Sex Selective Abortion and Honour Based Violence

Over the last few months, the topic of sex selective abortion has become an increasingly worrying issue for campaigners, providers and policy-makers alike. On 23rd February 2015, MPs will vote on an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill that explicitly criminalises sex selective abortion. The move has been driven by the well known pro-life MP Fiona Bruce, and is strongly supported by some charities that work specifically with victims of honour abuse and forced marriage.

As you may know, I’m a survivor of honour abuse and I escaped the threat of forced marriage at the age of twelve. I have been writing for several years to raise awareness of these issues, and up until recently have been a member of the Survivors’ Advisory Panel for one of the UK’s main charities providing support to victims of such abuses. This organisation has been a key stakeholder in the campaign to criminalise sex selective abortion. I also work full time as Executive Assistant to the CEO of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, one of the UK’s main abortion providers. I have a unique perspective on the issue, and am deeply worried that we are not only sleepwalking into a large scale attack on reproductive rights in general, but that vulnerable women in abusive situations will be victimised further as a result.

Given my strong support for the criminalisation of forced marriage, a few people are surprised at my vehement opposition to this amendment. They believe that the legislation provides similar ‘clarification of the law’ in order to ‘send a message’ to perpetrators of sex selective abortion. Besides the fact that the law is not a communication service designed to reach potential criminals to let them know that what they’re doing is bad, I am incredulous at the failure of supporters who claim to care about women to identify the real victims and perpetrators of gender-based abuse. In the case of forced marriage and female genital mutilation, the victim’s family is clearly identified as perpetrators of the abuse. In this instance, if the proposed amendment goes ahead, it will be the victim of honour abuse herself who will not only be punished most by the law and made to suffer life-long consequences, but she could well face a threat to her life as a result, as in these very sad cases.

Currently there is some confusion about how the law works. But it’s not so hard to understand – any woman who requests an abortion in the UK must meet one of the following five grounds, and two doctors must agree on which applies. Treatment is approved if:

A: the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman greater appropriate than if the pregnancy were terminated;

B: the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman;

C: the pregnancy has NOT exceeded its 24th week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman;

D: the pregnancy has NOT exceeded its 24th week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of any existing child(ren) of the family of the pregnant woman;

E: there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.

As you can see, sex selection is not one of those grounds. So what’s the problem with emphasising that the practice is wrong in legislation aimed at protecting vulnerable women who could be coerced into having an abortion because of the sex of the foetus?

To understand this you have to picture the woman who supporters believe they are protecting (organisations who work with victims of honour abuse, FGM and forced marriage). She is a victim of honour abuse herself, and is most likely trapped in a marriage into which she has been forced. She may have a poor grasp of English, no financial means to support herself, and certainly no family to whom she can turn even if she did want to leave – divorce in these communities is seen as being ‘shameful’. Her role in the home is likely to be that of a domestic and sexual slave, as well as a baby-maker. She may be raped repeatedly as part of her ‘wifely duties’. And the entire family, who already clearly subscribe to honour codes that place more value on boys than girls, will be placing pressure on her to produce a boy, whether it’s to carry on the family name, guarantee an inheritance, or because of deeply misogynistic attitudes in general. In some cases that pressure will be so great that the woman will either be told directly she must abort the foetus if it’s found to be female, or there may be a threat to her physical wellbeing significant enough to put her life in danger.

If the amendment were not to be passed, this woman, even if she is taken by her abusers to an abortion clinic under duress, will be seen on her own, and her health and wellbeing will be assessed by a clinician. If she mentions the danger she faces as a result of being pregnant with a female foetus, she will immediately be entered into strict safeguarding procedures to empower her to the make the choice that she really wants to make. This is in line with the ‘one chance rule’, which forms part of government-issued guidance on handling forms of honour based abuse (see p14, 2.8). Interpretation services will be provided, and there will be close liaison with a network of inter-agency services experienced in providing both short and long-term support to women in these situations.

However, if the amendment is passed and the woman even mentions that she is under pressure to abort because the foetus is female as part of this bigger picture of serious vulnerability, the doctor, under threat of prosecution and despite the clear risk to her life and mental health, may be forced to send this woman back to her abusers. Supporters say that this will not be the case, and that the amendment will simply mean that doctors must prove that foetal sex is contributing to the woman’s poor mental health. But when they already have to go to such great lengths to approve any abortion, what more can a doctor possibly do to evidence this, possibly in a court of law, with the threat of prosecution hovering over them along with the real prospect of being struck off by the GMC and even a jail term?

I understand why this amendment has progressed so far through parliamentary procedures up to now. The need for charities to raise awareness of the issues their beneficiaries are affected by is of utmost importance. But given my own experiences with one organisation, I seriously question the judgement behind the idea that this legislation in any way protects the women in their care. And by voting in support of the amendment, MPs can make an easy, tokenistic gesture of their support for women’s rights without actually committing to meaningful action that will improve women’s lives. This is a perfect storm that puts women at great risk and I am deeply worried about the impact of this move on victims of honour based violence. We have two days until the amendment is put to a vote. Please write to your MP to oppose this damaging legislation.


Charities and Survivor Engagement

It’s hard work running a charity. Not only do you have to make sure that day-to-day operations run with maximum impact on a shoestring budget to fully support those in need of your service, you have to justify your strategy to your Board of Trustees; spend hours and weeks filling out reams of forms for funding bids; contribute to government consultations, and on top of it all report on the measurable impact of your work constantly in order to secure future funding. One of the most powerful tools any charity CEO has to raise awareness of their cause to potential donors and policy makers is survivor voice.

