Education, Portrait

Campaigning against honour killings, by Cosmopolitan magazine

Image © Erin Mulvehil, courtsy Leo Burnett and Hearst Publishing

An estimated 141 women have been killed by their families in so-called honour killings in the UK over the last decade. Honour killings have been a long term campaign for Cosmopolitan magazine. But how do they capture such a complex issue through the format of magazine publishing?

On the night she was killed by her parents, Shafilea Ahmed was wearing white stiletto-heeled boots, a T-shirt that clung to her and tight-fitting jeans. She had dyed her hair red.

She told her parents she would not marry her cousin. She was 17, in the midst of her A-levels, planning on university and a career as a lawyer. Her proposed husband, a first cousin, was more than a decade older, and had barely left the rural, deeply conservative village of Uttam in the Gujrat district of Pakistan. Without having met her, he had offered her parents a ‘rishta’ – a formal offer of marriage – and they, on her behalf, accepted.

Six months earlier, Ahmed was drugged by her parents before being taken from their home in Warrington, Cheshire, to Pakistan. It was meant to be a one-way trip.

Once there, her parents took her passport from her. Ahmed realised she was expected to stay, leave her British life and education behind, and become a devoted wife.

Late one night, she drank bleach found in her grandparents’ home. Her throat was so badly damaged her parent’s had to return home, delaying the marriage.

On 11 September, 2003, the night she was killed, Shafilea was told her clothes brought shame on the family. As the argument escalated, her mother pinned her to the sofa, telling her husband in Punjabi: “Just finish it here.” Ahmed’s father, her sister testified in court, forced a plastic bag into her mouth, holding his hands over her airways until she suffocated to death. Her three siblings, aged 15 to seven at the time, watched from the next room.