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How can honour killings be stopped?

Updated Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Earlier today, the House of Commons heard a ten-minute rule bill presented by Nusrat Ghani to tackle so-called honour killings. The police have said that it will take community action to eradicate the crime. But communities still need to be supported by the legal system, argues Dr Hannana Siddiqui.

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The UK government's Ending Violence against Women and Girls strategy The 2016 strategy paper from the UK Home Office on ending violence against women and girls, introduced by the-then Home Secretary Theresa May

The ‘honour’ killing of Banaz Mahmod represents the tragic consequences of the failure of state and minority communities to tackle honour based violence. The solution, however, does not lie in prevention by communities alone, but also greater state action in supporting black feminist leadership, and ensuring protection and provision. 

"I find it really hard to say how much her death has affected me. Words just do not say enough.. .. The last time I saw Banaz alive was in 2005 ... I wish with all my heart I had taken her with me in 2005 because she would then still be alive…I can honestly say there's not been one night without having nightmares about what has happened to her…My life will never be the same again. If there's one thing I could wish for it would be to have Banaz back. I miss her and love her.”

These words are those of the sister of Banaz Mahmod, murdered in a so called ‘honour’ killing in Britain in 2006 by her father, uncle, male cousins and other men in the community.  They represent the extreme and tragic results of honour based violence (HBV) in black and minority ethnic (BME) communities which needs urgent action to address through prevention, protection and provision.      

At a recent conference in Britain, a senior police officer stated that the police could not eradicate HBV alone; that sustained change could only be made by the communities themselves through community driven solutions.  He also said that the pitfalls of the past should be avoided, such as leaving it to male community leaders or ‘gatekeepers’ to resolve problems through mediation and religious arbitration or ‘paralegal’ systems, which simply increase risks to victims. Instead, he called on black and ethnic minority  women fighting oppression within these communities to be regarded as the ‘leaders’ and ‘role models’ to create change.  

These pitfalls, and the need to change cultural and religious attitudes and practices through BME women’s leadership and self-empowerment have long been demanded by black feminists. However, while this recognition by the police is welcome, sustained change cannot be achieved by the community alone. While both community and the state are accountable, it is the state which has a legal obligation for ‘due diligence’ to protect black and minority ethnic women and girls from honour based violence. Prevention has to be accompanied by protection and provision. Even action within communities hostile to patriarchy or the power base of its conservative male leadership, such as BME women and girls’ services and campaigns to tackle HBV and for women’s rights, needs state support to prevent repression. Yet these are the very services and campaigns that often the state fails to support! 


While the need for provision for specialist services for black and minority ethnic women is supported, prevention and challenging cultural attitudes which underpin harmful practices is a priority in the government’s Ending Violence against Women and Girls Strategy 2016-2020. However, although recently the government has supported a few prevention projects by BME women, it has done little in focusing national campaigns on cultural change within these communities in partnership with the women’s organisations. Instead, it continues to emphasise work with male leaders, for example, by issuing a faith leaders declaration against female genital mutilation. 

Despite the government’s position, there are a few successful examples of promising practice prevention work led by black and ethnic minority women, which should be replicated or scaled up by the state. The Southall Black Sisters whole school’s project  showed that classroom sessions with male and female pupils and teacher training by experts from BME women’s services had a significant impact in raising awareness, and changing attitudes and behaviour on violence against women and girls - particularly forced marriage and honour based violence (Siddiqui and Bhardwaj, 2014). The project also developed a young BME female pupil Ambassadors for Change programme which campaigned within the school and more widely. Feedback from the pupils indicated that Southall Black Sisters involvement in the project was critical to its success, that the lessons had exposed some myths about the violence in their communities and, feeling more determined to obtain help for victims, they demanded that issues such as honour based violence should be part of the national curriculum. 

The teachers also expressed relief at obtaining new insights and support to discuss sensitive issues such as religion, which previously they were less confident in addressing because of a lack of knowledge or a fear of a community backlash. Southall Black Sisters has now published its education pack, Changing Hearts and Minds to disseminate lesson plans and best practice. It is also extending the Ambassadors programme to survivors to challenge cultural and religious norms and practices within the community.  

