the arrangement. Born and raised in Derby, in the midlands of England, Sanghera was a young teenage girl when her parents informed her that she was to be given away to a man in India.
"I watched at least three of my sisters being taken out of British schools to be taken abroad, to be forced to marry," says Sanghera, whose organisation runs a UK-wide help line, which receives over 400 calls every month. "I was 14 years old at the time when my mother presented me with a photograph of the man I was to learn that I was promised to from the age of 8 years old. When I was 15, the pressure really mounted - that was the age at which my sisters had married - but I said: 'No, I'm not marrying that man'. As a result of that my mother beat me, she used all the emotional blackmail under the sun, telling me it would bring shame and dishonour upon the family. But I stood my ground. I was locked in my bedroom - they put a padlock on the outside of my door - but then I realised that if I agreed to the marriage I would have some freedom. With that everything changed - my mother was fine and I began the organising of my wedding - but when I saw my chance to escape, I ran away from home to Newcastle [in northern England]. I wasn't even 16 years old. With that act I became dead in mother's eyes."
The chief executive of Karma Nirvana since she established it in 1993, Sanghera, who is supporting the UK government consultation on the criminalisation of forced marriage across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, is, in past experience alone, uniquely placed to handle all the cases that come her way. One recent one involved that of a 12-year-old girl who called Karma Nirvana on the advice of her school.
"My advice was sought on this case because there was a decision being made as to whether she was to be put into foster care or not," says Sanghera, whose charity also conducts about 150 road show-style talks each year across the UK. "This girl was taken out of school for three days by her family because she dared to go out with her friends into town on a Saturday. She, according to her family, had breached an honour code. And so she was taken out of school and beaten by her brother. But on her return to school, she told a teacher, who allowed her to phone us. This, of course, is just one example of what we deal with on a day-to-day basis."
Ikrwo's Nammi, who points out that UK-based honour violence and forced marriage incidents often arise from a parent's refusal to accept their children embracing the trappings of western culture - as demonstrated by similar honour-based cases in Canada and the US - also relates the story of another girl of Arab origin, who, on coming to the attention of Ikrwo, had been "left broken" by three years of continuous abuse.
"This girl was just 11 years old when her family discovered that she had been talking to a boy - and so she was beaten up by her father and brother," says Nammi, who established Ikrwo in 2002. "When she came to us she was 14 years old, so from age 11 she was going through this violent situation. Things got so bad that she finally ran away after her father threatened to take an axe and wanted to kill her. We cried for her and couldn't understand how nobody was there to help her. She didn't do anything wrong, and even if she did have a boyfriend, it wasn't a crime."
An undoubtedly global problem - but with particular prominence in the likes of Pakistan and Afghanistan - cases of honour violence and forced marriage in the UK are, according to Sanghera, "a reflection of the settled [ethnic] communities".
"My parents were Indian Sikh - so not Muslim," Sanghera says of the widely held notion that all victims are of Muslim origin. "But if you look at Britain, and you look at the population of the settled communities that came here in the 1950s, in the main you're going to see significant Pakistani Muslim communities first and foremost, then Indian Sikh communities, Bangladeshi communities - and now we're seeing Afghan, Kurdish and Iranian communities. So the reflection in terms of the statistics - 65 per cent of our case portfolio at Karma Nirvana deals with Pakistani Muslims, but 35 per cent are others such as Indian Sikhs, African, Afghan and so on."
Ali, who was "very happy" to see the recorded number of honour attack statistics at 3,000, if only because it meant that women were now coming forward to report such incidents, is mindful, too, that, while such cases in the UK predominantly involve young Muslim women from the south Asian community, it is by no means a solely Muslim issue.
"I was at a focus group the other day, and this one woman pointed out that there are such cases of honour violence and forced marriage in the Gypsy and travelling community," says Ali, who, unlike Sanghera, is against the criminalisation of forced marriage, for fear that no victims would come forward and directly implicate their parents, and is content with existing legislation for serious criminal offences related to forced marriage, such as kidnap, rape and child abuse. "I've done research on this, too, and it happens in a lot of communities that are hidden. Though I'm not blind to the fact that it happens a lot more within the South Asian community."
Today, and despite 10 years of the most "horrendous abuse", Ali, now happily married with two grown-up children, says: "I'm in a place where I've healed, and I'm in the right place to make a difference". So, too Sanghera, who is looking forward to her own daughter's marriage in June.
"My children have been brought up and have been impacted by disownment, but then equally I can look back at being 15, and at not regretting the decision I made to escape because they won't inherit that legacy of abuse," says Sanghera. "They have the fundamental right to being free-thinking, independent and well-educated individuals, and they are human beings in their own right and that's all I ever wanted for me."