UK: "'Honour' crimes are domestic abuse, plain and simple"


This week's Panorama, Britain's Crimes of Honour, made for harrowing viewing. In the space of 30 minutes, the programme recounted horrific murders of women in the UK. There was video footage of Banaz Mahmod, the young Iraqi Kurdish woman from south London whose family murdered her and buried her in a suitcase after she was spotted kissing her boyfriend outside a tube station. There was the grieving mother of Laura Wilson, the teenager from Rotherham who was knifed repeatedly by her boyfriend, Ashtiaq Asghar. Then there was the wedding clip of Nosheen Azam, who came to Sheffield from Pakistan as a young bride and was trapped in an abusive marriage. She was found in her back garden, aflame. Nosheen survived but is brain dead, her body badly burnt. No one knows whether she set herself alight to commit suicide or whether it was attempted murder. Her father, who visits her in a care home, wiped tears from his eyes as he recalled telling her not to leave her husband, for the sake of her family's pride.

Panorama spared no punches: from the very beginning, these murders, referred to as honour killings, were looked at specifically as something if not unique to, then at least particularly prevalent within the south Asian community. There are countless careful articles (such as this one published by the Guardian last month) discussing honour killings, which delicately stress that honour killings happen across different communities; that they aren't always an Asian "thing" (Mahmod's case proves just that, and the Honour Based Violence Awareness Network has recorded honour killings taking place among indigenous communities in Italy, Spain and Greece). But Panorama went straight in.

For the programme, market research company ComRes questioned 500 British Asians between the ages of 16 and 34 about the concept of honour. The poll, published on the BBC site, found 18% of young British Asians think it is justifiable to physically punish a woman in specific scenarios, such as if she disobeys her father or wants to leave an arranged marriage. When asked if honour killings could be justified, 6% of young Asian men said yes, along with 1% of young Asian women. That the documentary and its research poll so specifically targeted British Asians, and the different cultures, religions and communities that all fall under that general, tick-box umbrella, raised questions. Alongside expressing horror towards the crimes committed, many Asians in the social media sphere were asking: why was the British Asian community so specifically highlighted?

In a heated discussion on the BBC Asian Network, listeners complained the documentary was stereotypical and stigmatising, unfairly singling out one community as violent and backwards. Others criticised the survey saying the sample poll size of 500 people was far too small to be representative. Clearly the Panorama poll is not representative of everyone who happens to have Asian heritage, but there is a very real and troubling issue of violence towards women within British Asian society, and there is no point in pretending that there isn't (nearly 500 young women call Karma Nirvana's crime helpline every month). However, terming their victimisation "honour crime" skews the focus, turning what is a heinous crime into a cultural judgment against a homogenous group.

In the UK, on average two women a week are killed by a current or former male partner. It is estimated that there are 10 to 12 honour killings a year. Both sets of statistics are equally horrific; the actions behind both equally unjustifiable and twisted. But when, or why, does an act of domestic abuse, bullying, stalking or violence against a woman become an honour crime? The answer, it seems, is when it occurs in an Asian household. When domestic abuse involves an Asian perpetrator and victim, it is almost always labelled an honour crime. Instead of focusing on the victim or the steps that need to be taken to prevent such a crime from happening again, the crime becomes upheld as a reflection of the otherness of a disdainful culture.

But the senseless motives behind it are surely the same as in any other form of domestic abuse and violence against women, involving over-bearing men, hurt prides, wounded egos and uncontrollable, savage tempers (the shocking and sickening acid attack that was carried out onKatie Piper was never described as an honour crime, though her dangerous, jealous and violent boyfriend was punishing her for having dared to try to leave him).

Putting labels on terrible crimes against women, and affiliating a manifestation of abuse with one culture or community above any other doesn't solve any problems. It divides, spreading hate and fear. But above all it doesn't help the women who remain the victims of this abuse in the first place. There is no honour in honour crimes. It is time to denounce them for what they are – despicable abuse towards women – rather than as part of any specific culture.

By Huma Qureshi