One cold December evening, near the banks of the River Ravi, in Punjab (northern India), two men jumped out of a jeep. The woman who was with them stumbled out of the vehicle, asking them why they had stopped, wondering if this was the way to Delhi. That was perhaps the last night of her life. Months later, among the bodies washed up on the banks of the river, one may have been that of Surjit Kaur Athwal, 26, a mother of two living in London. The Punjab Police said they could not be sure. She had been reported missing by her brother in December 1998.
Today, Athwal's brother, Jagdeesh Singh Dhillon, says the events of that night were relayed to his family through an alarming series of anonymous phone calls from men who claimed she was killed after she told her husband that she wanted a divorce.
A family's reputation is considered paramount in several cultures. And 'honor killing' is a centuries-old practice by which people - predominantly women - are murdered by relatives for behaving in a way that is perceived to destroy the family's honor within the wider community.
According to Amnesty International (AI), every year, at least 1,000 women and girls die in 'honor killings' in Pakistan. Besides the fact that women are being murdered for 'honor' in India and other South Asian countries, British-Asian women are also being killed in the United Kingdom.
Officially, Athwal remains missing after disappearing on a trip to India. Investigations by London's Metropolitan (Met) Police show that her return ticket was never used and her bank account remained untouched after she arrived in India.
Dhillon says that after 10 years of marriage, Athwal had sought a divorce - a step that caused deep anger in her marital home, led to her disappearance and ultimately (Dhillon's family believe) her murder; divorce is steeped in taboo in conservative Punjabi culture.
In 2003, in response to Dhillon's demands, British Foreign secretary Jack Straw had requested the Indian government to instruct the Central Bureau of Investigation to conduct an enquiry into Athwal's disappearance. Despite these efforts, Dhillon is no closer to unraveling the truth today.
However, honor killings in the UK have alarmed the Met Police sufficiently. Its officers have set up a nationwide murder prevention scheme into the killing or disappearance of more than 100 British women over the last decade, to see whether they were the victims of honor killings and to examine how best to prevent such murders.
UK women's rights campaigners who work with British-Asian communities believe that forced marriages - in which women are threatened with death if they refuse to marry the man of their family's choice - can be a precursor to honor killings.
"In almost all forced marriage cases we deal with, 95 per cent of our clients have had the threat of death," says Kulbir Randhawa, coordinator and counselor at the national charity, the London-based Asian Family Counseling Service. AFCS advises Asian women referred to the service by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). So far, AFCS has not had any clients murdered in honor killings.
Recognizing the magnitude of the problem of forced marriages, Britain's Home Office and the FCO announced in October 2004 that a joint Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) would be set up by the end of the year, specifically to advise victims and professionals, including women's rights groups and lawyers. The FMU will replace the existing FCO community liaison unit which was established in October 2000 to help UK nationals taken abroad in forced marriages.
In a statement to the British Parliament on October 27, 2004, UK Home Secretary David Blunkett announced the new FMU as part of a raft of measures designed to combat forced marriages. These include: starting a consultation by the end of 2004 with women's groups and NGOs to see whether forced marriage should become a criminal offence; issuing social workers and education professionals with guidelines on how to tackle forced marriages; raising the minimum age for marriage entry clearance into the UK from 16 to 18; and posting an extra entry clearance officer in Islamabad (Pakistan) to help British nationals who have been abandoned by their spouses in Pakistan and want to return to the UK.
Although the FCO does not keep honor killings statistics, and classifies the killings of British nationals abroad as 'murders', it does record forced marriages. FCO research shows forced marriage numbers have not fluctuated greatly since the community liaison unit was set up in 2000; of the 250 or so forced marriages it intervenes in annually, the majority deal with women of south-Asian origin. Of these, one-fifth cases are related to helping women repatriate to the UK. Currently, AFCS deals with between 50 and 60 women involved in forced marriages in the British-Asian community each year - a number that has risen in the past few years.
Randhawa attributes the recent rise to the fact that it is easier for spouses from abroad to settle in the UK under the current Labour government. Also, she says, some Asian parents are reluctant to discard traditions despite the fact they live in England: "A lot of them came here in the 1950s and '60s. They are stuck in a time warp. Educating these communities is crucial."
The British government is committed to tackling honor killings and forced marriages, she says, but other governments, particularly in countries like India, are not doing enough.
Hannana Siddiqui, joint coordinator at the London-based women's rights group, Southall Black Sisters (SBS), agrees. SBS has devoted the past 25 years to campaigning for greater awareness of domestic abuse of women. The group helps UK women from Asian and African backgrounds escape domestic violence, dealing with between 240 and 300 forced marriage cases a year. Not all honor-killing victims come from 'backward' communities, says Siddiqui, but rather from families who find it difficult to change cultural traditions. "I don't know whether honor killings are increasing or falling because there's never been any monitoring. It may appear to be increasing because more people are aware [of it]," says Siddiqui.
Pinpointing how many UK women are murdered in honor killings, both in Britain and abroad, and coordinating policies to tackle it is a leviathan task currently being undertaken by academics at the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The five-year research project looking into honor crimes in 25 countries is due to be published next summer (2005). This project is unique in that it has elicited opinions from activists, lawyers and academics from across the world including the UK, South Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, with a view to fighting honor crimes by understanding the various legal and cultural parameters and developing strategies accordingly.
Meanwhile, Dhillon and women's rights campaigners aver that honor killings are a symptom of the larger societal illness of the abuse of women. And they believe that governments and social groups must place the wider issue of violence against women under the microscope and provide more resources and commitment to tackle it.