‘One in five young Asians think honour violence can be justified’ is a statistic which has grabbed the headlines recently. The figure comes from a poll conducted on behalf of a recent BBC Panorama documentary investigation into honour crimes. The survey of 500 Asian men aged 16 to 34, also found one in five believe women deserve “physical punishment” if they dishonour families. Three per cent even think murder – referred to in the community as “honour killings”, can be justified in certain circumstances. Two thirds declare families should live according to the concept of “honour”.

The lead UK Prosecutor of honour crimes, Nazir Afal, estimated that in this country as many as 12 people a year are victims of honour killings, while more than 2,800 honour crimes are committed annually. Afal also went on to say; “I don’t know how many other unmarked graves there are in our green and pleasant land.’ Does the fact so many might go missing and this not be reported to the police suggest widespread collusion by the Asian community with Honour Killings?

Just weeks ago, 17 year old Laura Wilson, was stabbed to death by her Asian boyfriend, possibly the very first white victim of an honour killing. Five men were jailed over the 2006 murder of Banaz Mahmod, including her own father.

Afal also warned this latest survey reveals an emerging younger generation appears almost as supportive of honour violence as their more traditional elders. Afzal, from the Crown Prosecution Service, is quoted as declaring: “I thought… it was something that would die out with my generation…. Unfortunately, I’ve come across many young people who think the same way.” The survey found 18% of punishments on women could be justified sometimes if they had ‘dis-honoured’ their family.

However, a distinguished female psychiatrist based in Pakistan, writing on the condition of women in South Asia, uncovers statistics which suggests that the Panorama survey and its commentators are naive to believe violence against Asian women is going to diminish naturally with the passage of time. Her marshalling of the data indicates the problem of Honour Killing is deeper rooted than just related to one aspect of culture.

Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Unaiza Niaz, based in Karachi, contends that honour killings arise out of a deeper more widespread problem in South Asian societies, which is the subordinate position of women. She points out in a recent paper ‘Violence against women in South Asian countries’, the wider regional problem, that for example, between 25% to 60% of women in India suffer from physical abuse. In Japan, physical violence is the second most common reason for wives to seek divorce, while murder by a partner accounts for a third of the deaths of women. In Sri Lanka 60% of women have been physically abused by partners while the figure is 39% in Malaysia.

The data on honour killing is difficult to obtain definitively for South Asian countries, due to a failure to report, and possibly connivance by authorities who don’t see this as an actual crime. Yet one study she reports, found in an 11-month period, at least 266 women had been victims of “honour killing” in and around Lahore. Dr Niaz’s paper, published in the journal ‘Archives of Women’s Mental Health’, also draws attention to one of the most extreme forms of domestic violence – stove-burning. Many of these burnings are carried out by husbands due to disappointment with a dowry. In just one year about 201 Pakistani women were reported to have had injuries “while cooking” , while another survey found about 206 women died in one year of stove-burning. In Bangladesh, insufficient dowry claims have traditionally been punished by throwing acid at the brides. It is estimated that there are over 200 acid mutilations per year there.

Dr Niaz’s paper lends to the speculation that violent crimes against women in South Asian societies might in fact be increasing. A key factor in this consideration is how little the official records reflect the reality of life for women. Dr Niaz quotes a study from the Indian Punjab which estimated that for each rape case reported to the police, 70 went unregistered, while, for each case of molestation filed, 375 were not registered.

The Government of India National Crimes Record Bureau found a shocking 71.5 percent increase in cases of torture and dowry deaths during a five year period in the 1990’s, yet these figures remain probably gross underestimates, given the cultural acceptability of violence and degradation of women.

One psychological theory as to why violence against Asian women might be increasing is that Asian male pride and machismo may require women to be ‘put in their place’ if they appear to be gaining more dominance, either by educational qualifications or economic independence. Violence could be a male way to regain control. Another prominent theory within psychology which Dr Niaz considers, is termed ‘displacement of affect’, and refers to the use of violence against women by men as a way of venting their frustration and aggression because of mounting recent financial pressures or unemployment.

Dr Niaz suggests many intriguing possible answers to the problem, including the establishment of all women police stations throughout South Asia. But the reality is the community also needs to speak out more about this problem. Perhaps the reason this doesn’t happen is that the background fundamental issue of the status of women then becomes uncomfortably highlighted.

We need to make it much easier for women to come forward, get help and find refuge. We need to stop hiding this issue away because of embarrassment over how appalling these traditional Asian views of women are. In a recent study published by the Institute of Psychiatry in the UK, young Asian females (aged 18–24) had rates of attempted suicide, nearly three times higher, compared to those of white females of the same age. Is it possible that these figures are a further testament of the status of women in Asian culture?

Instead we need to ‘reverse stigmatise’ the issue, so that in the end it’s shameful for an Asian man to assault a woman, rather than a badge of pride.


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