Another example of prevention work is The Fatima Project, an EU Daphne funded multi-country project, which in the UK was led by the Angelou Centre. It aimed at preventing honour based violence through educational training activities with communities delivered by 15 predominately BME women’s organisations from across the country. The participants, mainly survivors and women from the communities, reported raised awareness of their rights, where to seek help and wanting to do more to tackle the problem. Some were also shocked about the scale and nature of the honour based violence and other forms of gendered violence in their communities. One participant said, “it was good to know what are root causes of violence, and how as a community and society we make excuses and female blame.” Another asked “why is this information not more available? it would have made a difference to me” and yet another said “you feel more powerful and confident when educated.”


Contrary to its due diligence obligations under CEDAW  and the Istanbul Convention  (when ratified), the government’s violence against women strategy advocates a ‘whole family’ or ‘troubled families’ approach which loses its primary focus of protecting victims and holding perpetrators to account. It is also woefully inadequate in meeting the challenges of the collective nature of domestic violence/HBV where codes of ‘honour’ are used to justify, collude or inflict abuse by multiple perpetrators in extended BME families and communities. It is also worrying that the government is considering using the ‘restorative justice’ approach to change and penalise offending behaviour in domestic violence cases. This approach, although it does not aim to save relationships and is conducted in formal settings, nevertheless ignores the imbalance of power, and the nature of emotional and coercive control in abusive relationships. It also places black and minority ethnic women under even greater pressure by the state to accept ‘mediation,’ ‘arbitration’ and ‘reconciliation’ with perpetrators as a solution - in a context where there are already cultural expectations to use these informally to ‘save’ marriages and keep the family together to prevent ‘shame’ and ‘dishonour.'

Additionally, as stated in the strategy, the government intention to raise awareness of domestic violence as a crime among BME women and end their isolation by teaching them English would not be so sinister if harmful practices and learning English for Muslim women/mothers were not also linked to the wider agenda of preventing extremism and immigration control. Why should measures to protect these women and girls from gendered violence, which is a cause and consequence of gender inequality, be shaped by these policies which are criticised by many for fuelling race and religious discrimination. Indeed, this approach amounts to multiple discrimination – the very thing that the government's strategy to end violence against women says it wants to oppose!

The policing of honour based violence and other harmful practices is also considered a priority for the state, particularly after several cases of so called ‘honour killings’ and their dramatic failure in preventing the murder of Banaz Mahmod who reported threats to her life and other abuses to the police five times before her death in 2006.  However, even following the outrage of this death, a recent investigation into HBV, forced marriage and female genital mutilation by the HMIC found that although there are pockets of good practice, there is a ‘very mixed picture in terms of police preparedness and effectiveness’ and that ‘the police and other organisations still do not have a sound and complete understanding of the nature and magnitude of these crimes, nor how best to respond to them.’ However, the HMIC proposal to government to review the legislative framework with a view to criminalise all forms of HBV where existing offences do not adequately deal with the particular context of the crimes perhaps takes the police off the hook for their failure to enforce current law. It also wants consideration of penalties to take account of the violence as an aggravating element.

Criminalisation raises concerns about driving the problem underground, and diverting resources away from legal aid and welfare services. Offences introduced on forced marriage and female genital mutilation have so far not yielded any or many prosecutions and convictions, and some BME women’s groups complain of victims refusing to come forward due to a fear of jailing their parents or other relatives.  There is also concern that the seriousness of domestic homicide and violence in BME communities seems to be downgraded as a crime. While the HMIC recognises that this kind of violence has common features with domestic abuse, the two are difficult to distinguish as in many cases, domestic violence in BME communities involves multiple perpetrators and represents the act of violence on one side of the coin while ‘honour’ is used to justify it on the other side.

There is also concern that culturalisation and ‘exoticisation’ of gender based violence against BME women undermines an understanding of gender inequality rather than culture or religion (although these can be used to justify it) as the root cause. This could lead to race based solutions such as more immigration controls like the 21-year age requirement for overseas spouses introduced on the pretext of tackling forced marriage, but which limited rights to family life for marriage migrants (the requirement was overturned on these grounds in 2011 in the cases of Quila and Bibi). It can also lead to neglecting to apply basic standards of established best practice on domestic and sexual violence, and safeguarding because honour based violence is considered so ‘different’ that it requires very ‘different’ solutions, resulting in under-policing due to cultural or religious sensitivities or over-policing due to racism and stereotyping ( Siddiqui 2013).

