When British teenager Shafilea Ahmed disappeared in 2002 her parents appeared baffled. Questioned by the police, no-one in her family appeared to have any idea where the 17-year-old might have gone.
Shafilea, tragically, was found dead some time later, strangled, cut into pieces and buried in a makeshift hiding place by a riverside.
For eight long years, young Shafilea’s death went unquestioned. A coroner ruled that she had been the victim of “a vile murder”. But whomever the vile murderers might be, they were undisturbed by British justice for all those years.
And then, in August 2010, the police investigated an armed robbery at the home of Shafilea’s parents. It seemed a gang of masked men had broken randomly into the Ahmed’s family home in Cheshire, England, tying up Mrs Ahmed and her daughters, Mervish, 19, and Saima, 14, and her son Harun, 20. A substantial amount of jewellery and other valuables were stolen. Mrs Ahmed’s husband, a taxi driver, was not in the house at the time the crime was committed. Police subsequently questioned Shafilea’s younger sister Alisha, allegedly believing that she had organised the robbery at her parents’ home. It was alleged she had organised the burglary in order to clear her personal debts.
While she was being questioned in relation to the armed robbery, 22-year-old Alisha apparently made allegations about her parents’ involvement in Shafilea’s death.
Her mother and father were subsequently arrested in a pre-dawn raid at the end of August 2010 and held on suspicion of murdering their teenaged daughter. Iftikhar Ahmed, 50, and his wife Farzana, 47, had previously denied any involvement in Shafilea’s disappearance or murder.
Shafilea had refused to go through with an arranged marriage to an unknown suitor chosen for her in Pakistan. Instead of accepting her family’s plans for her future, she hoped to be a British lawyer.
It was said that Shafilea, a young student at the time, drank bleach in an apparent suicide attempt when sent to Pakistan for the arranged marriage. Weeks later, having returned to the UK, she disappeared and was reported missing by a concerned teacher.
Her father, Iftikhar Ahmed, denied at the time that he had attempted to force his daughter into an arranged marriage with a man she didn’t know and claimed that the bleach incident occurred when Shafilea accidentally drank the bleach thinking it was fruit juice. Mr Ahmed further asserted that he had not bothered to report his young daughter missing because the British police had not taken him very seriously when she had run away previously.
Shafilea’s badly decomposed teenaged body was found in February 2004. Her inquest ruled that she had been murdered and the pathologist said she had been smothered or strangled before being dismembered.
In 2009, Shafilea’s parents went to the British High Court and tried to overturn the inquest verdict that their young daughter had been unlawfully killed. As it is hard to imagine how a teenager could be lawfully strangled and dismembered, their attempt was unsuccessful.
Mr and Mrs Ahmed, along with five relatives from the English town of Bradford, have been repeatedly questioned by police about their daughter’s murder. The case is now being investigated all over again.
Where young women are likely to be the victims of murder by their own family members, the wider community very clearly has a duty to help and shelter them. The murder of young women for transgression of custom and tradition has no place in democratic society and this has to be clearly stated and upheld by the forces of law enforcement. The very pernicious part-acceptance of “honour” killings in democratic societies has got to stop and be replaced by the protection of rights for young women. Shafilea’s murder is one of many and is a shocking disgrace to British society. That her killers have been left free for years is a further disgrace. Justice must now be done and seen to be done – and the ‘custom’ of killing young girls who have dreams of their own must be brought to an end.