Shafilea Ahmed was just 17 years old when she was murdered by her parents. Witnessed by her younger siblings, this was a case of familial murder in the name of honour that shocked the UK.
For seven years Shafilea Ahmed’s siblings kept the terrible secret that their parents had murdered their sister, living in fear the same would happen to them if they spoke of what they had witnessed. When the truth did come out, it divided a family and brought the practice of so-called ‘honour’ killing within British homes into the spotlight.
“Your concern about being shamed in your community was greater than the love of your child.” – Mr Justice Roderick Evans
Shafilea Ahmed was a young girl growing up in Cheshire, England but with the conflict of her roots in Pakistan and her parents’ wishes for her to stay true to her cultural values. Her parents wished for her to dress, behave and marry true to her culture and were firmly against Shafilea taking on Western values like her school friends. For a young girl growing up and becoming a teenager, this is a difficult balance to reach.
Shafilea was a typical teenager who wanted to wear the latest fashions, have the same gadgets and go to the same places as her friends on the weekend. Her fight to achieve her freedom, make her own choices and follow her own path ended in her murder by the very people who should have been her protectors.
Shafilea was the eldest daughter of the Ahmed’s four children. Her father, Iftikhar Ahmed, a taxi driver, kept a tight rein on his family alongside his wife, Farzana Ahmed. Their children became used to violence within the home, violence directed against them when they did not meet their parent’s expectations.
By the time Shafilea turned 16 in 2002, she was an intelligent and strong-willed young woman who achieved good grades towards her dreams of becoming a solicitor. Living under increasing pressure from her parents, she was struggling to find her place in the world, torn between her parent’s demands and her own wishes.
Shafilea Ahmed would disappear from school for days on end with fading bruises clearly visible when she returned. During these periods her mobile phone was confiscated by her parents, and she was unable to leave the house. She ran away from home several times, however, interviews regarding her welfare were always carried out in the presence of her father and his explanations that all was well, easily accepted.
Later that year Shafilea wrote to the local council authority asking for accommodation due to abuse at home and the fears she had about her safety. Her cry for help and courage in reaching out was not followed up, and no accommodation or way out of her home situation was offered. In February 2003 Shafilea Ahmed ran away from home again. Found by social services she registered as homeless stating fear she would be forced into an arranged marriage in Pakistan should she return home. Her father was called to the school about his daughter, and once again, his word that Shafilea was safe was taken as truth, and she was taken back to the family home.
Government figures published in 2016 suggest there were 1,220 cases related to forced marriage dealt with by their Forced Marriage Unit in the previous year. Over 80% of these cases involved women “across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America”. Young women, most often still in their teens, are taken to their parents’ home country by their family and forced into a marriage with a man they have never met, all arranged between their parents. For the girls themselves, there is little they can do to resist.
Shafilea Ahmed had refused her parents demands for an arranged marriage in Pakistan and was battling to live her life in the UK in the same manner as her school friends. Soon after being returned home to her parents, Shafilea woke up on a flight to Pakistan. Her parents, knowing she would resist, had crushed sleeping pills into her drink to drug her, allowing them to take her to the airport and onto the flight.
While in Pakistan Shafilea realised she was to be married to her cousin, a marriage she wanted no part of. In a desperate attempt to prevent the forced marriage, she drank bleach, causing extreme pain and irreversible damage to her mouth and throat. The marriage was indeed called off as she was considered soiled goods now she was injured. Upon her return to the UK, she spent weeks in the hospital recovering from her injuries.
In September 2003, Shafilea went missing. Her disappearance only reported to police by a school-teacher who overheard her younger siblings talking about it. Unlike previous instances where Shafilea had run away, her parents did not contact police to report her missing. Inside the family home, the remaining children were instructed by their parents on exactly what to say when anyone asked any questions about their missing sister. They were told to say she had run away and that they knew nothing about where she was. In reality, each of these three children had watched their parents murder their older sister and were too terrified of the consequences for them should they speak the truth.
In February 2004, Shafilea Ahmed’s body was found in a river in Sedgwick, Cumbria, and a verdict of unlawful death was reached with the coroner reporting she had suffered a ‘particularly vile death’. Shafilea’s parents maintained she had run away from the family home in September and they had not had contact with her or did they know of her whereabouts since that time. With no leads to go on, Shafilea’s death was left on file. Years passed without the police being able to get any closer to finding out what had happened and how she came to be in that river in Cumbria.
