Tuesday 12 November 2019

Shafilea Ahmed: the western life she dreamed of but could never have

Nigel Bunyan

SHAFILEA Ahmed had seemed set for the sort of future any parent would have been proud of.

An engaging, enthusiastic pupil at her Cheshire high school, she was doing well in her studies and dreamed of one day becoming a barrister.

Instead, in a family tragedy that has played out for nine years, she became the most high profile victim of an honour killing that Britain has ever known.

Her parents, Iftikhar Ahmed, 52, and his wife, Farzana, 49, suffocated her in front of her siblings because in their minds she had disgraced the family name.

For most of her teenage years they had tried to crush her attempts to embrace the western culture that was all around her, and then to force her into an arranged marriage in Pakistan.

When they realised they had failed, they snuffed her out with a barbarity that has been difficult for even hardened detectives to comprehend.

It was Farzana Ahmed who began the attack, pushing her teenage daughter down onto a sofa in the family kitchen and pinning her down.

She then turned to her husband and spat out an order in Punjabi: “Etay khatanm kar saro: Just finish it here”.

The couple’s other four children could only look on in horror and fear as he went over and pulled Shafilea so that her tiny frame was lying straight on the sofa. He was by her legs, his wife by her head.

The couple were hitting her and holding her down. Then one of them said `Get the bag`.

Their son, Junyade, then 12, ran over and gave them a thin white bag and this was forced down her throat. They had their hands on her mouth and nose.

When it was all over Junyade and his two younger sisters ran out of the room, crying and upset.

Rukish, then 15, stayed long enough to see her father remove the bag and then launch a single punch at her dead sister’s chest. As she herself ran from the room, she saw that Shafilea’s eyes were still wide open.

Once the Ahmeds had disposed of their daughter’s body, arranging for it to be dumped on a river bank in Cumbria, they warned each of their surviving children that the same would happen to them if they ever revealed the truth.

Junyade appeared the least likely to resist, telling his sisters that Shafilea had “deserved it”.

The girls spent the next seven years adhering to the vow of silence, terrified that their lives, too, might be snuffed out if they spoke up for their dead sister.

It was only when Rukish finally confided in police in August 2010, having been arrested for being the “insider” in a robbery at the family home, that the Ahmeds’ brutal conspiracy began to unravel.

Once she had found the courage to tell the truth Rukish broke off all contact with her parents. She also changed her name to Alesha, no longer able to bear the one they had given her.

At the time the Ahmeds’ trial began in May they thought they could count on their third-eldest daughter, Mevish. But within weeks they learned that she, too, had betrayed them.

She had done so inadvertently, having given a close friend a graphic account of the murder years earlier and telling her how terrified she was of her parents.

The friend contacted police even as the case proceeded, handing over sections of a diary entrusted to her by Mevish.

In the witness box Mevish tried to discount the damning account as a work of fiction, but the damage was done.

The barbaric murder of Shafilea Ahmed uncovers the appalling lengths her parents were prepared to go in order to preserve their distorted sense of Muslim family honour.

On the surface they were a conventional British family: a taxi driver and his wife living in semi-detached suburbia, their children going to local schools.

But both had been raised in the same rural village close to the north-east frontier of Pakistan, and both reflected the immense cultural divide between their ancestral home and their adoptive one in Britain.

The couple were appalled to see their eldest child turn her back the values they held so dear. It didn’t seem to matter to them that she was bright and hard-working.

Instead of the modesty and conformity they expected, Shafilea set a collision course with them by trying to become a thoroughly Western teenager.

She wanted to wear the sort of clothes and high-heeled shoes her white school friends favoured, and above all, as she became increasingly rebellious, she wanted boyfriends.

Her murder was the culmination of years of systematic abuse at the hands of her parents. One of Rukish’s earliest memories, for example, was of seeing her eldest sister being hit by their mother.

She remembers all of the girls being attacked, both verbally and physically, on countless occasions by both parents. Only their brother was spared.

Shafilea’s suffering had already begun by the time she started secondary school.

In Year 7 she was meant to go on a class trip to Coniston, in the Lake District, but at the last minute her father forbade her, telling staff it was a punishment for “stealing money”. A year later she had to borrow money from a friend in order to attend a school disco.

She tried to dodge her parents’ strictures by leaving make-up and false nails in her school locker. When she wore western clothes she would try to change out of them before her parents noticed. She faked her parents’ signatures so she could go to school parties.

Once over 16 she tried to find boyfriends by leaving her mobile number on pieces of paper, or else accepting similar notes from them which she then entrusted with a white school friend.

On one occasion a boy left his number on a piece of paper hidden beneath a plant pot at the Trafford Centre, Manchester.

Another would-be suitor, Ajaz Ahmed, met Shafilea while working at his parents’ cash and carry in the Longsight area of the city.

Her father had been a customer for many years, and on one occasion she went with him she slipped Ajaz a piece of paper with her phone number on it, and said `Give me a ring`.

The youngsters had minimal contact over the next few weeks, but crucially Iftikhar Ahmed spotted them together near the Sankey Forum in Warrington. After that Shafilea’s family never came to the cash and carry again.

She eventually took to running away, once spending three nights with a young man in Blackburn. The more she expressed her will to be free, the more her parents cracked down on her.

As Andrew Edis, QC, told the jury: “A collision of strong wills became inevitable and the Crown says that at the end of this sad story, having failed to crush her, her parents killed her”.

In a final attempt to discipline their daughter, or perhaps to cash in on her diminishing financial value to them, they decided to take her to Pakistan.

Once there, they reasoned, they could force her into an arranged marriage and leave her to spend the rest of her life in Pakistan.

They managed to get her on board the aircraft at Manchester Airport by giving her a sedative. By the time she reached the village where her parents’ childhood homes stood side by side, it was too late to escape.

But even that didn’t work. Shafilea felt so desperate that she tried to commit suicide by swallowing bleach from an industrial-sized container stored in her grandmother’s bathroom.

She succeeded only in so seriously damaging her oesophagus that she would need months of hospital treatment.

For her, though, it was worth it, because the disability allowed her to return home to Britain. The father of her intended suitor, a man 10 years her senior who did not speak English, called off the wedding plan because she was “damaged goods”.

The conflict resumed in earnest as Shafilea found herself a new part-time job and began planning a final escape.

Shafilea finished work at 9pm on September 11, 2003. Her mother, who collected her, was furious that she was wearing skimpy western clothes.

Back at home, she and her husband searched her bags, this time with the help of Junyad. Some money was found, and it was this that may have been the final straw.

With that, Farzana Ahmed pushed her “tiny and weak” daughter onto the sofa one last time.


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