Rebelling against rural values in Warrington

Shafilea Ahmed’s ‘honour killing’, writes Eddie Ford, highlights the importance of rights and individual autonomy for young adults - especially women

Following a three-month trial both Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed were sentenced last week to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 25 years for killing their 17-year-old daughter, Shafilea Ahmed. The jury heard that the couple killed Shafilea at the family home in Warrington on September 11 2003 because they believed she had brought “shame” on the family with her desire to lead a modern, “westernised” lifestyle.

Terribly, Shafilea had become another victim of what is generally known as ‘honour killing’ - the murder of women who in some shape or form defy patriarchal power relations, whether it be the parents, husbands or brothers or the extended family in general. The prosecution’s key witness at the trial was Shafilea’s 24-year-old sister, Alesha - then 15 - who recounted how she and her siblings had witnessed the murder. In February 2004, with her parents still claiming she had run away and that they had no idea where she was, her corpse was finally found on a remote Cumbrian riverbank.

As became more than clear during the trial, the Ahmeds may have lived in the UK for most of their lives - bringing up their family in Cheshire. But their social and cultural attitudes were firmly those of rural Pakistan. Or, as the judge put it, the couple wanted their family to “live in Pakistan in Warrington”. And, of course, one fundamental feature of patriarchal power is systematic and institutionalised hypocrisy - which Iftikhar seemed to possess in spades.

He came to Britain when he was 10 and in 1980 married a Danish woman, Vivi Lone Anderson, whom he had met while visiting family members in Copenhagen. They had a son together and he even lived for a time in Denmark - almost a cosmopolitan lifestyle, you could say. Especially when you discover that as a young man he liked to be known as ‘Bazza’, enjoyed drinking alcohol (and getting drunk), regularly attended discos, dated numerous women and actually rejected an arranged marriage in order to be with the woman he eventually married - ie, Vivi Anderson. She described the ‘Bazza’ of those days as the “life and soul of the party” and “completely westernised”, falling in love with him “because he was kind and fun to be with” (Daily Mail August 4).

But she left Iftikhar, hardly surprisingly, when she found out in 1985 that he made a trip back to Pakistan with the specific intention of marrying his cousin, Farzana - who, unlike him or his previous wife, had absolutely no experience or understanding of contemporary western culture. Therefore, we are forced to conclude, easier to exploit and intimidate. ‘Family values’, patriarch-style. He told Anderson that he “couldn’t refuse” to marry Farzana, as he had been “promised to her by his family and so had no choice”. The happy (or unhappy) couple - Mr and Mrs Ahmed, that is - returned to the UK in 1986 when Farzana became pregnant, Now reinvented as a devout Muslim, his fun-loving and gregarious days behind him, Iftikhar set about the cruel task of imposing his new-found strict code upon his daughters - first and foremost, Shafilea.

However, she was always rebellious - a “determined, able and ambitious girl who wanted to live a life which was normal”, in the words of the prosecution. In other words, born and brought up entirely in Britain, Shafilea’s priorities and interests were radically different from her parents. She had a wide social circle, with many Asian, black and white friends - some of them boys, of course. Like many British girls, she was a fan of pop music - particularly Justin Timberlake - jeans, colourful t-shirts and spent an inordinate amount of time talking and texting on the mobile phone which she bought herself with the money earned from her part-time job.

Tragically for Shafilea, her parents would not countenance such a way of life - socialising with boys, wearing western clothes. Let alone having sex, drinking booze or smoking joints. Squeezed between two conflicting cultures - the culture she saw around her and wanted to embrace and that of her parents - her life became increasingly intolerable. In the final year before she was murdered, “intimidation, bullying and the use of physical violence” against her - to quote the court reports - stepped up to a whole new level. After running away in February 2003, Shafilea was recaptured by her parents, dragged off the street and forced into a car - where she was taken to rural Pakistan in order to be ‘sorted out’ and have her dangerously westernised ideas ‘removed’.

She was meant to be married off to an older man in Pakistan, so he could abuse her - or ‘discipline’ her - in the same way that her parents had. She rebelled against the straitjacket of a life that had been arranged for her, but in a truly dreadful way - by swallowing bleach whilst in Pakistan.

Six months later Shafilea was dead. Killed by parents who no longer had any use for her and found her dissenting conduct too shameful and humiliating to bear. Just days before her murder, she wrote the following lines of poetry which expressed her yearning for freedom: “I don’t pretend like we’re the perfect family no more, desire to live is burning, my stomach is turning, but all they think about is honour.”

