Drugged, strangled, thrown into a river: ‘Honour’ Killing of Surjit Athwal
The most infamous of ‘honour’ killings (the murder of a female family member who has been perceived to bring ‘dishonour’ to the family name or their community) in recent years was that of Qandeel Baloch: a Pakistani pop culture icon who believed in challenging typical gender roles of women in her community. She dressed in ‘risque’ clothes, mocked a clergyman and spoke freely about sexuality and social change for Pakistani women, even starring in a provocative, tongue-and-cheek music video about Pakistani culture. However, her killer – her own brother Waseem Azeem – had other ideas about the role Baloch should play in the community. He deemed the murder of his sister an ‘honour killing’, even though his own parents feel shame and anger for what he did. Azeem expressed no regret for killing his sister, insisting the Youtube star had brought shame on their family through her work.
Baloch is just one of thousands of women killed every year under the blanket of so-called ‘honour killings’ where women are, according to statistics, usually shot dead, although acid attacks and strangulation are also commonplace. The killers are often the victim’s own family, unhappy with their actions or life choices, be it their refusal to marry a selected suitor, alleged illicit relationships or even simply speaking out about their own rights as human beings. Baloch’s murder was worldwide news in 2016 because of her Pakistani celebrity status, but this is is just one of thousands of this kind of familial murder that happen every year.
British Sikh Sarbjit Athwal told us her heartbreaking story of her own terrible experience of ‘honour’ killings.
Living in Hounslow, West London, at the age of 19, Sarbjit was pressured to marry her ex-husband, although she says she “kept getting this really strong feeling that something wasn’t right.” Believing her family knew what was best for her, she moved into the home where the whole family lived: her husband, her mother and father-in law, her husband’s brother, Sukhdave and his bride Surjit.
“When I met my sister-in-law Surjit she was really unhappy, I could tell.” Sarbjit said that her mother-in-law, Bachan Athwal was exceptionally strict and when her father-in-law passed away things became progressively worse. Surjit, against the wishes of her husband got a job and gradually began to dress and behave “more westernized”. Unhappy with how her husband abused her, stalked her when she went out with friends and recorded her movements, and how his mother berated her, Surjit decided to divorce her husband in 1988. She had fallen in love with another man. Bachan “somehow convinced” Surjit to go to India to attend a number of weddings with her.
However, Sarbjit and the rest of the family knew what was really going to happen. Bachan had told them, co-conspiring with Surjit’s husband that they were going to to “get rid of her” because she was bringing shame on their family. It was later revealed that the 27-year-old mother was drugged, strangled and thrown into a river in India. Her body has never been found.
Sarbjit was told that if she breathed a word to anyone she “would be next.” Her husband and mother-in-law constantly reminded her “you know what we are capable of”. The stress of keeping such a huge secret resulted in a life threatening stomach ulcer. Sarbjit tried to go to the police, writing an anonymous letter and calling Crime Stoppers when she had dropped her daughter off at school but no investigation into Surjit’s disappearance was ever made.
Sarbjit’s claims were eventually taken seriously and Bachan was found guilty of murder, along with her son, Surjit’s husband. Sarbjit was the first British Sikh woman in the history to waive her right to anonymity and testify against her mother-in-law for the honour killing of her sister-in-law. Sarbjit told us because of her mother-in-law’s age, she was given a sentence of 20 years, which was later reversed to 15 however, Sarbjit said her murderous former mother-in-law “will be out in five years.”
‘Shamed’ by Sarbjit Kaur Athwal was written with Jeff Hudson and published by Virgin Books in 2013. Sarbjit also founded the True Honour charity, fighting against honour-based violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation: truehonour.org.uk
You can read our full story – ‘No Honour in Killing’ – in issue 27 of Real Crime magazine, on sale now.