“Shafilea was suffocated by her parents in front of her siblings. Remember the British girls who have lost their lives through honour killings. Help us break the silence at www.karmanirvana.org.uk”
These are the only words that you will read on the front cover of a limited edition of the UK’s Cosmopolitan magazine. Accompanying this is a disturbing image of a young dark-haired girl, with her hands up against the plastic bag which is suffocating her. The image is both shocking and upsetting, but for all the right reasons.
Cosmopolitan magazine has teamed up with the charity Karma Nirvana which supports victims of honour based violence and forced marriages, to highlight a crime that is embedded in cultures and communities across the world. The UN estimates that around 5,000 honour killings take place around the world every year but this figure is thought to be higher as many of the crimes aren’t reported and are kept hidden in certain communities. Honour killings are usually carried out on women by their families who believe that the female member has acted dishonourably and brought shame on them by doing things that most of us would consider quite normal. Socialising with boys, wearing westernised clothes and rejecting cultural expectations can be reason enough for a young girl to be abused and killed by the people who should protect her the most.
A day of remembrance has been established for honour killing victims after a successful campaign by Cosmopolitan and Karma Nirvana. Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of Karma Nirvana started the organisation in 1993 after her own harrowing experience of honour based violence and a forced marriage. From 2015, July 14th will be a day to remember those who have died at the hands of their parents, siblings and partners. But this day is much more significant because it marks Shafilea Ahmed’s birthday. In 2003, Shafilea, a 17 year old British Pakistani girl was suffocated with a plastic bag by her parents in front of her siblings because she had refused an arranged marriage. Shafilea’s body was discovered in the River Kent months after her disappearance and it was only in 2012 that her parents were charged and jailed for her murder.
It is easy to dismiss certain things as being cultural or religious when they happen in foreign countries and villages, but what about when it happens in your own town or community? How can we ignore it when it is happening on our doorstep? And how do you ignore crimes such as honour killings? What Shafilea’s death shows is that honour killings are very much in existence in 21st century Britain. Honour killings and honour based violence are crimes and we need to be able to talk about it openly and make everyone aware that just because it happens behind closed doors and in cultures different to ours, we cannot ignore the fact that it does happen.
Cosmopolitan has done the unexpected in bringing such a complicated cultural issue to the forefront. Glossy women’s magazines have the power to reach thousands of women but this issue did more than that. It acknowledged victims like Shafilea and made a hidden crime seem that much more real. Maybe Cosmopolitan’s approach can be used elsewhere in getting the message across.
Shafilea Ahmed would have turned 29 this year and most likely be the lawyer that she had planned to be. In 2003, when Shafilea was murdered, you could say that the police force, social services and the education system had very little knowledge about honour based violence and forced marriages so could have done very little to prevent what is seen as a ‘cultural’ issue. Now 12 years later, no more excuses. We cannot allow this to happen again. On July 14th, we will remember the lost women. But let us not forget to protect the women of the future, regardless of their race, culture or religion.