Delegitimising the cultural defence

The Discrimination Law Association (DLA) convened a powerhouse panel on Monday, 6 February at Doughty Street Chambers entitled ‘Equality, human rights and the ‘honour’ code’.

The line-up included Aileen McColgan, professor at King’s College and lawyer at Matrix Chambers; Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters; Jacqueline Rose, professor of feminist theory at Queen Mary, University of London; and Jasvinder Sanghera, co-founder of Karma Nirvana, a Derby-based organisation that supports victims of forced marriage.

The DLA moderator, whose name I shamefully failed to note, opened the panel with an imperative: we must reclaim ‘honour’ and return it to those practices that are worthy of the term. The majority of the panel discussion centred on the need to delegitimise the cultural defence to ‘honour’-based crimes – a defence they believe is still widely accepted within the legal and law enforcement professions.

Professor Rose explained the transportation of ‘honour’-based traditions from countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and India to the UK. In the 1950s, when families from South Asia arrived in the UK seeking work, hardening their cultural and religious positions was a defence mechanism – a protection or shield from all that they thought to be wrong in British society, particularly the hyper-sexualisation of women. ‘Honour’ has been, in essence, the barrier constructed to prevent the state from interfering in the private and family affairs in communities where ‘honour’-based crimes and abuse are prevalent.

Indeed, Sanghera’s personal experience as an 8-year old British national being promised to a man in her parents’ country of origin spoke to Professor Rose’s analysis. She escaped her impending force marriage at the age of 14, but it did not come without a price. Jasvinder has been disowned by her family but, now, is able to proudly state after 29 years of disownment that ‘my honour is my family’s shame.’

For women like Sanghera and the thousands of young women who have been or are in the same position in the UK, there is little recourse to justice, support or help other than at the community-based organisations such as Karma Nirvana that provide it.

Ms Sanghera further explained that a forced marriage follows years of ‘honour’-based abuse. It is, she says, all a matter of learnt behaviour for young women that begins at a very young age with being taught not to look men in the eyes, to stay away from boys at school and, of course, not to date. In the words of the moderator:

‘A young woman is expected to enact honour with every bone of her body, because she is thought to carry the seeds of its destruction.’

However deplorable these acts and however sensationalized they become in the media, Pragna argued that they are still shrouded by a veil of silence that is perpetuated by both communities and the state. Perpetrators of abuse within the home and family use ‘honour’ as a silencing mechanism forcing victims, including male victims, to internalize the violence and abuse they suffer. Perhaps this is why, Pragna offered, suicide rates are three times higher within the Asian community.

The state, fearing interference in the ‘private’ affairs of the Asian community, fails victims of ‘honour’-based abuse time and time again. Yet, whilst pontificating about the heinousness of forced marriage, female genital mutilation and ‘honour’-based crimes, the state is doing very little to prevent the acts or to support the victims.

All four panellists made mention of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act, which allows for protection orders to prevent forced marriages and all four agreed upon the main problem with the act – enforcement. Currently, the Act does not criminalize breach of such orders, but proposed amendments to the Act would do just that.

Whilst admitting that the criminalization of such breaches would be a symbolic step, McColgan questioned the difference it would make for actual victims. She argued, and others agreed, that it may actually deter reporting of the crime by female victims who do not wish to criminalize their parents, siblings or other family members and friends.  In other words, newly-created criminal offences may mean that victims are even further silenced.

Despite the fact that ‘honour’-based abuse happens within the private sphere, the home and the family still seem to be the ‘cure of choice’ for the state. McColgan and Sanghera both expressed concern at the fact that protection orders under the Forced Marriage Act often return young women to the house where the perpetrator is living.

Professor Rose perhaps best articulated the sentiment shared by all four panellists when she said that the state views the ‘family as the place where everything can be made right.’ Rose believes this lies behind the current government’s decision to cut welfare and public funding, including for groups like Karma Nirvana who are addressing the root of the problem in the communities where it exists.

The legally-inclined on the panel – McColgan and Patel – both agreed that the answer is de-linking ‘honour’-crimes from the culture debate and re-linking them to the human rights debate. To not do so, they argue, means that they remain the crimes of ‘the other’ – misunderstood, under-reported, unenforced, silenced and hidden.









Filed under family, immigration

3 Responses to Delegitimising the cultural defence

  1. Thanks for the write up.

    The moderator was Ulele Burnham, Barrister at Doughty Street and Chair of the DLA.

  2. Kat

    Thanks for that, Michael! Were you at the event? Pragna is aaaaamazing!

  3. Geraldine Scullion

    Hi Kat – I’m the editor of the DLA’s Briefings. Could I have your permission to publish your article in the March edition of Briefings? If yes, could you let me know your full name and could you come back to me today if possible? My number is 07910903962 if you’ve any queries. Many thanks, Geraldine

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