I have also long raised a concern about failure of the police and Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to tackle the extrajudicial nature of crimes against BME women and girls, including domestic homicide, honour killings, forced marriage, imprisonment, abandonment, and other abuses overseas. These cases require more robust application of current law. These issues were first raised in the honour related murder of Surjit Athwal, which, due to the lack of support from the British and Indian police (although the British police investigation improved later as a ‘cold case’) and from the FCO took nine years to bring to justice in 2007. The alleged suspects living in India have still not been tried.  The FCO appears to intervene more robustly in cases involving non-minority British nationals murdered or in trouble overseas; examples include Lucie Blackman  and Madeleine McCann.  These seems to be on-going features in more recent cases of Samia Shahid, Manjit Kular, Amina Al-Jeffery and Seeta Kaur.   


Even with regard to state concern for specialist services, the government’s violence against women and girls strategy leaves it to local commissioners to fund specialist services for BME women and girls where conservative male leaders control or influence local Councils and health bodies. Despite the government’s promise to publish guidance or statement of expectations, cash-strapped local authorities are unable to adequately respond, and investment is urgently needed by central government to ring-fence a funding stream to address historical underfunding of these services. In a context of austerity and competitive commission favouring larger, generalist providers, this failure has led to the demise of the sector. An ironic outcome at a time when the state has expressed so much concern for harmful practices and isolation of BME women, and prevention and implementation cannot be effective without these frontline community based services because BME women and girls are more likely to use them to access mainstream support.  

This and wider cuts in legal aid and welfare services may also be one of drivers behind BME women’s (another being increased pressure by orthodox religious or conservative forces within their communities) growing use of community based religious arbitration and faith based services on family issues such as divorce, forced marriage and domestic violence; thus diverting vulnerable women away from the criminal and civil justice system, and subjecting them to discriminatory parallel religious laws. 

There is a concern that the state is accommodating these developments. Under the preventing extremism agenda, there is a duty on local authorities to promote social cohesion, which is more often than not interpreted as funding muslim specific services, including those for muslim women, which is increasingly done at the expense of secular feminist BME women’s groups.  Even state attempts to respond to criticism of Sharia Courts for discriminating against muslim women in two current initiatives, a government review and an investigation by the Select Committee, have forced secular black feminists to boycott the former and demand a fair hearing in the latter as restricted remits and procedures, and/or controversial panellists cast doubts on their commitment to question the discriminatory effects of these tribunals on women’s rights.    

In the late 1990s, for a brief moment, black feminists agreed with national government when the then junior Home Office Minister, Mike O’Brien advocated a ‘mature multi-culturalism’ in the debate on forced marriage. This acknowledged how old style multi-culturalism had a ‘moral blindness’ by ignoring women’s rights within BME communities due to cultural sensitivity. Mature multi-culturalism recognised the need for the state to intervene in to order to protect the human rights of BME women without undermining good race relations. 

Multi-faithism is now replacing multi-culturalism, which stands accused of undermining social cohesion and the war against terror, and mature multi-culturalism is forgotten. Despites its criticism of cultural relativism and stated aim to protect BME women, the state is repeating the mistakes of the past by promoting a version of ‘multi-faithism’ which ignores these women’s rights in the name of ‘religious sensitivity.’ Perhaps the way forward is to adopt a mature multi-cultural and ‘mature multi-faithism’ approach within a secular state  which guarantees rights to believers and non-believers without privileging any particular religion, but at the same time protects against both religious and gender discrimination.          

Debates and policies on honour based violence also need to be informed by wider frameworks of violence against women and girls, intersectionality, secularism and human rights - thus avoiding discriminatory responses by the state on the grounds of gender, race and religion. So, while education and prevention is vital, this should be driven through secular black feminist leadership with state support and action to ensure that all women and girls have voice, protection and provision in order to create real and lasting change.

This article was originally published in November 2016 by under a CC-BY-NC licence


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