Shafilea Ahmed’s unhappy life was brought to a violent and premature end at the hands of her mother and father. It is an extreme and tragic case, but in many ways she was just one of many girls who struggle to reconcile their British identity to the cultural values of their parents. Trapped within their homes, hidden from the rest of society and coerced into silence, we need to ask why so little has been done to help these women.
The Crown Prosecution Service began keeping statistics on “honour”-based violence in April 2010 and prosecuted 234 cases the following year, over half of which were successful. Despite this, there is a significant gap between the number of prosecutions and reported cases. Last year, figures from 39 police forces reported 2,823 cases. But there are no exact figures, and the nature of these crimes makes it difficult for vulnerable girls and women to report their family members to the authorities. So how do we measure the number of women who may not endure violence but who suffer a life sentence of culture-based discrimination and human rights violations?
Over the past two decades I have heard countless stories from women who were ostracised by their communities and let down by the agencies who should have helped them. One young woman, Laila, had been emotionally blackmailed into a marriage at the age of 18. Forced to live with her in-laws in a house with seven others, she spent her days not at college as she had wanted, but cooking and cleaning for her in-laws. They didn’t even allow her access to the toilet and she was forced to use a jug in her bedroom even during labour. “I was treated like a slave to the rest of the family,” she told me. When she begged midwives and health visitors for help they weren’t interested. When she approached social services, “they couldn’t care less”.
Another woman, Sameena, had been sexually abused by family members since the age of eight. She had been pulled out of school at the age of 15 and forced into a violent marriage. “My teachers were aware of the abuse but failed to act out of fear of upsetting my parents. Yet my parents kept telling me I deserved this abuse.”
It has been suggested that south Asian women are more likely to suffer severe abuse, and over a longer period of time than white women. They also experience higher rates of suicide and self-harm. Ethnic minority women can face multiple barriers and injustices: racism in society, and misogyny within their homes and communities. And “community leaders”, through their denial and inactivity, can compound this victimisation and marginalisation.
A lack of will by public bodies to address these issues compounds their suffering, increases their vulnerability and results in them being less likely to seek help. They feel they’ve been systematically ignored and forgotten by mainstream feminist organisations and the state itself. I’ve been asked: “Are we any less British because of our ethnicity, our colour or our faith?” Unfortunately, in 21st-century Britain, this seems to be precisely the case.
I know that a generation later very little has improved for these women, and the root causes of these practices have not been challenged. As a British woman of Pakistani origin, I find the argument of “not wanting to offend cultural sensitivities” offensive in itself.
Statutory agencies need to establish a specialist and victim-centred approach. In Shafilea’s case, both social services and her teachers were aware she was experiencing violence and the prospect of a forced marriage. She had even written to Warrington borough council begging for emergency housing. Why were the dots not joined up?
An inquiry must surely now be conducted to understand the failures in her case and to ensure tragic mistakes are not made again. Public bodies have to work in partnership with specialist organisations working at the heart of these communities.
How many more women must suffer before we take action? Shafilea’s life and ultimately her death represent the struggle of many women whose suffering remains unreported, under-researched and unaided. In order to combat oppression and empower women, democracy and human rights must begin in the home. We cannot truly call ourselves a democracy if we continue to turn a blind eye to both the abuses and the lack of assistance experienced by so many British women.
- The original article was published in The Guardian on Saturday 4th August 2012http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/03/shafilea-ahmed-death-tragedy-women-fate