The horrific murder of Shafilia Ahmed by her parents will no doubt be exploited by the far right and used by the government to further their attacks on minority groups.
The right wing press focused on a young Asian woman caught between two cultures; a Times editorial saying that Shafilia’s murder was “the result of a collision of cultures”.
The failure of agencies to support Shafilia, the Times suggests, was a fear of “trampling on religious and cultural sensitivities” and the Daily Express puts it down to “the destructive and divisive creed of multiculturalism.”
In fact this case is about women’s rights and violence against women. When a woman’s behaviour is seen to represent the status or self-respect of an individual man, a family, a community or a country; this is sexism. It happens in all cultures.
In Western popular culture there are many songs, plays, and films where women are mistreated or killed for “humiliating” their partner. How many of us have sung along to the words, “I love you Delilah, I just couldn’t take any more” about a man who kills his lover who has been unfaithful? In 2012 the Court of Appeal allowed that infidelity could be used as part of a defence of “loss of control” in a case where a man murdered his partner.
Equally stereotypes about women mean that we don’t get taken seriously, don’t get believed, get sent back into a violent situation – even, as also happened to Shafilia, questioned in sight of an abuser.
In Shafilia’s case, stereotypes about young Asian women will have also influenced the response of agencies. Identifying what happened as sexism does not make Shafilia’s murder any less terrible, but it should inform future responses to such cases.
Shafilia’s mother’s role in her murder may seem inexplicable but women do internalise sexist attitudes and, in hierarchical and sexist set ups, some will ally themselves with the person (man) in power.
But many women and men are prepared to fight for women’s rights, often risking being ostracised by their families, or even their lives. Shafilia’s sister, Alesha is one such woman and her bravery and commitment to women’s rights is an inspiration to us all.
Last year there were 31% cuts in local authority funding to the domestic violence and sexual abuse sector which led to closures of refuges and support services including the closure of two specialist refuges for minority women and cuts to two more. Cuts in the last year to police and court services impacted Domestic Abuse Officers and female genital mutilation and domestic violence courts, says a Lancaster University report.
Further cuts can be expected this year and the charities Refuge and Women’s Aid say that women’s refuges will close down as a result of planned changes to housing benefit under the Universal Credit proposals.
This is then compounded by the major housing crisis. If domestic violence services were being fully funded, resourced and developed and decent council housing available would Shafilia still be alive today?
Trade unions need to lead a campaign to demand full funding and reopening of all services which support women and children experiencing or fleeing from violence and abuse, including the many developing specialist services for minority women and young women. They should also campaign against legislation which puts women who are immigrants particularly at risk.
Just to focus on support services without fighting to end violence against women however is not enough. Any campaign also needs to send out a clear message which condemns violence against women and challenges the myths which are used to justify it.