Caught between cultures – insights from the Shafilea Ahmed case

The Shafilea Ahmed case has been on the news this week as it goes to trial.  The BBC news article can be read here :

If Iftikhar & Farzana Ahmed are convicted of murdering their daughter for bringing shame on her family because of her conduct, then they will face the legal consequences of their actions. While the case will focus mainly on the legal issues, there are also cultural issues involved and it is worthwhile taking some time to explore further these cultural issues and stresses that can affect any immigrant family who decide to live in a foreign country and raise their children there.

Shafilea was portrayed as a girl who was becoming westernised and who refused to obey her parents and conform to their cultural values. It is common to find that in migrant families, younger migrants find it easier to adapt and change than older ones. Older migrants usually have a well-established identity with their heritage culture and are unwilling to change. In fact they may feel a strong obligation to act as “gatekeepers” of the heritage culture and ensure that their children are taught the values and traditions of the heritage culture. Migrant families may actually end up being more strongly traditional in their cultural values in an attempt to preserve the heritage culture for their children.

Certainly Shafilea Ahmed was put under enormous pressure by her parents to conform to their cultural norms and Iftikhar and Farzana found it impossible to force their daughter to comply. Second generation migrants who are brought up in the new host culture commonly face pressure from home to maintain the heritage culture of their parents but also face pressure from friends and society to conform to the host culture. Adolescent migrants who are experimenting with their emerging sense of identity can find that it is a confusing time and soon discover that there are choices to be made.  An article on cultural identity can be read here :

Berry’s categorical model of acculturation has been a popular one for explaining the choices that are available to an immigrant living in the host culture. (As referenced in ‘The Psychology of Culture Shock.’ By Ward, C, Bochner, S., and Furnham, A).

Separation– This is when the immigrant decides not to take on any of the values of the host culture, they essentially decide to separate themselves from the host culture and only engage with it as necessary, striving to maintain the heritage culture as much as possible.

Marginalisation – The immigrant may change to adapt to the host culture but in doing so, may end up feeling that they no longer fit in with their heritage culture, but neither do they feel part of the host culture.

Assimilation – This is where the immigrant abandons their heritage culture in favour of the host culture. They deny all cultural values and traditions in their past and change dramatically to fit in with the host culture.

Integration – The ideal choice, where individuals are encouraged to maintain the cultural values from their heritage culture that are important to them but at the same time are able to adapt enough to merge with the host culture in other equally important ways.

Families who are adapting to their new host culture often do not anticipate nor understand the struggles that their teenage children can go through in trying to make sense of their identity and place in society. Growing up as a bi-cultural teenager and having pressure both from home and from school/society to conform can create confusion, stress, conflict and sometimes in extreme cases, depression and other mental health issues.

Parents often may not appreciate the full extent of what their children go through when growing up in a culture that is different to their home culture. Some children may end up with a split cultural identity – one for home and one for school/society. Having spent time with a Vietnamese community in Australia while conducting research on how first and second generation migrants dealt with their acculturation experience to Australia, I discovered that most second generation migrants eventually developed a split cultural identity as a way of keeping the peace at home and also fitting in at school and with their friends.

While some parents may wish that their children would just separate from the host culture and retain their heritage culture values, this is not an ideal long-term solution. Neither is full-blown assimilation, as children then lose the unique traits and values from their heritage culture. Having a split cultural identity may end up making bi-cultural kids feel marginalised – not fitting in with either culture.

Ideally, aiming for integration would be the best solution. However the way integration is understood and implemented in multi-cultural countries is still a subject of debate and discussion.  This case highlights the need for more support to be provided for migrant families who may be struggling with raising bi-cultural children, and while wanting the very best opportunities for their children, may also need information on how to help their children figure out how to blend the best from both worlds and make sense of their identity.

For futher reading :

1) ‘Third Culture Kids. Growing up among worlds.’ By Pollock, D. C & Van Reken, R.

2) ‘The Psychology of Culture Shock.’ By Ward, C, Bochner, S., and Furnham, A