Patriarchal power

Regrettably, the plain fact of the matter is that for Muslim families, especially those from Pakistan, ‘honour killings’ and general terrorisation is by no means abnormal. Rather, it has just come more into public view. According to the children’s charity, Plan UK, a young woman like Shafilea is being forced into marriage every three seconds globally - with 8,000 cases every year in the UK alone. A big problem.

Hoping to combat such oppression, this year Plan UK has launched the country’s first specialist film and lesson plan for use across UK schools. You can see why. Traditionally, for one reason or another, schools have long shied away from properly discussing the issue, despite hundreds of girls going suddenly missing from classrooms every year due to being married off. Almost inevitably, the summer holidays are the most dangerous time of the year for girls at risk of forced marriage - seeing how they can be more easily taken abroad and wed against their will.

For a hint of what might await them if dragged back to Pakistan, just look at the recent ‘scandal’ concerning the sacking of several Pakistani policemen in Gambat - a town of Khairpur District in the Sindh province of Pakistan. According to witnesses and mobile phone footage, the policemen made the man (Mumtaz Mirbahar) and an unnamed woman walk to the police station naked as punishment for the heinous crime of having sex outside marriage. The phone footage shows a naked man being beaten by police and a woman begging them to let her cover herself up. They did not listen.

Mirbahar, “deeply scarred” by the event, has been released on bail but the woman - it almost goes without saying - is still in detention. Her crime is obviously greater. A senior local police officer in the area told Reuters on August 5 that the main arresting officer’s “mistake was that he should have covered them up” - if they had been clothed, so as not to offend public decency and Islamic modesty, then parading and humiliating them in public for the crime of having sex would have been perfectly acceptable. The law and local custom has to be rigorously policed. Similarly, last year several men were arrested for stripping a middle-aged woman naked and parading her round the village as punishment for her son’s alleged affair with a woman in their family.

Many of the victims of ‘honour killings’ are from petty bourgeois backgrounds - the parents may be shopkeepers or own some other small business. Such a culture emphasises and lauds patriarchal power because that is the actual reality of the social, commercial and business relations - which as a matter of necessity requires the exploitation of family members, especially females ones, if they are to avoid bankruptcy and ruination.

In Pakistan this petty bourgeois exploitation is more likely to be of a rural nature. Its ideologisation has taken a religious form, which has been carried over into Britain and elsewhere, placing the crime of honour killing within a particular context. That is why we do not agree with the approach of Socialist Worker, whose report of the “horrific case of Shafilea Ahmed” focuses entirely on the hypocritical “outrage” of the press:

“About two women a week are murdered in Britain, usually by a family member. The vast majority are neither Asian nor Muslim. Just this week David and Frances Champion were jailed for repeatedly and brutally beating up their daughter. She had ‘disgraced’ her white family by going out with a black man.” Despite this, “Killing family members is presented as a peculiar crime of Pakistanis …. This scapegoating just increases racism, while doing nothing to help victims” (August 11).

It seems the Socialist Workers Party has nothing to say on youth rights, nor on patriarchal abusive practices. It pretends there is nothing “peculiar” about honour killings requiring specific answers. Unlike Socialist Worker we communists insist on the rights of young people - of whatever nationality, ethnicity or religion. Young adults, women in particular, must be empowered as autonomous individuals. Communists fight for a situation where people aged over 16 automatically receive an adequate income of some description and hence have the means to leave home if they so wish - not remained trapped in a state of dependency upon their parents (or anyone else). Armed with such a basic right, young women will no longer be ruled over by oppressive fathers, uncles or brothers.


From the CPGB Draft programme, section 3.13 (‘Youth and education’)

l Provision of housing/hostels for youth to enter of their own choice for longer or shorter periods when they lose their parents or choose to leave them.

l The right of every young person on leaving education to a job, proper technical training or full benefits.

l Remove all obstacles to the participation of youth in social life. Votes and the right to be elected from the age of 16.

l The provision of a broad range of sports and cultural centres under the control of representatives elected by youth.

l Abolish age-of-consent laws. We recognise the right of individuals to enter into the sexual relations they choose, provided this does not conflict with the rights of others. Alternative legislation to protect children from sexual abuse.

l The extensive provision of education and counselling facilities on all sexual matters, free from moralistic judgement, is an essential prerequisite to enable youth to develop themselves in all areas of sexuality and reproduction.