Much respect to this brother.
Some are Muslim men like him, men with British passports and roots in Pakistan who can’t get their head around one of their own pointing the finger at forced marriages and honor crimes and “giving racists another stick to beat us with.” Others come from Britain’s far-right fringe and can’t get their head around a Muslim being a chief prosecutor for “their” queen and “their” country. They once wrote a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, demanding that he fire and deport Mr. Afzal.
Mr. Afzal, 51, chuckles. “I was born in Birmingham, England, and I’m not going back there.”
One of 13 chief crown prosecutors in Britain, he oversees 100,000 prosecutions a year and manages 800 lawyers and paralegals in the prosecution service’s North West Area, the most populous after London. He was the first minority chief prosecutor ever appointed and remains the most senior Muslim lawyer in the country.
Mr. Afzal has prosecuted ordinary thieves, white-collar criminals and hooligans. But this fast-talking man with spiky salt-and-pepper hair and a slightly restless manner is also Britain’s national czar on violence against women. He has perhaps made his biggest mark in aggressively prosecuting crimes against women in minority communities.
Before Mr. Afzal came along, few in multicultural Britain talked openly about the 10,000 girls married off against their will every year, let alone the dozen or so murdered each year in the name of family honor. He has helped set up a national hot line for women at risk of forced marriage — something the U.S. government is currently talking to him about — and is working with the Home Office to criminalize the practice (a law is expected next spring). Last year, he prosecuted nine South Asian men for raping and trafficking white girls in the former mill town of Rochdale in a high-profile case that was branded a “wake-up call” by many in the community.
Human rights, he says, must always trump cultural rights: “There are problems in minority communities that can’t be taboo.”
Being a man, a practicing Muslim and the son of immigrants from the conservative tribal area in northwestern Pakistan might make him an unlikely feminist in the eyes of some. But that’s just what Mr. Afzal calls himself — and his gender, he says, is by far his biggest asset.
“I’m not the first person to take up this fight in Britain; I’m just the first man, and that makes it a lot easier,” he said.
Women’s rights campaigners have gladly welcomed Mr. Afzal into their sisterhood. Efua Dorkenoo, advocacy director on female genital mutilation for Equality Now, said male allies were “critical” for the success of gender equality campaigns, especially where abuses are cloaked in cultural terms. “When men like Afzal speak up about violence against women, it has much more resonance in Asian and African communities,” Ms. Dorkenoo said.
It was in 2004 that Mr. Afzal, a father of four, had his own wake-up call. A group of women came to see him. One told of a girl who had burned herself to death to avoid a forced marriage; she had been 17, the same age as his daughter is now. Another recounted how a woman had been on the run from her family for more than eight years after refusing to marry a man she didn’t know.
“I didn’t know this was happening in this country,” Mr. Afzal said. That same year, he organized a conference in London to learn more. Shortly after, he sat down with the police to create a national database of so-called honor crimes. “Before I knew it we had dozens and dozens of cases,” he said.
Two years later, he successfully prosecuted the cousin and brother of Samaira Nazir for her murder. She had wanted to marry someone her family objected to. They stabbed her 18 times in front of two infant nieces who were splattered with her blood.
It was one of the first occasions that an honor killing entered public consciousness.
In 2008, one of Mr. Afzal’s own relatives in Peshawar was killed by her husband’s family for demanding a divorce. But Mr. Afzal’s crusade for women’s rights is even more personal than that. Born a “brown boy” in middle England a year after his parents arrived in 1961, he, too, bears the scars of inequality. He was bullied and beaten at school often. His father, a caterer for the British, told him: “Get used to it.” And he did.
“I thought this was how it was, and I put up with it, and I think a lot of women feel the same about the abuse they suffer,” he said.
His work on gender equality often intersects with his efforts to be a bridge between white Britons and the South Asian community, particularly after suicide bombers attacked the London transport system on July 7, 2005, killing 52 and injuring nearly 800.
Mr. Afzal remembers speaking at London City Hall a few weeks later. The mood in the country was tense, Islamophobia on the rise. Mr. Afzal, then deputy chief prosecutor in London, had been asked to help engage the Muslim community, but his comments on gender-based violence irked some. A man stood up in the audience and said: “Nazir, why are you giving these racists another stick to beat us with?” His response: “The community should carry their own stick.”
He has long since stopped using Twitter because the abuse got to be too much. Following last year’s Rochdale case, a police guard was placed outside his house. But Mr. Afzal is not one to lose his spirit. “I’ve done my bit for multifaith engagement,” he likes to point out. “As a good Muslim boy, I’ve been married three times. First to an Irish Catholic, then to an Indian Hindu and then to a British Sikh.”