Afshan Azad, 22, the high-profile Harry Potter actress remains in hiding after refusing to appear in a London court. Ms. Azad had been seeing a non-Muslim man, a Hindu. Her family, specifically her father, Abul Azad, 53, and her brother Ashraf, 28, called her a “prostitute” and tried to force her into an arranged marriage with a Muslim man. Her brother also beat and her father threatened to kill her in May of this year. She escaped her family home and has been in hiding ever since. According to the Telegraph, she refused to testify against her family, saying that doing so would endanger her further. Apparently the British police tried but failed to persuade Ms. Azad to testify.
Ms. Azad’s refusal to appear makes sense to me. She is already in great danger for having associated with a non-Muslim man. Add to that the public and shameful exposure of her family in this matter. Having her male relatives jailed would mean a torturous death sentence.
I have published two studies about honor killing. The first appeared in 2009 in Middle East Quarterly; the second appeared there as well in 2010. In the most recent publication, I studied 230 victims who were honor-murdered on five continents over a twenty year period in 172 separate incidents. (More than one person was murdered in some of the incidents). As these studies have shown, immigrants to the West, including and especially immigrants from South Asia (Ms. Azad is of Bangladeshi descent), continue to perpetrate honor killings in the West.
The level of violence towards girls and women in South Asia can be barbarous and quite unbelievable.
Horrific vigilante mob violence is routinely perpetrated against innocent individuals in Pakistan. Recently, the Pakistani “Taliban” have been known to throw acid into the faces of schoolgirls, disfiguring them for life, if they were seen as improperly veiled or trying to attend grade school.
In 1998, Zahida Perveen’s husband, in a fit of rage, bound her hand and foot and then, using a razor and a knife, proceeded to cut out her eyes and slice off her ears and nose. Zahida’s crime? Her husband suspected that she was having an affair with a brother-in-law. At the time, Zahida was three months pregnant.
In 2004, a tribal council in Pakistan in the Punjab ordered that a young girl be publicly gang-raped then paraded naked through her village—a punishment for an alleged crime committed by her brother. This case became known worldwide when the girl not only did not kill herself but indeed pressed charges.
Girls in South Asia and elsewhere are routinely killed for far less than choosing their own husbands. They are murdered if a false rumor has been spread or if they are seen even talking to a male non-relative. There are few police officers, few judges, few social workers, few lawyers who would be able or willing to protect Ms. Azad in South East Asia from her family’s permanent desire to kill her and so to “cleanse their own shame.” Honor killings take place both among rural, indigent and illiterate South Asian families—and among highly educated, literate, professional, and wealthy South Asian families too.
In 2009, I received an extraordinary report which documented honor killings in Pakistan. (Although Ms. Azad’s family is from Bangladesh, the country was actually part of Pakistan until 1971, and its culture is very similar to Pakistan’s.) My Pakistani informant, of the SW Community Development Department, in Sind, Pakistan, sent me an unpublished paper in which he describes and explains Ms. Azad’s family’s culture very carefully:
Women in Pakistan live in fear. They face death by shooting, burning or killing with axes if they are deemed to have brought shame on the family. They are killed for supposed ‘illicit’ relationships, for marrying men of their choice, for divorcing abusive husbands. They are even murdered by their kin if they are raped. The truth of the suspicion does not matter — merely the allegation is enough to bring dishonor on the family and therefore justifies the slaying. The lives of millions of women in Pakistan are circumscribed by traditions which enforce extreme seclusion and submission to men. Male relatives virtually own them and punish disobedience with violence.
Moreover, there are few safe places for a woman to escape to. Seeking help outside the family is fraught with danger for a woman. Not only does society blame a woman for being targeted for murder–the popular perception being that she must somehow deserve it–but by seeking outside help she risks being sent back to her husband or father in whose custody she is perceived to belong. Most important by seeking help outside, she adds shame to her husband and his family by making the issue public. No Kari ["black" woman marked for honor-killing] who escapes is ever forgiven, even if her innocence is recognized; some men are known to have traveled hundreds of miles to find and kill Karis, even years after the alleged misdeed.
This is Afshan Azad’s cultural background. She may be a young, modern, and popular actress who happens to play the part of a young witch, but all of Harry Potter’s magic cannot protect her from the normalized violence towards women both in Pakistan and among South Asian immigrants to the West.
What shelter can Britain provide? The British police have acted properly. The law stood ready to condemn this threatened honor killing, this particular form of family violence. In fact, the British police have the legal power to rescue girls and women who have been kidnapped from Britain to South Asia and return them to the West. However, can Britain today offer a safe way of life for a young women like Afshan Azad? What Witness Protection Program could hide her and help her create a meaningful life? How can she remain an actress “underground”?
South Asian immigrant honor killings, (which are mainly Muslim-on-Muslim crimes in the West), are not confined to illiterate, uneducated, and impoverished families. On the contrary. Some powerful, well-educated, and wealthy families punish their well educated daughters and wives by honor murdering them. The fact that Afshin Azad was “allowed” to work as an actress does not mean that she was allowed to socialize with a non-Muslim or intend to marry a non-Muslim man of her own choosing.
Welcome to the world of Islamic gender and religious apartheid.
© 2010 Phyllis Chesler. This article was originally posted on NewsRealBlog. Cross-posted with permission.
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