Joanne Payton Co-founder of HBVA and works with Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation and International Campaign Against Honour Killings.
Yesterday, Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed were sentenced to life for the murder of their daughter Shafilea after a trial lasting four months. They considered Shafilea too ‘westernised’, particularly when she refused to marry a husband of their choosing. Shafilea was murdered in September 2003, meaning that it has taken almost nine years to achieve justice in this case. Cheshire police are certainly to be commended for their long-term commitment to the investigation particularly given the complexities of investigating HBV, although it remains concerning that Shafilea exhibited several warning signs indicating her risk, none of which were identified at the time. There are lessons here to be learned, asSara Khan argues in the Guardian, about the continued lack of awareness of the risks of family violence against young people, and young women in particular, at the hands of their parents and other relatives.
The case from the prosecution was energised by the decision of Shafilea’s sister Alesha to testify against her parents. Several cases of successful prosecutions of ‘honour’ crimes in Europe have been built around the testimony of a sister: Breen Atroshi, Songül Sahindaland Bekhal Mahmod all stand as exemplars of moral courage for their decision, at great personal cost, to honour the memories of their late sisters by fighting for justice. All of these have faced exclusion from their families and communities as a result of their courage.
In an earlier post, I discussed the motivation of mothers who support or enact violence justified with respect to so-called ‘honour.’ It is generally the case that sisters are likely to be co-conspirators – Bekhal Mahmod had several sisters, who supported their father, and Shafilea Ahmed’s sister Mevish defended her parents in court, even attempting to explain that heartbreaking letters which described the murder were a piece of creative ‘free writing’. The complaisance of so many women in ‘honour’ crimes points to the potency of the language of ‘honour’ and the dominion of parents over young people. But young women, even those who are not targeted for victimisation due to their own ‘dishonourable’ behaviour appear to be the weakest link in the system. The bonds of sisterhood are intense, built on shared experiences and memories, affection and mutual support. Sisters may share several individual experiences, but as young women they also share the greatest level of subordination within a system of oppression that has a dual axis – it is not only that males (fathers, husbands, brothers and uncles) dominate females, but elder females (mothers, mothers-in-law, aunts) also dominate their younger counterparts.
For a young woman or girl in a traditional family, her sisters and female cousins may be the most egalitarian. As young women, sisters share the consciousness of their comparative powerlessness within a system that leaves them at a double disadvantage. Alesha and women like her remind us that while individual young women may have little power in traditional families, sisterhood remains powerful.