Friday, September 21, 2007


Yesterday, Surjit Athwal’s brother spoke to BBC Radio 4, as he has done to BBC news, about the inadequate attention paid to the murders of British women abroad when those women, though British, are not of white British origin. He mentioned the intense media coverage of the murders of Lucie Blackman in Japan and of Katherine Horton in Thailand and the British public’s outrage at, and enduring interest in, their deaths. Surjit was also a British woman, but for some reason her murder in India failed to capture either the British public’s interest, or the police’s attention, in quite the same way. It’s taken 9 years to reach a conviction.

It’s amazing that after decades of being a multiply ethnic nation, the core of British society still finds itself distanced by, and unable to identify with, being presented with a non-white face. We clearly still have a problem identifying the different faces of Britishness – we still find the different colours unexpected. When Lucie and Katherine were killed, we could all imagine that they might have been our sister/friend/colleague and so responded with a personal level of emotion. When Surjit was killed, it was apparently more likely that she wouldn’t be our sister/friend/colleague (and I’m speaking on very general terms here of course…), and so, although we might have found her death equally shocking, the emotional reaction was impersonal – the kind of thing that doesn’t happen to us and ours…

Perhaps this was exacerbated by the fact that her death was an honour killing ordered by her grandmother and husband after she began an alleged affair with a colleague. This factor superficially increases the distance between us. White British women don’t get murdered in honour killings. The next step in the reasoning of this logic of course, is that British women – full stop – don’t get murdered in honour killings. As a society we cannot marry Britishness with the very extremes of an ‘alien’ culture. Such extremes are dismissed as incompatible.

Surjit had apparently been unhappy in the arranged marriage to her husband. And the sad thing about this story, and about ‘Britishness’, is that she’d made the most of our more amenable and easy-going ‘moral codes’ and used the freedom being British is supposed to allow her, to seek out happiness in a way that she’d most likely not even considered trying to do outside of this country – certainly not in the culture of her family’s origin. She must have felt that the cultural codes and sexual tolerance of this country would protect her freedom to do this. It would have done, or at least have tried, if society had acknowledged her Britishness. But we didn’t. So we betrayed her. There was no cultural safety net in-place, whipped away by British social ambivalence towards its non-white citizens, and by the very extremes of a culture she was trying, if maybe only partially (which is also supposed to be her freedom in the UK), disentangle herself from. She was trying to walk the wavering tightrope between two very different cultures, and ended up falling off the wrong side, where we refused to go and reach her.

Even if we find the differing faces of Britishness difficult to adjust to, what should come instinctively to us all is a desire to protect the liberal freedoms to follow whatever religious, non-religious, diversely cultural, paths we want to, without fear of recrimination if our actions are not harming anyone else, and to be equally quick to condemn and quick to investigate cases where exercising these freedoms has been violently punished. An honour killing is not just another death of another Arabic/Pakistani/Indian/Muslim woman: with each of these deaths a little piece of all our freedom in Britain dies.

1 comment:

ERS said...

There but for the grace of God go most of us. We all need to care about these crimes. As long as one life is being treated with such a lack of value, we are all diminished.

Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
"Reclaiming Honor in Jordan"