Last year, to mark International Women’s day, Cosmpolitan magazine ran an article titled ‘Why you’re lucky to be a woman in the UK‘. On an ordinary Saturday, it told us, ‘the average Cosmo reader might ‘wake up in the morning, slip into jeans and a T-shirt, jump into your car and head into town. You meet a group of friends for lunch before heading off later to meet your boyfriend for a drink in a bar. Then you enjoy a cosy night between the sheets…’.
This, it went on, is not the case in the ‘less fortunate’ countries of the world (which included India, Sudan, South Africa, and a few other Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries). British women may face violence, Cosmo continued, ‘but we are not dismissed or ignored by the government that is there to protect us them. And we live in a society where we can protest and make our voices heard’. If Cosmo’s sugary fantasy departed completely from the reality of everyday life in Britain for most women, where far from protecting them, the government is often complicit in violence against them, it also conveniently forgot that the largest anti-rape protests in the world took place in that ‘less fortunate’ country, India, in December 2012.
But perhaps Cosmopolitan simply wants its readers to feel that they are superior to everyone else, and particularly to people of colour. This year, shortly after publishing a beauty guide that glorified white beauty and dismissed ‘brown-skinned’ women, the magazine returned to its focus on ‘less fortunate’ Black and Brown women, this time targeting those right here in Britain. With the support of the Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats, it announced 14 July as a day to remember ‘Britain’s Lost Women’ – victims of Honour-based violence in the UK.
Honour-based violence is a horrific and crucially important issue which must be confronted. But the most effective way of doing so, as the experience of the movement against violence against women has shown, is to support the women facing violence and threats and help them to take control of their lives. Unfortunately the government has ruthlessly done away with a large number of the services and refuges established by Black and South Asian feminists, which with their understanding and experience of dealing with honour-based violence were able to play this role. In many parts of the country, young women at risk have literally no one to turn to and the police with their abysmal record on race and gender violence (demonstrated by a host of cases) and their lack of understanding of honour-based violence, fail them continually. In place of these services the government has brought the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 and its accompanying infrastructure, it has moved away from a preventative strategy to punitive action and criminalisation. The way these new laws operate takes control completely out of the hands of the women affected. Every detail of their lives, from immigration status to children’s school reports to neighbours opinions, is discussed in their absence and used to take decisions which profoundly affect their lives.
Against this background it is worth looking in a little more detail at how this special day to remember those murdered in honour killings has emerged, what this project is likely to achieve and who is involved. Cosmopolitan’s partner in this venture is Karma Nirvana, a charity dedicated to helping victims of honour. Its CEO, Jaswinder Sanghera, has been lavishly praised by David Cameron. She was recently featured in ‘Honor Diaries’ – the latest film produced by the pro-Israel NGO, the Clarion Project (formerly the Clarion Fund) whose other films are the Islamophobic classics ‘Crossing the Line: The Intifada Comes to Campus’; ‘Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West’, ‘Iranium’ and ‘The Third
The vast majority of Black and South Asian women’s organisations in the UK, including those with decades of experience in confronting gender violence appear not to have been involved in planning Cosmopolitan’s event. Many of them have always thought that honour-based violence should not be considered in isolation but as part of the spectrum of violence, horrifying in its scale and scope, faced by women in the UK. ( see, for example, Amrit Wilson (2006) Dreams Questions Struggles – South Asian Women in Britain, pp 94-95)
Instead Cosmopolitan’s project has the support of a very different type of organisation, the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), described recently as the “leading exponent of neo-conservatism in the UK… deeply influenced by Islamophobia and an open embrace of the ‘War on Terror’”.
The HJS, whose record on gender is problematic to say the least (earlier this year it hosted a seminar by the right-wing, anti-abortion, anti gay marriage US politician Bobby Jindal), has now produced a report titled ‘Honour Killings in the UK’ .
Why are they suddenly interested in honour killings and why, one wonders, is the HJS qualified to write about the subject? The author of the report, Emily Dyer, has previously worked mainly in the area of Preventing Extremism and counter-terrorism. Before she joined the HJS in 2012, she was a Higher Executive Officer for the Preventing Extremism Unit at the Department for Education and she wrote several papers on extremism within educational settings. She also co-authored ‘Al-Qaeda in the United States: A Complete Analysis of Terrorism Offenses’.
