Joan Smith: 'Honour' killings are an outrage we must confront

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It's a startling statistic: in one British city alone, 33 children under the age of 16 are missing from school rolls. Officials in Bradford have not been able to establish what has happened to them, and there are fears that some may have become victims of forced marriage.

Two days ago the children's minister, Kevin Brennan, revealed the figure to the Home Affairs select committee and said that the Government also has concerns about 14 areas of the country which are suspected of having high levels of so-called "honour" crimes. Brennan said that Bradford City Council lost track of 205 children last year and had subsequently been able to establish the whereabouts of 172, leaving 33 – around 15 per cent – unaccounted for. While there may be an innocent explanation for some of them, the police and the Foreign Office forced marriage unit are dealing with around 500 cases each year.

The select committee's chair, Keith Vaz, described the minister's disclosures as "very, very serious" matters. "The figures you have given us quite frankly have shocked members of this committee just in relation to Bradford," Vaz told Brennan. "There are 14 others areas where there are missing children. This is totally unsatisfactory."

Last month the same committee heard evidence from a senior police officer that the true level of forced marriage and "honour" crime is not reflected in official figures, and that as many as 17,500 girls, women and young men may become victims each year. A series of trials has provided horrific insights into honour-based killings, one of the most shocking being the rape and murder in south London of a 20-year-old Kurdish woman, Banaz Mahmod, by hitmen hired by her father and uncle.

Until very recently, respect for the idea of multiculturalism has inhibited discussion of forced marriage and honour-based crimes in the UK. This doesn't help anyone, neither potential victims nor the young men who come under pressure from relatives to commit murder on their behalf; in 2004, two boys aged 16 and 19 were ordered by their Bangladeshi father to kill their sister's boyfriend, a student at Oxford Brookes University, who was from an Iranian family.

We have worrying levels of domestic violence in this country, carried out by people of all races and backgrounds, but it is important to recognise that honour-based crime is different in several important respects; it is planned in advance, may be carried out by more than one family member, and depends on the silent collusion, if not direct involvement, of many more. In Turkey, where hundreds of "honour" killings take place each year, a Turkish documentary-maker, Ayse Onal, has visited prisons all over the country, interviewing men who have been convicted of murdering sisters, daughters and mothers. Few of them show remorse and they are treated with respect by fellow-prisoners and guards, who approve of this method of restoring a family's "honour".

We urgently need to recognise honour-based killings as an expression of classic patriarchal values, which give fathers, brothers and uncles absolute power over women and younger, less-powerful males. In societies built on such values, girls and women are regarded as commodities, not individuals. They are usually married off before completing their education, passing illiteracy on to the next generation. In Pakistan, where honour-based crime is a huge problem, the female adult literacy rate is 36 per cent, according to the UN, and only 15 per cent of rural women receive an education.

In Egypt, 45 per cent of women over the age of 15 cannot read or write, and 85 per cent of female heads of households in rural areas are illiterate. "Very often, a family will take their daughter out of school aged 13 or 14," says Nihad Abul-Qumsan, director of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights. "By the time she's grown up, she'll have forgotten how to read or write properly."

Honour-based cultures depend on strict rules and even surgical procedures to allay their fears about women's sexuality, and a staggering 97 per cent of Egyptian women have undergone genital mutilation. The Egyptian government finally moved to ban the practice (with results that remain to be seen) last year, after a 12-year-old girl died as a consequence of FGM.

This is not just a women's issue. When half the population is denied basic human rights, from education to being able to choose who to marry, the consequences are profound. Women are the "huge, untapped" economic resource of the Middle East, according to the World Bank, and there is a direct link between female illiteracy, poverty and poor health; life expectancy increases dramatically when women learn to read and write, while infant mortality and fertility rates fall.

Patriarchal values are supposed to make men feel strong but the evidence is that they do just the opposite, filling fathers and sons with unbearable anxiety and trapping entire families in poverty. They are the enemy not just of women's rights but economic prosperity, and they have no place in the 21st century.

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