Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The hopelessness I feel at these 'honour' murders

People committing an outrage in the name of religion or cultural practice should get longer sentences
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The Independent Online

Mahmod Mahmod says he loved his daughter Banaz, that he "could not harm her". That is why he arranged for the spirited 20-year-old to be strangled by his brother Ari and other family gangsters before packing her corpse into a suitcase - all neat and ready to travel to paradise early. What love, what sacrifice!

Now the men go to prison feeling "honour" heroes, enforcers of female "virtue" unto death. In fact, they are upholders of barbaric cultural values that legitimate female enslavement and submission. In the pictures of them in the newspapers, their eyes shine bright. No shades of self-doubt, you feel, ever dim the glint of their certainty and machismo. Before he killed her, Mahmod Mahmod had forced Banaz into marriage with an allegedly abusive husband. She rejected this life, refused her chosen destiny, left the spouse, and found love with another. He was, like her family, a Kurd, though from another tribe. The lovers were seen kissing in a street in south London, and that was the beginning of the end of her life.

The first time in our legal history when someone was convicted of an honour murder was in 2003, and that case also involved a rigid Kurdish Iraqi father unprepared to accept that living in the West had made his child yearn for freedoms and rights. They lived in Acton, west London, a mile from my flat. Heshu Yones was a gorgeous, bright 16-year-old hacked to death by her dad, Abdallah, who couldn't bear what she was becoming.

Why, you wonder, do they want to come to live in countries where their children cannot but absorb western values? Before she died, Heshu wrote this letter: "Me and you will probably never understand each other, but I'm sorry I wasn't what you wanted, but there's some things you can't change. Hey, for an older man you sure have a strong punch and kick. I hope you enjoyed testing your strength on me. It was fun being a 16-year-old at the receiving end. Well done."

I can't describe to you the fury and hopelessness I feel every time another such case comes to light. That the police once again failed criminally to provide protection to a young woman proves this institution still betrays women, and those from "alien" backgrounds (in their eyes) even more abysmally so.

Thirty years ago, Asian women started campaigning against the sanctioned brutalisation of girls and women. Then the big story was dowry deaths among Hindus and Sikhs - women being burnt to death or forced to kill themselves by in-laws dissatisfied with the bridal dowry. There were some murders of the "disobedient", but comparatively few, as then women were still trapped in old values they never thought they could challenge.

In the Eighties and Nineties, the second generation of Asian women got more feisty and so many more were beaten and killed. But attitudes also shifted, thanks to our ceaseless campaigns, even when our own lives were threatened. We barely hear of dowry deaths in Britain these days. In middle-class Asian families, working women have no interest in men who demand money for marriage. The third generation came along, and are more mouthy and conscious of themselves as individuals. The more permissive youth culture makes conflicts with older values more bloody, especially within enclaves with recent migrants from places where women have no autonomous existence, as was the case across the UK, remember, until Edwardian times.

Those heinous values are today more, not less, brazenly espoused in too many communities. Honour killings and assisted suicides are growing here, in every Arab country, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh, even among Muslims and Christians in Palestine. We know only of the ones we do. Countless more go unreported because families pretend the woman or girl is "back home". And we know nothing of the scale of honour abuse. The two Kurdish families, above, were encouraged and protected by their own people, who will undoubtedly have congratulated the slayers for their high-mindedness.

Now we know domestic violence is used against women and children in every society. Murders within families of "troublesome" females are also widespread. You need only to look at the growing list of British men who kill their partners, and sometimes children, because they cannot accept the woman's decision to end the relationship. Sometimes juries and judges act as if the crimes are "understandable". The difference, though, is that their communities and neighbourhoods don't close ranks and provide cultural cover for the lawless desperados.

The group Kurdish Women Action Against Honour Killings (Kwahk) asked a painter, Rebwar Saeed, to remember Heshu in his work. He taught her art when she was 10. At the launch of the works, he said: "In her beautiful eyes many hopes shone forth. Her drawings reflected her dreams of flying off to join the clouds and moon to tell them her secrets."

They dared to dream, these women, and they were snuffed out, as more will be until we decide to make the crimes aggravated offences, as is the case with race. Anyone committing an outrage in the name of religion or cultural practice should get longer sentences and have their villainy named as unforgivable. Those who collude should also be tried and put away. One day we will end this vile domestic terrorism against young females. Not in my lifetime, though.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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