The truth was finally revealed by her sister, 21-year old Alesha Ahmed after she was arrested for a burglary at the family home seven years later, in August 2010. Arrested on suspicion of arranging the robbery, she admitted her involvement and told surprised police officers that she had information about her missing sister Shafilea. She had begun to see for her herself the struggles her sister was facing, she told them, and was finding it too difficult to keep this terrible family secret.
“What happened to my sister had haunted me for a long time. It was when I went to university that I saw how wrong our family life was. When you get used to something, it becomes normal.” – Alesha Ahmed
Honour crimes are defined as “acts of violence, usually murder, committed by male family members against female family members who are perceived to have brought dishonour upon the family.” by the Human Rights Watch and they take place all over the world.
In many cases murder is preceded by domestic violence where victims are held to standards deeply ingrained in the minds of their abusers. Motivations for such killings can range from parents wishing their daughters to behave in certain ways such as in the case of Shafilea Ahmed, to women in the family dressing in a manner deemed inappropriate or husbands blaming their wives for talking to other men or even being sexually assaulted by another man.
The notion of ‘honour’, of maintaining an appearance and reputation within their community is at the core of these crimes. The requirement of all family members to conform to the rules and regulations in place is of utmost importance to the extent that committing murder as a consequence for breaking these rules or simply trying to resist them, is a logical next step in the minds of perpetrators. An act that must be carried out to keep the good name of the family and restore honour.
When Alesha Ahmed did talk to police, she told them of what happened the night her sister was murdered. Her parents, she said, had become enraged at Shafilea for not conforming to their wishes. They held the 17-year-old girl down on the couch in the living room and forced a plastic bag into her mouth. While her sister struggled and fought to breathe, her mother told her father “just finish it here”. Alesha watched from her bedroom window as her father put her sister’s body wrapped up in bin liners into the back of his taxi in the driveway, while her mother calmly put away the tape and bin liners in the kitchen downstairs.
Both Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed were charged with murder and stood trial at Chester Crown Court in 2010. For the first eight weeks of the trial, both maintained their innocence claiming their daughter had simply run away from home and they knew nothing of her whereabouts.
“The defendants, having spent the best part of 12 months trying to really crush her, realised they were never going to be able to succeed and finally killed her because her conduct dishonoured the family, bringing shame on them.” – Prosecutor Andrew Edis QC
Alesha Ahmed testified against her parents behind a screen, fully aware her testimony would be seen as a betrayal and she feared the consequences. Her sister, Mevish Ahmed did not support her statement and alongside their brother, remained loyal to their parents. A friend of Mevish came forward with a diary Mevish had written and given to her for safe-keeping. It it, Mevish describes her sister’s murder and her fears that she may be next. When questioned in court, Mevish said the diary was the work of fiction and her writings were not about her own family.
In a dramatic change to her statement, half way through the trial Farzana Ahmed claimed it was her husband who murdered Shafilea.
She said Iftikahr Ahmed had carried out the murder on his own in a violent attack against her daughter. She claimed her husband told her Shafilea was safe and well and ordered her not to question him on the matter further, threatening the lives of her and her children so she would agree. Evidence from Alesha Ahmed and listening devices the police had placed in their home, contradicted her new testimony, highlighting her full participation in the cover-up of Shafilea’s murder and the instructions she gave to her remaining children to lie to protect them.
In August 2012 both Farzana Ahmed, 49 and Iftikahr Ahmed, 52 were found guilty of murder and jailed for a minimum of 25 years.
This is a harrowing case which divided a family. Alesha told the police what had happened to her sister knowing this would have grave consequences for her relationship with her family. Alesha is understood to have entered a witness protection programme after testifying against her parents in court. For her involvement in the robbery at the home, she was given a 12-month prison term, suspended for two years and was to be supervised by the probation service while continuing mental health treatment. Both the Ahmed’s remaining children continued to support their parents at the time of the trial refusing to publicly speak out against them.
Adolescence is a time where children gain more independence and begin to discover who they are as individuals. They are heavily influenced by their peers and very much want to be accepted in their peer group and feel they belong. Those who are being raised in Britain with strong family cultural beliefs, their parent’s attitudes and demands can be an unbearable pressure. Justice Evans spoke of Shafilea’s position during the sentencing of the Ahmed’s, highlighting that “…an expectation that she live in a sealed cultural environment separate from the culture of the country in which she lived was unrealistic, destructive and cruel.”
The case of Shafilea Ahmed highlights not only such cultural struggles but a lack of communication from the organisations and support networks around her who did not pick up on the warning signs. They did not communicate with each other to realise the extent of this issue and how much danger Shafilea was in. There were undoubtedly numerous cries for help from Shafilea herself who was trapped in a life of abuse, which repeatedly fell on deaf ears.