The abuse that Shafilea Ahmed suffered at the hands of her parents, culminating in her murder, is as sickening as it is incomprehensible. The 17-year-old was caught between two cultures – British and Asian – and Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed made her pay the ultimate price, pursuing a campaign of bullying, repression and violence against their daughter. Why? For the "dishonour" of her behaving like a normal British teenager.
That the Ahmed parents received life sentences at Chester Crown Court yesterday, nearly a decade on from the murder, is in itself quite an achievement. So-called honour crimes, centring on notions of family shame and often perpetrated against young women, are so steeped in taboos of family and community, loyalty and fear, that they are a particular challenge to investigators. The persistence of police and prosecutors is therefore to be commended.
It can also only be hoped that, by proving such crimes are taken seriously, other victims will be encouraged to come forward. There is anecdotal evidence that more incidents are already being reported, thanks to the Ahmeds' long-running trial. It will take more than one high-profile conviction, however, to tackle a problem that is largely below the radar. The accepted estimate is of 10,000 "honour" crimes in Britain every year, but experts admit that, with so little reliable data, the figure could be higher still.
Government plans to make forced marriage a criminal offence will, at least, give legal weight to one of the commonest points of contention between British-Asian teenagers and their families. But there is only so much the law can do. And there is a wider lesson here, too. That Shafilea Ahmed's several contacts with social services all ended with her choosing to return home with her parents only emphasises the difficulties that family dynamics present. But there is, nonetheless, a strong case for increased, and more co-ordinated, vigilance both from schools and social services when it comes to telltale signs – sudden absences from school, for example, or complaints of coercion (even if subsequently withdrawn). If it is hard for children to protect themselves from their parents, the authorities must help them.
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