‘Honour Killings in the UK’ suggests a total ignorance of the large body of work on ‘honour’ and violence against women (including papers and books by Black and South Asian feminist academics well-known and highly respected in their fields). Instead Dyer quotes the pro-Israeli author Phyllis Chesler’s whose papers appeared back in 2009 in the Middle East Quarterly a magazine published by the American Islamophobe Daniel Pipes.
Incredibly, despite Dyer’s obvious lack of familiarity with the subject, she has, over the last couple of few years, established herself as an expert in the area not only in the conservative press but in such outlets as the New Statesman.
The figures Dyer’s report quotes are indeed shocking: 18 murders and 11 ‘attempted killings’ over the last five years and some 2500-3000 cases of honour-based violence a year (from minor incidents to abduction, mutilation and acid attacks). But to understand their significance as violent crimes against women in the UK, we need to compare them with the horrifying total of incidents of violence against women in the country in the same period: 500,000 rapes in the UK (with only some 5,000 rapists sentenced) and more than 500 women murdered by their partners and ex-partners.
In addition there are literally millions of other incidents of violence, including extremely serious violence. This is the reality for women in Britain, and honour-based violence, as Black and South Asian feminists have pointed out, must be seen as part of this reality, because physical and psychological violence against women is perpetrated across the borders of ethnicity and class.
Dyer justifies this separate categorisation of honour-based violence with the help of two old misogynistic myths which have been thoroughly debunked by the women’s movement: firstly that honour-based violence is intrinsically different from domestic violence because it is pre-planned, whereas domestic violence is ‘unexpected and spontaneous’ and secondly because domestic violence perpetrators often show regret whereas those involved in honour-based violence do not . In reality of course domestic abuse is not a single incident, or even a series of incidents. It is a systematic pattern of control and intimidation which is often carefully planned and where apologies or demonstrations of regret do not mean that the perpetrator is taking responsibility for the abuse or that he, and it is overwhelmingly a he, will not repeat it. As studies show abuse tends to recur and become more frequent and severe over time. The current focus on honour-based violence as a ‘special case’ fits in with the British state’s focus on a punitive, criminal justice-based approach rather than a preventative approach involving support and resources for survivors, while facilitating the sweeping attacks on services for women facing violence, in which services for Black and ethnic minority women have been hardest hit.
Dyer tries to identify the roots of honour based violence through a rather casual quote from Raheela Raza, another participant in ‘Honor Diaries’. Raza says that honour “comes from this tribal concept; the honour of a family, the honour of a tribe, the honour of a village is all vested in everything that the woman does…. Anyone can decide that she is dishonouring the family or the tribe”. This jump from stereotype to theory falls to pieces on an examination because, in fact, violence against women where honour or its proxies, ‘reputation’, or ‘respectability’ are invoked, is much more pervasive across South Asia than this suggests. It occurs across social formations and religions and has survived urbanisation and the growth of capitalism. Its roots, like other forms of violence against women lie in patriarchy’s imperative to control women, particularly their sexuality and labour.
The most pernicious and revealing section of Dyer’s report is one where she tries to identify the main types of perpetrators. Honour killings occur, Dyer tells us, mainly in communities ‘with links to South Asia’ and then mainly in communities ‘of Pakistani ethnic origin’. Here too she appears oblivious of basic research methods – having said that Honour related coercion can lead to suicide, she fails to follow this through. If she had, she would have looked into the cases of the large number of women of Indian, mainly Sikh, origin who kill themselves by jumping in front of oncoming trains. There were 80 in 2007 alone in just one small stretch of railway between Southall and Slough.
By categorising honour based violence as something innately foreign, Eastern and different from the violence white men inflict on women, and identifying the perpetrators as Pakistani ( a euphemism for Muslim), Dyer strengthens the demands for surveillance and ethnic profiling of Muslims which has already been institutionalised in so many parts of what was once the welfare state. The report reveals also the role of the HJS as an ‘independent think tank’ which justifies the government shift deeper into Islamophobia and state repression.
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Amrit Wilson is a writer and activist. She was a founder member of Awaz, an Asian women’s collective, which campaigned against the notorious ‘virginity tests’ in the late 1970s ; supported Asian women’s workplace struggles, and set up the first refuge run by and for Asian women in London. She was also an active member of the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD). Her books include Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain (London: Virago, 1978), Dreams Questions Struggles: South Asian Women in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 2006).She tweets at @AmritWilson
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- Challenging Mistaken Assumptions about Honour-Based Violence
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