Britain examines 'honor killings'

Police step up efforts to halt the brutal custom, which targets a growing number of minority women living in Western Europe.

Heshu Yones was just 16 when her father slit her throat because of her choice of boyfriend. Sahjda Bibi was 21 when a cousin stabbed her to death in her wedding dress for marrying against family wishes. Rukhsana Naz was strangled by her brother and mother for getting pregnant by a lover. The slaughter of a succession of young women by their male family members in recent years has alerted Britain to a problem that has migrated to Western Europe along with growing minority communities from South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East: "honor crimes."

For their perpetrators, these crimes have "honor" because they fulfill tribal custom to redeem the shame that some women have supposedly brought upon their families.

Last month, British police said they were reviewing more than 100 recent murders that could have been honor killings in an effort to understand the crime pattern better.

Their counterparts in Europe are no less alarmed: Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, and France are addressing this growing problem.

The United Nations says at least 5,000 women worldwide are killed each year as a matter of so-called family honor. Increasing numbers of these crimes are happening to women in Western Europe.

"Honor killing is no longer limited to any national frontiers," says Nazand Begikhani, a founding member of Kurdish Women Action Against Honour Killing, an international network of activists. "It is happening worldwide and Britain and Europe are very much affected, given the migration movement, although it is not only limited to migrant communities."

Honor killing, say activists, is just the tip of an iceberg of abusive practice toward women that also includes forced marriage, genital mutilation, domestic imprisonment, prescriptive dress codes such as hijab, and barred access to education and the workplace.

The effort to combat the brutal treatment of women in certain ethnic minorities raises a delicate question: How do authorities crack down on unacceptable practices without offending minority culture? The question has additional resonance given charges of Islamophobia in some countries that support the US-led war on terror.

Feminists say the law often puts culture ahead of the safety of women. Communities say their culture is sacrosanct, inalienable. But, according to Diana Nammi, who runs the International Campaign Against Honour Killing, culture is not set in stone, and never has been. "Culture is something that can be changed," she says.

Ms. Nammi says that excessive tolerance for peculiar minority practices is tantamount to putting culture ahead of women's lives. She says that women have been beaten for daring to show their faces outdoors or talk with a neighbor.

"Many of these women bring 'shame' to the family if they even wear make-up or smoke or go out to the cinema," Nammi says. "Respect for minority culture puts lots of women's lives in danger and they suffer."

"Someone has been forced to marry against their will. Is this abusive? Most people would say yes," says Hannana Siddiqui, joint coordinator of Southall Black Sisters, a London-based group that helps women deal with abuse.

"Stopping a women from working? Not allowing her to develop her career or education? This may not be seen as illegal, but is it abusive? Yes," she adds.

Many women in Britain do not want authorities trespassing on their culture, and see many aspects of their dress, marital arrangements, and social status as their own business.

Harindar Grewall came to Britain from the Punjab region of India seven years ago after an arranged marriage, and said had it not been for the thriving Sikh culture in south London, she would have found it hard to settle.

"It helped a lot as I didn't have any friends," she says, adding that the ability to follow her own traditions had made her feel more at home and enabled her to integrate better.

"English people find [arranged marriage] quite shocking - how could you leave your family and country for someone you don't know that long," she says. "But in some ways, it's better because our families knew each other and our parents had done it for us and so there was more security."

Arranged marriages are not illegal in Britain, but other more-repressive practices are starting to interest police in their effort to get to the bottom of honor killing.

These crimes often follow periods of domestic violence, and a new police task force is reviewing recent killings to see if there are patterns that can alert them to danger in future.

Forced marriages are of particular interest, and police also work with airlines to keep tabs on any family returning to their homeland with a one-way ticket for a daughter. This might suggest a forced marriage - or worse. There have been several cases of young women being murdered or disappearing back in their homeland.

Police insist that the guilty should not use the notion of 'honor' to secure a mitigated sentence. Activists say some perpetrators have had sentences commuted after the 'special' nature of the crime and the community was considered.

"We don't think honor should be a mitigating factor," says the officer. "In quite a lot of these cases there is a lot of preplanning that goes on."

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