Shafilea: Another tragic victim of 'honour killing'?

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The Independent Online

Shafilea Ahemd seemed like a typical British Asian teenager caught between two worlds but little suggested she was in danger of becoming a tragic victim of the culture clash.

She spoke Urdu at home and observed Muslim prayers. At the same time, she idolised R&B singers, owned a pair of tight jeans and secretly stored the numbers of Asian male friends on her mobile phone.

To her parents, their 17-year-old daughter's friendship with five white pupils from college in Warrington, Cheshire, was a bad influence.

Earlier this year, they took her to Pakistan in the hope of arranging her marriage to a distant relative many years older than her.

She refused, a decision that Cheshire police believe may be connected to her disappearance on 11 September. They are investigating the possibility that she may be the latest victim of "honour killing", in which Asian women have been murdered for bringing "shame" upon their community.

A police team was yesterday searching wasteland around her family home in the Warrington suburb of Great Sankey. Officers believe she is almost certainly dead.

Detective Chief Inspector Geraint Jones, senior investigating officer at Cheshire police, said the family home had been examined by forensic scientists and personal scribblings, including some verse, were being assessed to determine her thoughts before she disappeared.

Shafilea held dual nationality and her British and Pakistani passports were also discovered, ruling out the possibility that she was taken abroad. "We are pursuing various lines of inquiry in connection with her disappearance and the family has not been eliminated from that," Det Ch Insp Jones said.

"Shafilea was very close to her 15-year-old sister and we are in the process of examining details from her bedroom and determining whether it is her handwriting or her sister's."

Shafilea's signs of distress were already apparent before she disappeared, but they could have been mistaken for the mercurial behaviour of any teenager. Shafilea, who has three sisters, aged seven, 13 and 15, and one brother, 12, had attempted to run away twice, once last November and again in late January this year.

Her behaviour became worryingly irrational in February while she was on a family trip to Pakistan, where it was hoped she would agree to an arranged marriage. She is believed to have swallowed bleach in an act of desperation. The damage to her oesophagus was so severe that she was admitted to hospital in Pakistan.

She was brought back to Britain when her father, Iftikhar Ahmed, a taxi driver, became concerned by the quality of medical care she was receiving in Pakistan, and she continued to receive treatment at a hospital in Warrington, when she returned on 27 May

She enrolled for A-level studies at Priestley Sixth Form College, after getting good GCSE results the previous year.

The headteacher of her former school, Alan Yates, and principal of Priestley College, Mike Southworth, said she was a bright and popular student.

"Shafilea really is a lovely girl and she was very well liked by everyone at our school," said Mr Yates.

Mr Southworth added: "She made a good impression with her tutors before she disappeared ... We hope and pray she will be found safe and well."

Her parents are private and protective over their children. Even the next-door neighbour, Joan Starkey, had never spoken to the children or seen them on their own. They reported nothing out of the ordinary on the night of her disappearance.

Shafilea's mother, Farzana Ahmed, picked her up from the local call centre at 9pm where she worked four nights a week, and she was driven back to the family's semi-detached home.

She shared her bed, as she did every night, with her seven-year-old sister but when the household awoke, she had gone with what appeared to be very few clothes, according to detectives.

Although the household is fairly traditional - Shafilea wore the salwaar kameez outfit at home - investigators believe her freedom was not unduly restricted. She wore Western clothes for work and college and although her parents disapproved of the behaviour of some of her friends, they tolerated her Western ways.

Her 15-year-old sister, who is devastated by Shafilea's disappearance, was her closest friend. They shared a passion for R&B singers, Romeo, Justin Timberlake and Kelly Rowland, and would often spend their spare hours window shopping at the Trafford Centre near Manchester.

It was initially believed that she may have run away and was being harboured by her friends, but they have been "banging on the family's door wanting to know where Shafilea was", according to police.

Discrepancies between the accounts of Shafilea's friends and her family have added to investigators' concerns.

Evidence indicates that she is not a runaway and points to more sinister conclusions.

She was still undergoing crucial medical treatment, with weekly hospital sessions under general anaesthetic. In her two previous attempts to flee the family home, she had planned her missions meticulously, hoarding away clothes and money and seeking refuge in the homes of close friends. Her family did not report the disappearance until a week later when a teacher at her former school, Great Sankey High, alerted police. Her father had apparently not informed police because he believed she had run away yet again and would be back within days.

Her extended family in Bradford, West Yorkshire, where Shafilea was born, have been questioned, every hospital in the country has been contacted and missing person posters have been posted, to no avail. The greatest hope now is to recover a body so that the state of limbo for those who loved Shafilea most can end.

FORCED MARRIAGE

¿ Forced marriage differs from arranged marriage in that consent is not sought or is extracted under duress.

¿ The Foreign Office says forced marriages are vastly under-reported. It dealt with 250 cases last year.

¿ Research has found a clear link between forced marriage and "honour" crimes, such as murder.

¿ Home Office guidelines for handling forced marriage were distributed to every police force in Britain last year.

¿ Fifteen per cent of cases reported to the Foreign Office affect men forced into marriage.

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