The body of 17-year-old Shafilea Ahmed was found in February 2004 by the river Kent in Sedgwick, Cumbria, and was so decomposed that it could only be identified from dental records and jewelry. The 17-year-old, who was born in West Yorkshire in 1986 to parents from rural Pakistan, had been missing since September 11, 2003; a teacher reported her missing a week later.
Today, Shafilea’s parents, taxi driver Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed, were sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of her murder. A judge at Chester Crown Court said that the Ahmeds’ fear of being shamed in their community exceeded their love for their eldest daughter whom they sought to raise in the “sealed cultural environment” of rural Pakistan, rather than in modern Britain.
Shafilea Suffered Years of Abuse
Shafilea was suffocated with a plastic bag by her parents in the presence of her four younger siblings following an argument over her clothing. She had suffered years of abuse from her parents — one would hold her down while the other beat her and teachers and friends said she often appeared at school with cuts and bruises — and had run away from home a number of times, but repeatedly returned home.
The details of Shafilea’s case are horrifying. Six months before her death, she had swallowed bleach on a visit to Pakistan; she had been forced on this visit, which was paid for with £2000 she had saved from working, to place her in an arranged marriage. She drank the bleach in the middle of an argument and was brought to a hospital only reluctantly by her mother. Back in the UK, Shafilea was hospitalized for several months after losing a severe amount of weight as she was unable to eat or drink.
Prosecutors were only able to convict Shafilea’s parents after nine years when her younger sister, Alesha, was arrested in 2010 in connection with an armed robbery of the Ahmeds’ house. Alesha pleaded guilty to conspiracy to rob and, during police questioning, revealed the violent details of her older sister’s death. Writings by another sister, Mevash, corroborated Alesha’s story.
Mevash has dismissed the writings as “fiction” and, along with her younger brother, Junyard, has supported their parents; a fifth child has not been named due to her or his age. After initially denying claims that she and her husband had attacked Shafilea, Farzana Ahmed changed her account during the three-month trial, saying that she saw her husband beat their daughter and that he had threatened her and the other children with the same if they were asked about had happenedd to Shafilea.
Could Shafilea Have Been Saved?
British charity, Plan UK, says that Shafilea’s life of abuse and brutal death highlight the dangers of forced marriage, as well as of honor killings. Dr. Aisha Gill, a criminologist at the University of Roehampton, highlighted the need for social service agencies, schools and police to work together; she asked why, after being treated in the hospital for ten weeks after swallowing bleach, nothing was done to help Shafilea.
Cheshire police have not referred to Shafilea’s murder as an honor killing, as investigators had said the “term could be used as some form of mitigation to explain to a jury that someone was protecting their honor.” In the Independent, Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Manchester-based Ramadhan Foundation, emphasized that honor killings are “against Islam” and that “Islam totally forbids honour killings, it forbids forced marriages and if anybody thinks somehow that they are doing these actions as a result of their faith, then they are seriously misguided.”
After the verdicts were delivered, Melissa Powner, a close friend of Shafilea who had sought to help her escape from her abusive parents, said in a statement, “If there is one thing that we pray will come from this, it is that her beautiful face and tragic story will inspire others to seek help and make them realise that this kind of vile treatment, no matter what culture or background they are from, is not acceptable and there is a way out.”
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Photo by Mike Knapek