UK: No cultural justifications for honour-based violence

The Guardian
"What we should learn from forced marriages and 'honour' killings is that we cannot allow cultural relativism to compromise women's human rights."
Multicultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness...
So said the Home Office minister Mike O'Brien in 1999 when talking about forced marriages. Today, at the beginning of 2008, the same statement can be applied to the condition of women's lives, and the lack of human rights that they experience.

Take the case of Shafilea Ahmed. The 17-year-old had experienced domestic violence at home, and had voiced concerns to friends and professionals that she may be forced into marriage, an inquest heard yesterday. She went missing and was discovered dead by a Cumbrian river in 2004. At the time of her disappearance, a teacher who had overheard her siblings talking reported her missing. Yesterday, at the inquest into Shafilea's death, Detective Superintendent Geraint Jones spoke of how she had told several people that she was "frightened of being forced into marriage".

In her speech at Chatham House in October, Cherie Booth QC delivered a powerful discourse about women's human rights in the 21st century, and in particular the "twin distortions of culture and religion". Later, I asked Ms Booth how she thought religious and cultural traditions could be challenged bearing in mind issues of cultural sensitivity. She acknowledged that it was hard to change culture from the outside but felt that international pressure and disapproval had some effect. She also said, "We should not underestimate the value of practical and moral support and friendship to the brave people struggling against the odds in various parts of the world."

I am not sure that is enough.

At a conference on forced marriage in London last year, the Forced Marriage Unit highlighted some of the horrors, which include kidnapping, violence, rape and even murder, experienced by the victims and survivors of forced marriages. It is true that men as well as women are forced into marriage, but undoubtedly, it is women who are most often the victims. It is also generally women that are victims of so-called honour killings.

The increase in the numbers of forced marriages and "honour killings" is mirrored in the growing numbers of young British men from various ethnic minorities that are involved in forcing a woman to marry against her will, or are involved in the crime of "honour" killing (forcing someone to marry is not a criminal act!). A BBC survey carried out in 2006 found that 1 in 10 young Asians said that they could justify the murder of someone who supposedly dishonoured their family.

Nazir Afzal OBE from the Crown Prosecution Service is a leading criminal lawyer in the field of so-called honour crimes. He highlighted the problem of young men's attitude towards women by quoting a young man he had met in a focus group addressing violence in the Asian community. The young man explained he would go to great lengths to defend his family's honour, and that honour revolved around the women in his family. Asked why women were so important to honour he said, "man is a piece of gold, and woman is a piece of silver. If gold falls in the dirt, you can wipe it clean. When silver falls to the ground, it is dirtied."

Rather like the "home-grown terrorist" phenomenon, it is shocking to think that that a young man who has gone through the British education system, and lived in British society, could hold such views, or be involved in the murder or abduction of his sister. How do you challenge such deep disregard for one-half of the world's population?

I want to say that the world is generally sexist, but I am finding it hard. I fear that most women live in a misogynist world where they are seen as a liability or their bodies are a battlefield for warring men. Look at Darfur, Pakistan, India or gang wars in the UK or the US, for example. This misogyny is so established in our collective cultural psyche that some women, maybe out of their own need to survive, have become part of the oppressive system - instilling in both female and male children the ideology that girls are worth less than boys.

I think that Cherie Booth is right to some extent. Change sometimes has to come from outside. It is through education, and particularly the education of children, that the change will come. Human rights and women's rights should be taught at school. Single-sex religious schools should be challenged on their curriculum - looking in particular at what they teach the young about their gender roles in society. Often, religious schools - single sex or mixed - are problematic in that indoctrination (usually of girls) starts at a young age.

All countries need to start educating their citizens from a young age. When children are being taught in schools about right and wrong, or citizenship, they should be taught about what makes up the human rights act and the rights of women.

Agencies such as social workers, police and support groups cannot be afraid to intervene in what might be seen as a "cultural" matter. To quote the findings of the Victoria Climbie inquiry, "this is not an area in which there is much scope for political correctness". Intervention from the police or social workers may have prevented the horrific deaths of Banaz Mahmod and Victoria Climbie.

The forced marriage protection order, which comes into force later this year, allows third-party intervention against a forced marriage. Social workers, teachers and women's right groups (among others) will have the authority to ask courts to stop families forcing children and young adults into marriage in the UK and abroad. The act is an essential piece of legislation in the fight against the silent human rights abuses of women. The protection order provides a safeguard for women who do not have access to information about their rights or might not have the confidence to search for help.

If, as a country, we are truly committed to the equality of women, and to the rights of all humans, then that commitment has to filter through to all its citizens, and not just the educated articulate elite. Only then can we move from a state of confusion where women, in all strata of society and cultures, can cease to be seen as chattel.

As Nazir Afzal said: "Human rights should outweigh cultural rights every time".

By: Lily Gupta

9 January 2008