Joan Smith: Modernity – an end to male-run faiths and 'honour' crimes

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When demonstrators gathered in London yesterday to protest against sharia, the Archbishop of Canterbury was otherwise engaged with the Pope. It's almost two years since Rowan Williams caused an outcry when he suggested that recognising aspects of sharia would help social cohesion, and, every day, evidence accumulates to show how wrong he was. Women, girls and young men desperately need protection from religious laws and the patriarchal attitudes associated with them, as two ghastly events demonstrated last week.

First, on Monday evening, a young mother was found dying from head injuries in a street in West London. Geeta Aulakh worked as a receptionist at Sunrise Radio in Ealing and was on her way to pick up her sons from a childminder when she was attacked. As soon as I learned that her right hand had been hacked off, I assumed it was an "honour" killing, and I'm unconvinced by the claim of a senior police officer that "it could be a defence wound". The right hand has huge significance in Sikh culture and Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of the South Asian women's organisation Karma Nirvana, has described in her autobiographical book Shame how important "honour" is in some Sikh communities. Geeta Aulakh left her husband last year after a troubled marriage and was in the process of getting divorced. Her sister Anita Shinh said she had felt threatened for months: "She feared for her life, but she wasn't able to talk about it to anyone. She didn't want to worry us."

Also last week, a Muslim man appeared in court in Blackburn: Aurang Zeb made history earlier this year when he was one of the first people to be served with a forced marriage protection order, preventing him taking his daughter Rozina Akhtar to Pakistan to marry her cousin against her will. After the order was imposed in February, Zeb tried to force his son to attack his mother and sister, and threatened to kill his wife and cut out her tongue. Last week he was convicted of breaching the order, forbidden to contact his family and ordered to carry out 200 hours of community service. Shazia Qayum of Karma Nirvana criticised the sentence, pointing out there was clear evidence that Zeb had threatened to kill his wife. "Community service? He should have been locked up," she said.

The MP for Blackburn is the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, and earlier this year the Government's forced marriage unit started holding confidential forced marriage surgeries in the town. In the first nine months of last year, the unit gave advice or support in 1,308 cases nationally and intervened directly in 388, a 100 per cent increase on the same period in 2007. These figures are shocking and encouraging at the same time: as The Independent on Sunday reported last year, the extent of forced marriage and "honour" crimes in this country is only beginning to be revealed.

It's sometimes argued that forced marriage and "honour" crimes have nothing to do with religion, as though faith and cultural practices are separate. Obviously they aren't, and "honour" crimes happen in circumstances where ideas about the superiority of male relatives are entrenched through religion. There is a bigger point here: the shift away from a tribal social structure, where senior males expect to enjoy unchallenged authority based on religious texts, is a key condition of modernity. It's supported not just by secularists but by Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and Christians who want to practise their faith in the modern world. They're on the right side of the argument – and of history.

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