Should Zoora be serving 20 years?


Zoora Shah deliberately took some arsenic and mixed it up in a plate of samosas and served them to her partner, Mohammed Azam. She poisoned him and he died. Now she is serving a life sentence in Durham Prison, with a recommendation that she stay there for 20 years.

Zoora Shah stands as a reminder of a particularly conservative strain within Britain's Asian community. To her friends and supporters she is a quiet, anxious woman, determined to protect her honour and that of her daughters, but she is also a "realistic and poignant" victim of cultural repression, who was allegedly sexually and mentally abused by Mohammed Azam.

"She isn't a hardened criminal," insists her daughter, Naseem Shah (24). "She was driven to do what she did."

Naseem and her brother and sister have found some support from the younger generation in Bradford, but the older ones have condemned her mother, blaming her for the fact that her husband left her for another woman before she took up with Azam. His supporters at the local Council for Mosques in Bradford, where his brother is the president, have condemned Zoora, insisting that if she was suffering from domestic violence she could have gone to a women's refuge.

Naseem laughs at this suggestion. Her mother could never have gone to a refuge because she would have been ashamed to admit she was being abused. Admitting abuse, she says, would have damaged her daughters' chances of marriage because in the Asian community in Bradford family honour is protected above all else. The underside of this attempt to hold on to a more traditional way of life is that many young Asian men, often at the behest of their elders who are frightened by women who have rejected the "old ways", strut around Bradford trying to keep their sisters and cousins in check. Naseem says the large number of Mirpuri (a region in Pakistan) men in Bradford, hardline traditionalists, means that women are treated as second-class citizens, and are often driven to and from school or work by an older brother or father.

"It's a time warp. They are trying to hold on to old values, trying to hold on to their culture. You see in the Asian community the biggest thing is izzat [honour] and if you haven't got izzat you haven't got anything. If women step out of line people will serve time, they will kill for that," explains Naseem. She points to the recent case of an Asian man who killed a female relative by knocking her down and driving over her after she tried to escape from her family. But he got his sentence reduced," she adds.

Pragna Patel, of the Southall Black Sisters, a support group in London for abused women which is leading the campaign for Shah's release, explains that the importance of family honour among Asians is irrevocably bound up with the role of women. "Young women in particular are seen as the inculcators of tradition in the Asian community and in certain Asian communities in Britain the mosques are very powerful institutions and exert quite an influence on the community." In April, a second appeal against Shah's conviction was dismissed by the High Court, despite fresh evidence indicating she was clinically depressed at the time of the murder and her own testimony to physical and mental abuse. Lord Justice Kennedy described Shah as "a most unsatisfactory witness . . . not capable of belief".

That, says Pragna Patel, was a "racist judgment", reinforcing the belief among many Asians that the British justice system has not grasped the cultural complexities of Asian life. Shah had not helped her case by lying to the police at the time of Azam's murder, claiming she did not have anything to do with it. But she did not speak out about the abuse in court, she says, because Muslim women have a particular difficulty about making a fuss with the authorities.

"For Muslim women to admit this in open court would have effectively labelled her as a prostitute. She had been discarded by her husband and was compelled into the relationship (with Azam) because she was destitute. She did not want to speak out, not only for her own honour, but also for her two daughters. She did not want to be humiliated by having her sexual history discussed in court," explains Patel.

In September the case took another dramatic twist when the foreman of the jury which convicted Shah declared that, had he known about her depression and the allegations of abuse, he couldn't be 100 per cent confident there would have been a conviction. His comments have given the campaign for her release a "huge boost" and at the end of this month the appeal team will make legal representations to the Home Secretary to reduce Shah's sentence.

While she awaits her mother's release, Naseem tries to keep the campaign going and encourage the Asian community in Bradford to talk about all forms of abuse: "It is taboo. It doesn't happen to us and it should be dealt with by the family, they say. So little is done for Asian women . . . but it only takes one person to break the ice."