Gender-based violence against women is a social menace that threatens all women in the UK, regardless of their backgrounds.
In response, people have gathered in candlelit vigils, laying flowers and handwritten notes in honour of the murdered women, while there has been an outpouring of condemnations from public figures. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has acknowledged that too many women are “finding their lives lost to this system” while waiting for their cases to be taken seriously.
But such performative responses are woefully insufficient. What is needed are concrete actions.
The situation is even more parlous within closed communities, where honour culture—which depends on the subordination of women and the exploitation of their vulnerabilities—demands that violence against women is downplayed and normalised.
It is an open secret that women of Muslim heritage who become victims of domestic violence are faced with formidable obstacles both within and beyond their communities when seeking help. If they dare to pursue a free, independent lifestyle that clashes with the honour code, they are likely to face even greater difficulties.
This, perhaps, is why so few women from Muslim backgrounds were able to express their sympathy for Sabina Nessa, who was reportedly killed when she was on her way to meet a friend at what was reported to be a pub.
No urgent demands were made by mainstream Muslim organisations to protect women of Muslim heritage. They did not raise the alarm about Muslim women being unsafe on the street, since, according to the honour code, they are not supposed to be on the street in the first place.
British Muslim MPs who can be relied upon to cry Islamophobia at any conceivable cause of offence to religious sentiments remained oddly silent in the face of this tragedy.
The appalling truth is that many people find the thought of a Muslim woman going to a pub more repulsive than her tragic murder. One Muslim commentator was keen to correct the record:
Honestly I don't feel comfortable about the media reporting that Sabina Nessa was walking to the pub when she was killed, and associating her with alcohol as a Muslim woman in her death.
The Depot in Kidbrooke is a posh bar & kitchen type place, serving food/coffee etc too pic.twitter.com/1zxstpswoc
— Ruqaiya (@ruqaiya_h) September 25, 2021
Some couldn’t wait to racialise Sabina Nessa’s tragic death, suggesting that she received less public sympathy and mainstream media attention because of her skin colour. But not a word was spoken in condemnation of the barbaric honour codes to which women are perpetually subjected in certain communities—not only during their lives but also in death.
A similar indifference was evident in the case of hijabi Muslim woman Sarah Hussein, aged 31, who fell out into the street engulfed in flames and later died of her injuries in Bury, Lancashire, in August 2021.
— Greater Manchester Police (@gmpolice) July 24, 2021
The case was initially treated as a murder investigation. Three men were arrested in relation to the case, but released on bail soon after. The findings of further investigations have not yet been made public.
The tragic incident gained little media attention. The self-appointed community leaders who will move Heaven and Earth to secure coverage of their outrage should a caricature of Muhammad be published anywhere in the western world seemed relatively indifferent to news of the brutal immolation of a hijabi on the streets of Britain.
Sadly, many women whose lives have ended in mysterious circumstances are treated as not “Muslim enough” to evoke concerns about Muslim women’s safety. No clearer illustration could be offered of the way in which women in minority communities become invisible when the religious rights of communities are prioritised over the human rights of individuals.
A toxic honour culture rooted in patriarchal norms continues to fester within the community and has led to a conspiracy of silence on the issue of violence against women within the community. This misogynistic mindset also allows some Muslim men to perpetrate violence against female family members with impunity.
Fear of reprisals, of not being believed and of bringing shame on the family prevent victims from speaking up. As a result, many suffer in silence, blaming themselves and turning their anger inwards—with fatal consequences.
In addition, there is a reluctance on the part of the authorities to admit their failure to question the legitimacy of these religious and cultural norms.
A recent report found that far-right groups in the UK are promoting violence against women. This has been rightly condemned. Violence against women that draws its justification from religious beliefs and cultural norms should be condemned just as unequivocally.
There is an urgent need to separate respect for people from deference to toxic religious and cultural beliefs, which seem to have smothered concerns within the wider society for the rights of women in conservative communities. The era in which any woman, in life or death, should be made to carry the burden of family or community honour must be brought firmly to a close.