As someone with personal experience of honour abuse who wants to highlight the suffering of others in my situation, I too have often taken the opportunity to speak out publicly about what happened to me. For about one and a half years I was a member of the Survivors’ Advisory Panel at one of the UK’s main charities providing support to victims of honour abuse and forced marriage. When I first took on the role, I was incredibly happy that painful experiences could be made meaningful and used to help others. Unfortunately, the reality was very different. Continue reading

Scottish Sunday Mail, November 30 2014

This is the transcript of an article by journalist Jenny Morrison featuring the most in-depth interview about my experiences that I’ve done to date. It took me a while to agree to do this, as it would a mean a lot more detailed exposure closer to home and my fear of a backlash was greater. But the imbalance of efforts to raise awareness and provide support throughout the UK is too significant to dismiss an opportunity to at least try and address this. Please note the minor clarifications I’ve included below the transcript.


“When I was a girl, I didn’t even know what honour abuse was but I knew right from wrong… and it was not right” – Shaheen Hashmat

IMG_2271.PNG She was just 12 years old when she escaped from her family home. But Shaheen Hashmat says the emotional scars of her childhood have been harder to leave behind. Growing up in a large Pakistani family Shaheen, now 31, says relatives controlled everything from how she should dress, to who she should speak to. She was expected to work in her family’s businesses from an early age – and if she refused, she’d be beaten. As she grew up, Shaheen saw several female family members being put on a plane, sent to Pakistan and forced into marriage. When it became clear that the same fate awaited 12-year-old Shaheen, a concerned relative tipped off social services and the police. With the legal protection of the authorities, she was able to leave her family but it has taken years for her to come to terms with the honour abuse she suffered.

Now she is speaking out to try to help others going through the same ordeal. Shaheen said: “When I was growing up, I had never heard of the phrase honour abuse and, like many victims of abuse, I felt very alone. I always knew what was happening wasn’t right. I would see people getting beaten and there was a strong history of forced marriage in my family. Every single aspect of my life was under strictest control. When you are raised to believe you have no choice in anything you do, when every aspect of your life is so closely monitored, you feel worthless. At times, I have felt suicidal. But I am determined that I am not going to hide away – what happened to me is not my shame, I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not going to change my name or adopt a new identity because I shouldn’t have to hide. Sadly I’m not the only person this has happened to but if I can help others by speaking out, then I must.”

Continue reading

BBC Asian Network: Honour Abuse, Forced Marriage and Estrangement

Here is my discussion with Nihal on the BBC Asian Network, where I talk about how I escaped from abuse and came to be estranged from almost my entire family. Becca Bland, the CEO of Stand Alone, a wonderful charity that provides support to people who are estranged, was also interviewed with me. Although at the time I found the experience of speaking live on national radio completely terrifying, I’m now extremely proud of myself for having done it at all. My confidence and determination to continue reaching those who can identify with my experiences has increased massively. It took enormous effort to keep myself from disassociating when asked about the specifics of my story, while simultaneously articulating and defending my views about honour abuse and forced marriage. This is of course aside from my main priority of protecting the identities as much as possible of those who were also involved in my story.

In short, this was really fucking hard, but it turned out alright – enjoy :-)

A New Phase

The last few weeks have been just incredible. After my appearance in The Telegraph’s Stella magazine, an editor and writer from their Wonder Women section got in touch to ask if I’d be interested in doing some writing for them. I of course said, ‘hell yes!’, and have since enjoyed writing two pieces for them, which have now been published, and others are in discussion. I’ve been approached via social media and asked if I’d like to take part in some pretty major radio and TV productions, but I’m too scared to reply to some of them yet! I have always wanted to reach as many people as possible and raise awareness about some of the incredibly difficult challenges I’ve experienced up to now, because I know I can’t be the only one affected by them. Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been talking for a long time about mental health issues, rape and sexual assault, gender issues, multiculturalism, honour abuse and forced marriage.

Continue reading

Dance of Honour

I remember how excited I was about this wedding. I loved her so much; her kind face, her arms always open for a hug, and an ear to listen when I was hurting. It was she who compiled the mix-tape I listened to over and over as I lay in hospital after I’d tried to kill myself. It was she who offered me a place to live in London when the aftermath of escaping abuse proved too much for me to stay in Scotland where I’d grown up. She helped me believe in myself; told me I could be and do anything I wanted; that I was beautiful and that I deserved the world. I wanted to make her proud with everything I did.

Continue reading

The Good Patient

The last eight months have taught me that sometimes, it doesn’t matter one tiny bit how ‘good’ a patient I am when it comes to mental health treatment – I can still be plunged into the deepest of crises and left gasping in panic at the seemingly inevitable truth that I just cannot not bear to be alive for one more minute. It doesn’t matter how good my attitude is, or how hard I work to remain positive. It doesn’t matter how much I bust a gut to work through frustration and despair to keep up open and honest communication with doctors, employers and therapists, or how often I practice my tightly-honed coping techniques – at times I am just a slave to circumstances and/or brain chemistry. And I’m tired of seeing other people with mental health issues being vilified for apparently not doing enough to control their symptoms. Continue reading