LONDON (Reuters) - Last year, 20-year-old Banaz Mahmod was garrotted with a shoelace in her London home before her body was stuffed in a suitcase and buried in the back garden of a house more than 150 miles away.
The killing was ordered and carried out by her father and uncle along with their associates. Her crime was simply to have fallen in love with another man after her arranged marriage fell apart because her husband had been violent.
Mahmod’s brutal murder is one of a growing number of so-called “honour killings”, carried out by families or communities who believe girls have brought disgrace, for example by having an affair or refusing a forced marriage.
The United Nations estimate there are 5,000 honour killings worldwide every year but the issue was almost unheard of in Britain until a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) conference in 2004.
Nazir Afzal, the CPS director who organised that conference, said the situation in Britain was worse than they had thought and that a growth in religious fundamentalism had helped make it worse.
“Even I had no idea quite frankly how serious a problem it was, how many communities were affected, how many people were affected,” Afzal told Reuters.
“Murder is just the tip of the iceberg. You have a substantial number of kidnappings, false imprisonments, serious assaults, which are also carried out in the name of honour.”
The CPS prosecutes about a dozen “honour” murders a year but Afzal believes the true number of killings is much higher.
“We have cases of murders that take place abroad — people who are taken and killed abroad — so they obviously don’t come into our figures,” he said.
“And we also have a substantial number of missing persons and their ongoing investigations.
In the wake of the 2004 conference, police launched a review of around 120 cases where women had disappeared or appeared to have committed suicide. Afzal said around 20 were now suspected of being honour-related crimes.
Startling figures also show suicide rates among Asian women aged between 15 and 25 were three times the national average and twice the average for those in the 25 to 35 age group.
“It’s stark that we have people who feel ... because of the shame they might bring upon their families or the perception they might suffer harm, are more likely in many cases to kill themselves rather than simply walk away from the situation.”
Hannana Siddiqui of Southall Black Sisters, an organisation experienced in dealing with honour killings and violence, said there were still no proper statistics on the issue.
“It’s only recently that you get people trying to acknowledge there is abuse in the community, that there are issues like forced marriage, that honour can often be a motive, and in the more extreme ends can lead to murder,” she said.
For a woman, disgracing the family honour can vary from leaving an abusive relationship to simply talking with a man in the street or wearing the wrong clothes.
“The honour or reputation of a family rests on a woman’s sexual conduct,” Siddiqui told Reuters.
“If she’s seen to have gone against those prescribed roles of a good and dutiful wife and daughter and daughter-in-law, then she’s accused of bringing shame or dishonour.”
Most cases in Britain involve families from south Asian and Middle Eastern communities but Siddiqui said honour crimes could affect nearly all ethnic minorities who clung to traditional values or what they saw as their traditional values.
The government has been wrestling with how to better integrate minorities, particularly those in the Muslim community, since the July 2005 London attacks by four British Islamist suicide bombers that killed 52 people.
Both Siddiqui and Afzal said a rise in religious conservatism, particularly amongst young men, that was fuelling militancy had also brought an increase in honour crimes.
“Radicalisation and extremism are about identity,” said Afzal, a leading British Muslim lawyer.
“It’s about people clinging to outdated customs to give them identity. There is no religious justification for this. There is nothing in any Koranic texts or any south Asian religion that justifies or excuses this type of crime.
“They will use religion, they will use culture, they will use ‘this is the way things happen back home’, they will use a number of excuses but ultimately it comes down to simple male power.”
The killings themselves are often particularly brutal.
In 2005, Samaira Nazir, 25, was stabbed 18 times in a frenzied attack in front of her two young nieces. She had fallen in love with an Afghan asylum seeker and had rejected suitors her family had proposed.
A year earlier, university student Arash Ghorbani-Zarin was stabbed 46 times by two teenagers acting on the orders of their uncle whose daughter he had got pregnant.
The death sentences are often agreed by ad hoc informal “councils” made up of community elders and relatives.
“They will sit down and they say there is no way we can take this,” Afzal said. “Our power is being diminished by the fact she is putting two fingers up to us and therefore we must enforce our social code that she must do as we say. As she hasn’t, she must die.”
While honour crime is becoming better understood and authorities are less nervous of stepping on sensitive cultural toes, Afzal admitted it would take a long time for all front line staff to be competent at dealing with the issue.
Mahmod herself had sought help from the police just a few months before her death, telling them she believed her father was trying to kill her.
“I think there are still problems in making real practical differences on the ground,” Siddiqui said.