Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani has brought forward a motion that certain crimes against women should no longer be described in relation to 'honour'. Her rationale sounds reasonable - that describing these crimes differently has meant that police have been treating them as less serious; that they have been avoiding dealing with these crimes due to a misplaced sense of 'respect' for other cultures. However, her proposal could not be more damaging to women at risk of violence.
'Honour'-based violence is a form of domestic violence. Domestic violence is a broad category. It refers to a husband abusing a wife, but it can also refer a child abusing a parent, amongst many other patterns of perpetration that may occur within a household. 'Honour'-based violence is not simply the same thing as domestic violence, as Ghani states - rather it is one of the many subtypes within that category. Just as spousal abuse may require a different approach from child abuse, 'honour'-based violence requires different policing approaches than other forms of domestic violence to provide the best protection for victims, and, in the case of an 'honour' killing, to ensure the prosecution of all offenders who may have played their role in a conspiracy to kill.
'Honour'-based violence refers to crimes taking place within extended families. While the language of 'honour' is often used to justify violence - where the victim is described as having compromised the family's standing in the community - the most crucial aspect is the potential for the family and community to unite in order to plan, carry out, and cover up the abuse of women and men considered to have violated community norms. It is this extraordinary level of collaboration, across extended families that mean that 'honour' crimes require a different treatment from the mainstream approaches, based as they are in the patterns of the nuclear family. It is a very different matter to protect a woman from a man than it is to protect a woman from her entire extended family, with all the formidable networking capacity of a tight-knit extended family, sometimes with the support of a wider community. It is also different in that although an abusive partner can 'move on' - often through locating another woman for his abuse - blood ties are often more permanent, and the risk is often more enduring. A family that feels that a young woman has brought shame upon them feels that shame until she is punished, so the risk can remain throughout her entire life. This is why the terminology is essential - because it reflects the understandings and needs of the victims.
Let us not forget that in the case of Banaz Mahmod, seven men have been convicted of the roles they played in her murder. Such conspiracies are common to 'honour'-based violence, but rare in cases of spousal violence which make up the majority of domestic violence recorded in the UK.
When I investigated 'honour' based violence for my documentary Banaz: A Love Story I spoke with professionals who worked with victims of 'honour'-based violence, such as Diana Nammi of IKWRO and Jasvinder Sanghera of Karma Nirvama. They had worked tirelessly - and continue to do so - to ensure that the special needs of these victims were catered to. They have carried out training for police and other professionals to ensure that the specific risk factors around 'honour' based violence are recognised. They have worked without stint to ensure that there is a broad understanding of the particular nature of 'honour'-based violence across multiple professionals.
It is the momentum that these organisations built up that has led to the recent important investigation by HMIC (Her Majesty's Inspectorate of the Constabulary) which reveals a lack of knowledge as the basis of failures to effectively police 'honour'-based violence, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation.
Making these topics taboo will not increase knowledge. On the contrary - it will leave women at risk, and excuse the one-size-fits-all policing of domestic violence, which treats the experiences of white women as the norm, in which police will be excused from the difficult but necessary work of providing protection plans from the most vulnerable women in the UK. Some women facing 'honour' crimes require relocation far outside the reaches of their extended families, and changes of identity to escape detection. All are traumatised in ways that mean they often need to access additional support.
The erasure of the category of 'honour'-based violence would not just place victims at risk. It would also erase over a decade of campaigning by organisations within minority communities which have fought for the recognition of these extremely dangerous acts of violence. However well-intended, we need to recognise that changing language which is essential for identifying individuals at risk and for planning for their protection will only increase the risk of more young women falling victim to these brutal crimes. The best way to support potential victims is not to obscure the phenomenon, but to ensure that it is clearly understood - neither as a way of demonising minorities, nor as a way of using a cultural excuse to avoid intervention.
The way to do this is to develop training and policies that reflect the realities of 'honour' and the oppression that occurs in its name. If politicians want to help with that, then the way forward is through defending those organisations that work to combat 'honour'-based violence in this period of austerity, and through ensuring that the police and other state bodies receive effective training.
We cannot solve a problem we are not allowed to name.
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