Honour-based abuse is a type of abuse individuals may face for a perceived violation of the ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ codes of a particular society or community.
It is most often associated with South Asian, Middle Eastern and North or East African communities, but this kind of abuse can happen anywhere around the world. Perpetrators and victims can be both female and male.
An individual may become victimised because they refuse to enter an arranged or forced marriage, or because they have a relationship that is not approved of by their family. They may, like victim Shafilea Ahmed, simply be deemed by their family and/or community to be behaving in a way that shames the family because it is ‘too westernised’. A huge problem with honour-based abuse is that it is often perpetrated and covered-up by multiple members of a victim’s family – making it harder for police to investigate and press charges.
Not many people realise that honour-based abuse is a significant issue in the UK – but it very much is. Honour-based violence charity Karma Nirvana found that its helpline receives between 700-800 calls a month – suggesting that problems with honour-based abuse in the UK are widespread and reaching critical levels.
The reason that honour-based abuse is poorly understood is often because it does take place in diaspora and immigrant communities, meaning that many professionals involved in safeguarding are unaware of the risks or may stereotype victims and cultures and fail to provide appropriate support.
So what are the key features of honour-based abuse, and what are some of the misconceptions that might stop us from noticing it?
Honour-based abuse – some key features
Honour-based abuse is typically perpetrated by a member of the victim’s family. This abuse is often carried out with the knowledge and approval of other members of the family. When Shafilea Ahmed was killed, she was murdered by her mother and father in front of her siblings.
Honour-based abuse is also often linked to the crime of forced marriage. If a child or young person refuses to go through with a marriage arranged by their parents or community, they may become subject to abuse as a result and may even be even pressured into getting married out of fear. Some times children disappear off the school register as a result of being forced into marriage abroad.
Children and young people experiencing honour based abuse may passionately defend their suspected abuser, often because that person will be a close relative or community member. The feeling that they would be betraying their community or family if they sought help often weighs heavily on victims. The conflicting feelings of familial love and also fear for their own lives often make it very difficult for victims to know where to turn.
While honour-based abuse can affect all genders, it is primarily girls and women who bear the brunt of this violence. The way that honour/shame codes typically work means that while the ‘reputation’ of both males and females is of great importance within such communities, women and girls often bear the burden of upholding the reputation of their male relatives through their own behaviour.
While it may not be obvious that a victim is living with the burden of honour-based abuse, such victims will likely be closely controlled and monitored by their families. They are likely to lack agency; if an individual’s behaviour can bring censure on their entire family, that individual may deliberately be limited from decision-making and taking action – simply because to not act at all will ensure that familial reputation remains intact.
What are the common misconceptions surrounding honour-based abuse?
Because honour-based abuse often affects specific communities, some people believe that this kind of abuse is ‘cultural’. This is a HUGE misconception.
No ‘culture’ is inherently abusive; sometimes individuals within a cultural community may justify abusive and unconscionable behaviour by using culture as a crutch. And these kind of justifications sometimes mean that others within a community or culture feel afraid to speak out against the abuse because they fear that they may be breaking sacred social codes.
And these kind of misconceptions affect those who should be safeguarding victims as well. If a child from a diaspora community is being abused here in the UK, professionals responsible for that child (such as teachers, social workers etc.) may feel that they cannot help the child properly or delve too deeply into the matter for fear of upsetting cultural sensitivities.
Take this example. Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of honour-based abuse charity Karma Nirvana (and a survivor of honour-based abuse herself) attended a National Union of Teachers’ conference and set up a stall with posters from her charity. These posters sought to educate on honour-based violence and forced marriage, as well as providing the numbers for helplines that pupils who felt they were at risk could use.
However, nearly 100 teachers came to speak to Sanghera at her stall, and the vast majority said that they would not be able to put the posters up in schools, citing cultural sensitivity and claiming that they would never be able to get support from managerial staff. Many teachers suggested that the posters could be offensive to minority communities.
One teacher who did take the posters from Sanghera put them up in his school, only to find that they had been torn down less than 24 hours later by the headteacher. He was then called into her office and reprimanded for his behaviour. He was told never to put up posters like that again, and that he had risked seriously offending Muslim parents.
The police also fail on this particular matter. In 2018, a police officer called Karma Nirvana to ask if it was ok for a 26 year old Iraqi man to have a 12 year old ‘girlfriend’. The detective had arrested the man, but wanted to be culturally sensitive and check whether what the man had done was ‘acceptable’ in Iraqi culture. Karma Nirvana told him to deal with the man as with any other suspected child abuser.
What we see is that victims of abuse from minority ethnic communities can be treated differently because of misconceptions surrounding culture. Just because an individual has a particular cultural background, it doesn’t mean that abusive behaviours become acceptable. Those responsible for safeguarding should always treat victims of abuse with the thought in the back of their mind that that victim could be their relative – their child, their niece, their sibling or their parent.
And of course, these misconceptions sometimes aren’t just misconceptions. Sometimes our distinct lack of care for victims can be passed off as a misconception. For example, a busy teacher who is stressed at work and finds they have hardly enough time to deal with their existing pastoral case load may turn a blind eye to a girl of Pakistani heritage disappearing off the school roll. That teacher may surmise that the girl has been taken abroad to Pakistan to be married, but may simply pass this off as a Pakistani cultural practice. This might not be what the teacher actually thinks in their heart of hearts, but it is an easy way to avoid dealing with the ‘problem’. Sometimes, racial prejudices can play a part in allowing misconceptions to be manipulated to cover a distinct lack of care. Sometimes class prejudices can come into play.
Either way, such misconceptions permeate society and prevent us from learning about the issues of honour-based abuse in a comprehensive way free from bias. These misconceptions lead to mistakes – for example, when safeguarding professionals involve parents in honour-based abuse cases when it may often be the parents themselves who are perpetrating the abuse.
It is important that we seek to educate and be educated on this subject.