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U.K.: Iraqi Woman's Death Throws Spotlight On 'Honor Killings'

A court in England this week jailed two Asian men for life for murdering their cousin because she was marrying outside the family. Yesterday, mourners gathered at a London cemetery in memory of a Kurdish teenager killed by her father because she was becoming too "westernized." These and other recent cases have thrown a spotlight on so-called "honor killings" among Asian or Middle Eastern communities in Britain. Now police have set up a task force to look into the killings and how they can be stopped.

Prague, 22 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Sargul, we'll call her, had settled in the U.K. with her husband. Both Iraqi Kurds, they had been together nearly 20 years. But the marriage soured, and Sargul wanted a divorce. Her friend, Nasreen, picks up the story.

"Because her husband was from a big tribe in Kurdistan it wasn't acceptable for her to ask for divorce," Nasreen said. "But she went back to Kurdistan to see her family. There was a first attempted murder but she survived and stayed in hospital for a month. During that time her husband and his brother and sister from Holland went back to Kurdistan. Then she was killed in a main road in [al-] Sulaymaniyah. She was in the car with her husband and she was killed by a gunshot fired at her."

No one can be 100 percent sure, but Nasreen and Sargul's family believe this was a so-called "honor killing" -- Sargul was killed for having brought shame on the family by asking for a divorce.

Sargul met her death after leaving the U.K. for her home country. Other women have met the same fate inside Britain itself.

Just this week, two Asian men were jailed for life for murdering their cousin Sahjda Bibi on her wedding day because she was marrying outside the family.

Earlier this month Abdulla Yones, an Iraqi Kurd, was given a similar sentence for murdering his 16-year-old daughter Heshu. Her "crime" was that she had become too "westernized" and was dating a Christian boyfriend.

These and other recent cases have thrown a spotlight on honor killings among Asian or Middle Eastern communities in Britain.

Ayesha Gill is a sociologist at the University of Essex who has interviewed many Asian victims of domestic violence.

"A woman is killed as the result of a perceived or imagined or supposed threat of deviation from the norms the group subscribes to," Gill said. "And an example of this is where someone is assumed to be having sex outside marriage, or requests a divorce or lives in a way that's perceived to be deviant by the male kin. But women also collude in such violence and silence."

In the case of Sahjda and Heshu, their crime was to choose their own partners -- the most common "motivation" for honor killings in Britain.

The UN estimates there are some 5,000 such killings worldwide every year, mainly in countries like Jordan, Iraq, India, and Pakistan. But there have been plenty of honor killings in Europe too.

There were around a dozen in the U.K. last year, though campaigners say there may be many more if you include women, like Sargul, who are taken outside the country first.

Cassandra Balchin says honor killings can be the extreme result of tensions between first-generation migrants and their offspring, who grow up with a different value system. Balchin, who works for the international network Women Living Under Muslim Laws, says it's tied up with another problem -- forced marriage.

"When you've had the threat of an honor crime, the alternative to an honor crime is [often] a forced marriage," Balchin said. We've found that the pattern of forced marriage is very common among second-generation migrants who were born here. So those people are British nationals. They've been here a number of years. So it's not necessarily a clash of cultures; it may be a generational issue."

Now police in Britain have set up a task force to look into the killings and how they can be stopped. A London police spokesman said the research is designed to help law enforcement officials pick up the early signs of violence that may later turn into honor killings.

"It is essential to identify these signs quickly, as this is key in preventing future murders," the spokesman said. "We would stress that the [Metropolitan Police Service] is not being judgmental about communities and cultures, but that the research is part of our strategy in preventing murder."

That's a welcome step for campaigners who say that, too often, police have been reluctant to take action against domestic violence in minority communities for fear of being culturally insensitive.

But all the publicity of the recent cases can have an unwanted side effect -- reinforcing old prejudices. That's despite condemnations by Muslim and other groups, which stress that Islam and other religions forbid honor killings, and that the perpetrators are using their culture or religion as an excuse.

"It's not the case was unfortunately presented in the media here, that this [case of Heshu, the Kurdish teenager who was killed by her father] was the act of some restricted Muslims," said Monireh Moftizadeh of the group Kurdish Women Against Honour Killing. "Honor killing is based on a patriarchal system and patriarchal views where women are considered as property, where women are restricted to rules and traditions of the society -- and if they trespass that they will be punished."

Unfortunately for Heshu, the new police efforts have all come too late. Just a few days before she died, Heshu planned to leave home to escape her father's beatings. She wrote him a note in which she joked about his treatment.

"Me and you will probably never understand each other, but I'm sorry I wasn't what you wanted, but there's some things you can't change," Heshu wrote. "Hey, for an older man you have a good strong punch and kick. I hope you enjoyed testing your strength on me, it was fun being on the receiving end. Well done."