Thursday, May 29, 2014


There's a very heartfelt article in today's Times by Matthew Syed on the atrocity on the steps of the high court in Lahore. A pregnant woman was battered to death, by her own family, in the midst of a large crowd (including scores of policemen and lawyers) who did nothing to help or to intervene. Her "crime" was to have married a man of whom her father disapproved. Chances of a successful prosecution of anyone for the lynching must be pretty small. Syed, who is half Pakistani himself, sees only one way for this sort of barbarism to be countered - in Pakistan or in the UK
You cannot win against this kind of barbarism by being nice. You can’t win by beating a strategic retreat, as Sotheby’s plans to do by withdrawing nudes from arts sales because they are terrified of offending Middle Eastern clients. Fundamentalism is too fierce, too implacable, it takes too deep a hold on those who are infected by it, to reach any kind of compromise. Trying to find an accommodation with fanaticism is like trying to cuddle a virus.
This is not a new problem. 150 years ago, in a newly conquered province of the Raj (remembered now, if at all, principally for a Latin pun in Punch magazine) the British Governor General Sir Charles Napier was tasked with imposing law and order on a society with an entirely alien culture and value system. As his biographer (and brother) Sir William Napier recorded in his history of Scinde:
Whenever a woman was guilty of infidelity, or even suspected - and that suspicion was excited by trifles, and often pretended from interested views - one man would hold her up by the hair while another hewed her piecemeal with a sword. To kill women on any pretext was a right assumed by every Beloochee [i.e. Baloch], and they could not understand why they were being disbarred.
While remembering to keep in mind the inevitable problems of orientalism and so on (in other words, that this is a very partial history from a particular source), the attitudes identified should not be terribly surprising - their residues remain in modern Pakistan and elsewhere. I suspect that the general's response would not be considered acceptable today:
A man had been condemned for murdering his wife; his chief sued the general for pardon. "No! I will hang him." "What! You will hang a man only for killing his wife!" "Yes; she had done no wrong." "Wrong! No! But he was angry, why should he not kill her?" "Well I am angry; why should I not kill him?" This conviction of their right to murder women was so strong and their belief in fatalism so firm, that many executions took place ere the practice could even be checked; but finding the general as resolute to hang as they were to murder, the tendency after a time abated, and to use his significant phrase "the gallows began to overbalance Mahomet and predestination."
There may be a lesson here for us (though not that the answer is the return of capital punishment). It is not just that "culture" is not an excuse for murder; it is actually an exacerbating factor. Courts and prosecutors need to be more severe on cultural or "honour" killings than they are on "normal" murders, precisely because while "ordinary" murderers do not commit their crimes under the delusion that it is an acceptable (indeed desirable) thing to do, "honour" murderers do.

Where we are faced with cultural behaviours that are drastically contrary to our own cultural values (and these sadly mostly relate to the treatment of women, from "honour" killings to FGM) the state needs to act almost disproportionately heavily. The message needs to be unmissably clear that this is not how we do things here. Charles Napier is probably more famous for his actions against suttee (although in a predominantly Muslim state that would have been less prevalent than elsewhere in India):
He also put down the practice of suttees, which however was rare in Scinde, by a process entirely characteristic. For judging the real cause of these immolations to be the profit derived by the priests, and hearing of an intended burning, he made it known that he would stop the sacrifice. The priests said it was a religious rite which must not be meddled with - that all nations had customs which should be respected and this was a very sacred one. The general, affecting to be struck with this argument replied, "Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pyre. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs!" No suttee took place then or afterwards.
What Napier did was, obviously, imperialism: the imposition of British laws and cultural values on a non-British state. But to follow a similar trajectory in the UK against similar attitudes towards women would be almost the opposite of imperialism: it would be the fierce and principled support of a culture and a way of life that people come here to seek, and that people already here have every right to expect to be defended.


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