'My imam father came after me with an axe'
We are all too familiar with the persecution of Christians in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Yet sitting in front of me is a British woman whose life has been threatened in this country solely because she is a Christian. Indeed, so real is the threat that the book she has written about her experiences has had to appear under an assumed name.
The book is called The Imam’s Daughter because “Hannah Shah” is just that: the daughter of an imam in one of the tight-knit Deobandi Muslim Pakistani communities in the north of England. Her father emigrated to this country from rural Pakistan some time in the 1960s and is, apparently, a highly respected local figure.
He is also an incestuous child abuser, repeatedly raping his daughter from the age of five until she was 15, ostensibly as part of her punishment for being “disobedient”. At the age of 16 she fled her family to avoid the forced marriage they had planned for her in Pakistan. A much, much greater affront to “honour” in her family’s eyes, however, was the fact that she then became a Christian – an apostate. The Koran is explicit that apostasy is punishable by death; thus it was that her father the imam led a 40-strong gang – in the middle of a British city – to find and kill her.
Hannah Shah says her story is not unique – that there are many other girls in British Muslim families who are oppressed and married off against their will, or who have secretly become Christians but are too afraid to speak out. She wants their voices to be heard and for Britain, the land of her birth, to realise the hidden misery of these women.
Hannah’s own voice is quiet and emerges from a tiny frame. She is clearly nervous about talking to a journalist and the stress she has been under is betrayed by a bald patch on the left side of her head. Yet she has a lovely natural smile, especially when she reveals that she got married a year ago; her husband works in the Church of England, “though not as a vicar”.
I tell Hannah that the passages in her memoir about her sexual abuse are almost impossible to read – but I also found it hard to understand why, now that she is in her early thirties, independent and married, she has not reported her father’s horrific assaults on her to the police.
“What has stopped me is that if my dad went to prison, the shame that would be brought upon the rest of the family would be horrific. My mum would not be able to . . . I mean, it’s bad enough having a daughter who’s left, is not agreeing to her marriage and is now a Christian. Then to have my dad in prison would be the end for her.”
I tell Hannah, perhaps a little cruelly, that in her use of the word “shame” she is echoing the sort of arguments that her own family had used against her.
“I understand that, but what I’m saying is that if I do that, then there will never be a door open to me to have contact with my family ever again. I’m still hoping that there will be some opportunity for that.” Of course, by writing this book, albeit under an assumed name and with all the places and characters disguised, there is a chance that her family and community will identify themselves in it. What does she think they would do, then?
“To be honest, I don’t even want to think about that. Either they will decide between them that they are not going to say anything because it will bring shame on all the community, or they will decide that they want to take action. Then my life will become even more difficult, because they’ll all be looking for me.”
Hannah’s description in the book of the moment when her “community” discovered the “safe” home where she had fled after becoming an apostate is terrifying. A mob with her father at its head pounded and hammered at the door as she cowered upstairs hoping she could not be seen or heard. She heard her father shout through the letter box: “Filthy traitor! Betrayer of your faith! Cursed traitor! We’re going to rip your throat out! We’ll burn you alive!”
Does she still believe they would have killed her? “Yes, without a doubt. They had hammers and knives and axes.”
Why didn’t you call the police after-wards? “First, I didn’t think the police would believe me. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen in this country – or that’s what they’d think. Second, I didn’t believe I would get help or protection from the authorities.”
Hannah had good reason for this doubt. When, at school, she had finally summoned the courage to tell a teacher that her father had been beating her (she couldn’t bring herself to reveal the sexual abuse), the social services sent out a social worker from her own community. He chose not to believe Hannah and, in effect, shopped her to her father, who gave her the most brutal beating of her life. When she later confronted the social worker, he said: “It’s not right to betray your community.”
Hannah blames what is sometimes called political correctness for this debacle: “My teachers had thought they were doing the right thing, they thought it showed ‘cultural sensitivity’ by bringing in someone from my own community to ‘help’, but it was the worst thing they could have done to me. This happens a lot.
“When I’ve been working with girls who were trying to get out of an arranged marriage, or want to convert to Christianity, and they have contacted social services as they need to get out of their homes, the reaction has been ‘we’ll send someone from your community to talk to your parents’. I know why they are doing this, they are trying to be understanding, but it’s the last thing that the authorities should do in such situations.”
This is the sort of cultural sensitivity displayed by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, last year when he suggested that problems within the British Muslim community such as financial or marital disputes could be dealt with under sharia, Islamic law, rather than British civil law. What did Hannah, now an Anglican, think on hearing these remarks?
“I was horrified.” If you could speak to him now, what would you say to the archbishop? “I would say: have you actually spoken to any ordinary Muslim women about the situation that they live in, in their communities? By putting in place these Muslim arbitration tribunals, where a woman’s witness is half that of a man, you are silencing women even more.”
She believes the British government is making exactly the same mistake as Rowan Williams: “It says it talks to the Muslim community, but it’s not speaking to the women. I mean, you are always hearing Muslim men speaking out, the representatives of the big federations, but the government is not listening to Muslim women. With the sharia law situation and the Muslim arbitration tribunals, have they thought about what effect these tribunals have on Muslim women? I don’t think so.”
It’s fair to say that Hannah Shah is an evangelical Christian, who clearly feels a duty to spread her new faith to Muslims– something with which the Church of England’s eternally emollient establishment is very uncomfortable and the government even more so. She points out that even within this notionally Christian country, people are “persecuted” for evangelism of even the mildest sort. She cites the recent cases of the nurse who was suspended for offering to pray for a patient and the foster parents who were struck off after a Muslim girl in their care converted to Christianity.
“Such people – I’m not talking about apostates like me – have been persecuted or ostracised in this country simply because they want to share their faith with others. People call this political correctness but I actually think it is based on a fear of Muslims, what they might do if provoked.”
Shah’s conversion seems to have its origins in the fact that the family who put her up after she ran away from the prospect of an arranged marriage in rural Pakistan were themselves regular church attenders. She began to go with them and, to put it at its most banal, she liked what she heard.
“It was the emphasis on love.
The Islam that I grew up knowing and reading about doesn’t offer me love. That’s the biggest thing that Christianity can and does offer. I sense that I belong and am accepted as I am – even when I do wrong there is forgiveness, a forgiveness which Islam does not offer.”
So does Hannah offer Christian forgiveness to the father who raped and abused her and who, by her own account, was even prepared to murder her?
“It’s taken a long time and it’s only in the past few years that I’ve got to that. It’s very hard to get there and it’s taken a lot of shouting and screaming behind closed doors, and praying, to get me to the point of being able to say: I forgive. I have to, partly because otherwise I would be a very bitter and angry person and I don’t want to livea life that’s full of anger.”
I can’t help asking how she would react if a future child of hers decided she wanted to abandon the Christian faith of the family home and become a Muslim. “It would be very hard for me, obviously.”
Would she try to discourage it? “No. I’d bring them up as Christians, take them to church, but I’d also want them to know about, well, my culture, about Islam. Because being Christian should be a choice, not what you’re born to. But yes, it would be hard if they chose Islam.”
Somehow, though, I think Hannah Shah would cope.