Shafilea Ahmed has been in the British news recently. 8 years ago her decomposing body was found beside a river bank 70 miles away from her home. She was the eldest of four siblings. She had two younger sisters and a younger brother.
Yesterday, her mother and father were convicted and given life sentences for her murder.
From an early age she never conformed to the wishes of her parents. They wanted her to be a docile young Asian girl. But she wanted to wear jeans and have a boyfriend. They wanted her to marry an older man from Pakistan but she escaped by drinking bleach. Faced with a child they couldn't mould and control and one they feared would bring 'shame' upon the family, they killed her. They stuck a plastic bag in her mouth and as she struggled for breath and wet herself with the mother saying “lets finish it” – they suffocated her. Her siblings watched as their father carried her lifeless body into the back trunk of the car.
You can find the details of the case online so I'm not going to repeat them here. What I am interested in though is what led such law abiding – and on the face of it normal and decent hard-working parents – to murder their own child. To cold-bloodedly kill their own flesh and blood and then feel no remorse for what they had done. How is that possible?
It's an extraordinary state of mind and I want to get into it. To try and understand what leads people to do such things, and how they justify it, in their own minds. The thing is, it's not just a simple fact of them being evil. Evil is an easy label to stick on people when you fail to understand them. I dont think they were evil, yet they committed an act that can only be described as evil. These are people who had never broken any laws before. How can decent people do such things?
In their case it was a warped and thoroughly virulent idea that what people think about you, is more important, then anything else. They were obsessed with what people thought about them. They killed their daughter because they feared more what people would think and say of their daughters 'western ways' and her 'uncontrollability' and how it would impact peoples perception of them, then the act of murder itself.
How terrible is that? How warped is that?
Schopenhauer has much to tell us about such things. It's not what you have, nor what other people think of you that matters. It's what you are inside that really counts.
Most parents are programmed with a death instinct to protect their children from any harm. Parents will die for their children. This is a behavioural trait found throughout the animal kingdom and it has sound scientific basis. When we hear news of parents killing their own children – either because of a custody battle, or some deeply tragic psychological trouble, we are all appalled. It's instinctive. If a stranger murders children it is bad, but when we hear of parents killing their own, we are appalled even more, because we understand how powerful the parental protective instinct is.
Parents want their children to listen to them. They want their children to follow a good path, and not be led astray. Parents recognise that children don't yet have the brain apparatus and life experience to make sound decisions and judgements. So, necessarily parents must behave like tyrants. They must impose their will on their children – until the children are old enough, to go their own way, knowing the consequences.
It's a fine line. But when is it acceptable for a parent to be a tyrant? When are parents being unreasonable?
In the case of Shafilea Ahmed not only were they being unreasonable they were being downright hostile and selfish. The bottom line is this: you cannot expect a child to be brought up in a particular country, to have friends in that country, to go to school in that country, to read the books and magazines and watch the tv of that country, yet expect that child to willy nilly, without reservations, totally accept the culture of another country. To force a child to do that is child abuse. Yet – it is so common. There are many similar children out there who are being pulled by opposing forces, and they tend to grow up as conflicted adults not knowing where they belong or where they fit in the world. Their lives lived on the periphery of two cultures, they get stuck in the cracks, and thats where they remain. Some children are docile enough and don't fight the will of their parents and end up living 'padded' sheltered lives in a country in which they barely participate in. Others go the other extreme and rebel. Some manage to find a middle ground that manages to incorporate both lifestyles yet with grey areas.
In the end what is right? What is a better culture? Can we find absolutes?
No. There are no absolutes.
You can take good and bad things from different cultures. For example I like the way the older generation in the Asian cultures are looked after by families. Much better then sticking your parents in a care home in my opinion. But the way the Asian culture places more emphasis on things like 'respect' and 'honour' is for me a virulent social strain that should be eradicated. For what is honour? Honour is nothing but what other people openly think of you! Deep down inside they may not even like you, but openly, in society, honour is considered important.
I prefer terms like honesty, integrity and compassion as a descriptive. Honour is subjective. And most importantly it is not founded on anything concrete. You can create the impression of honour and make people think you are honourable. But what is honour exactly? But the idea of you in the mind of others!
We judge others based on flawed concepts and ideas of what is good and bad. We think wealth, and influence, and the appearance of religious piety is honourable. The growth of a beard and the wearing of certain clothes and the act of prayer is considered enough to make you good. What utter rubbish!
It's what you have in your heart that determines morals and honour. Not whether you blindly bow to an invisible deity. Having 'belief' is considered something positive. To blindly believe, in the absence of evidence, a positive character trait!
You see this belief in belief everywhere. Not only in religious cults but also in Hollywood movies like 'The Matrix' where Morpheus blindly believes in Neo.
Yet, I believd in Neo too. I too wanted to believe in him. I too rooted for him. I believed that he was the one. But The Matrix is a movie.
And this is real life…
Not a fantasy
Open up your eyes, look up to the skies