Killing of Pakistani sisters puts Spain’s immigrant integration system under scrutiny

Several male relatives of women arrested in connection with the crime

The killing, apparently at the hands of members of their own family, of two Pakistani sisters who lived in Catalonia has shaken Spanish society and raised questions about its ability to integrate immigrants.

Arooj Abbas (24) and her sister Aneesa (21), who lived in Terrassa, near Barcelona, were both killed a day after returning to their family’s village in northern Pakistan last month, after a dispute over their marriages. Pakistani police arrested six men in connection with the deaths, including their husbands, two brothers and an uncle.

Police believe the two sisters were lured back to the country under false pretences after members of the family there discovered that both women wanted to separate from the two cousins they had married years earlier and who remained in Pakistan. Arooj was shot dead and Aneesa was strangled, according to forensic sources cited by Pakistani news site Dawn.

Azra Bibi, the mother of the two victims who was present when they were killed, returned to Spain on Sunday with her youngest son, a minor who was not connected with the crime.

Her estranged husband, Ghulam Abbas, who lives in Terrassa, said: “I have two dead daughters and two sons in prison, I don’t know what to think.”

Arooj and Aneesa both moved to Spain several years ago, leaving behind their husbands and living with their father and brother Shehryar, who is one of those who has been arrested. The strict and controlling behaviour of their male relatives and their determination to have relationships with other men caused them to leave the flat several months ago, according to reports.

Forced marriages have been illegal in Spain since 2015, although police have investigated approximately 30 such unions since then, according to the interior ministry.

Whether or not the two victims’ marriages were forced is not clear. However, the case of Arooj and Aneesa Abbas appears to have prompted other girls and women in Spain who faced arranged or forced unions to approach the authorities. Among them was a Bangladeshi girl due to be married in her home country who went to the police in Barcelona and is now in the care of the Catalan regional government.

There are 99,000 Pakistanis living in Spain, half of who are in the province of Barcelona. El País newspaper said the double-murder case showed “the rise in coexistence of Spanish society with immigrant families from countries where women’s rights do not exist, or barely have any kind of judicial or institutional support”. It added that Spanish institutions need to “detect situations of moral and social asphyxia where male members of a family leave girls unprotected by the rule of law”.

This case comes just as Spain has moved to broaden women’s rights in several areas. Last month, the government approved a draft bill to ease abortion restrictions and provide paid leave for women suffering severe period pains. Last week, congress approved a law which seeks to ensure any non-consensual sexual encounter can be deemed assault.

Meanwhile, gender violence remains high on the political agenda, with 18 women being killed by their partner or ex-partner in Spain so far this year.

Political commentator Josep Martí Blanch accused politicians of being scared to wade into the Terrassa murder case because they were fearful of being deemed racist. However, he warned that Spain’s progressive social agenda meant that “the communities who live on the margins appear to be getting further and further away from us in the rear-view mirror”.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain