Banaz: A Love Story
I grew up in a community where honor is a form of social currency. It is a source of concern from the moment we are born. “Honor” can be the most sought-after, protected, and prized asset that defines the status and reputation of a family within their community. This burden weighs most heavily upon women’s behavior. This collective sense of honor and shame has for centuries confined our movement and freedom of choice, and restricted our autonomy. You cannot be who you are, nor express your needs, hopes, and opinions as an individual if they conflict with the greater good and reputation of the family, the community, the collective. If you grow up in a community defined by these patriarchal concepts of honor and social structures, these are the parameters by which you are expected to live. This is true for my own life and experiences.
Autonomy is not acceptable, and can be punished by abuse, threats, intimidation, exclusion by the group, and violence, of which the most extreme manifestation is taking someone’s life—murdering someone in the name of “honor.” This is something that has interested me throughout my life because of my own experiences with meeting resistance and opposition to my forms of expression and life choices.
I understand what it is like when people want to silence your voice. At times, my choices have strayed from the acceptable moral norms afforded to women of my background. I have addressed these concepts of honor in various forms throughout the years, but I have always wanted to do more, especially about the most extreme form of guarding “honor”—honor killings.
That is why I set out, almost four years ago, to make a documentary film about honor killings. I intended to shed light on this topic and to learn about it by reviewing an extensive list of cases across Europe that could help us understand the extent of honor killings and their existence within diaspora communities. The purpose of this project was to create a film that would primarily educate and inform people in order to help us understand the issue better, and to consider what can be done to prevent or reduce these crimes. As I started delving further into various cases, I came across the story of Banaz Mahmod, a young British Kurdish woman, born in Iraq and living in England, who was killed in South London in 2006. I realized that this case would best illustrate the constructs of honor, the lack of understanding about this topic in the Western world, and the severe need to do more across social, political, and community lines. As a result, Banaz’s story has become the anchor of my film, Banaz: A Love Story, and shows the lessons to be learned from her tragic death.
THE STORY OF BANAZ
Banaz Mahmod’s life was marked by betrayal. As a child, she underwent female genital mutilation (FGM) at the hands of her grandmother. At seventeen years old, she was married off to a man she had met only once in order to strengthen family alliances. In her marriage, she was abused, beaten, raped, and forced to endure isolation. At nineteen years old, she left her husband and returned to her family hoping for safety and security, only to be betrayed again—first, by the British authorities who did not take her pleas for help seriously when she suspected she was in danger, then by her family who took her disobedience as an unforgivable act. At twenty years old, she disappeared and was never heard from again, until she was discovered buried under a patio, wedged in a fetal position inside a muddy suitcase—a victim of a so-called “honor” killing.
Only after Banaz’s murder did she find a family that exhibited the type of behavior a family should; and she did so in the unlikeliest of places: the Metropolitan Police. Detective Chief Inspector Caroline Goode and her team spent five years finding and prosecuting the perpetrators of this brutal crime, which included her father, uncle, and a male cousin. This case spanned two continents and resulted in the only extradition from Iraq by Britain in modern history. In death, Banaz found a family willing to do whatever it took to protect and honor her memory.
HONOR KILLING IS A WORLDWIDE ISSUE
Banaz’s life and murder is just one among thousands of stories around the world where families cave to the peer pressure of their community instead of honoring their duty to love and protect their children. Banaz’s story, which covers many of the classic patterns of honor crimes and oppression, brings to light the broader topic of honor killings that is becoming particularly prevalent within diaspora communities in Europe and the United States. In 2010, 3,000 honor crimes were reported in the United Kingdom alone. Despite these staggering figures, many young women like Banaz are let down by Western officials because they lack understanding and training in identifying the signs of an honor crime, and fear upsetting cultural sensitivities—and, at times, have a general sense of apathy regarding violence against minority women, especially those of immigrant communities. Honor killings are part of an ongoing femicide in which the murders of women and girls are considered “justified” for the protection of a family’s reputation. Although, for Banaz, justice did eventually prevail, she was still found dead in a suitcase.
While making the film, I found that after exhaustively searching the Internet for information on the subject, the available research and data was inadequate. I discovered two particular needs that I felt I could concretely do something about. First, I needed to create a place where people interested in the subject and seeking information about honor violence could go to learn more. Second, I needed to create a place where the victims whose families intended to erase them from the world could be remembered. I continued interviewing experts in the field, from policymakers to NGOs, activists, police officers, and legal professionals, and realized that they also shared my frustration at the lack of accessible and comprehensive information about honor-based violence. During these interviews, I quickly became aware that honor-based violence is little understood in the West, with alarming consequences. We know that honor-based violence is far more widespread than current figures indicate because it is under-reported, under-researched, and under-documented; therefore, it is easily misunderstood, overlooked, and misidentified. To address these dire needs, in collaboration with volunteers and experts from around the world, I created the Honor-Based Violence Awareness (HBVA) Network and the Memini Memorial Initiative.
HBVA is an international digital resource center working to advance understanding and awareness of honor killings and honor-based violence through research, training, and information for professionals, teachers, health workers, social services, police, politicians, and others who may encounter individuals at risk. HBVA builds and promotes a network of experts, activists, and NGOs from around the world, establishing international partnerships to facilitate greater collaboration and education. HBVA draws on the expertise of its international partners, collaborators, and experts from Pakistan, Iraq, the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, India, Norway, Denmark, Bangladesh, Jordan, Palestine, and France. Some of the esteemed HBVA experts are Unni Wikan, Asma Jahangir, Yakin Erturk, Rana Husseini, Serap Cileli, Ayse Onal, Yanar Mohammad, Dr. Shahrzad Mojab, Aruna Papp, Hina Jilani, Dr. Tahira S. Khan, and Sara Hossain. For more information, see HBVA.
Memini is an online remembrance initiative set up to ensure that the stories of honor killing victims are told, defying the intent of those who sought to erase them. Our individual and communal silence allows these violent expressions of honor to survive, and is what makes these murders possible in the first place. Memini is a small and humble step toward ending that silence. For more information, see MEMINI.
THE COURAGE TO CARE
Although the story of Banaz is filled with so much darkness, Detective Chief Inspector Caroline Goode shows us what can be achieved if we simply care. Caroline went above and beyond the call of duty, going to the ends of the earth to find justice for Banaz—not only fulfilling her obligation as a police officer, but also seeing Banaz with a mother’s eyes and feeling with a mother’s heart. I am grateful to have found Caroline and Banaz through this journey. For me, Caroline’s dedication and integrity, her compassion, and her professionalism represent the highest expression of truly honorable behavior. The core lesson I have learned is that there is hope, but more has to be done—and I am committed to doing what I can, however small the action. I believe one thing we can do is to remember the victims. I believe if their own blood relatives discarded, betrayed, exterminated, and forgot them, then we should adopt these girls as our own children, our own sisters, our own mothers, and as fellow human beings. We will mourn, we will remember, we will honor their memory, and we will not forget!
If we worry about offending communities by criticizing honor killings, then we are complicit in the perpetuation of violence and abuse, and in the restriction of women’s lives. Our silence provides the soil for this oppression and violence to thrive. It is not racist to protest against honor killings. We have a duty to stand up for individual human rights for all people, not just for men and not just for groups. We shall not sacrifice the lives of ethnic minority women for the sake of so-called political correctness.
I would rather hurt others’ feelings than see women die because of our fear, apathy, and silence. We need to stand in solidarity. In order to create change, we need to care. We need authorities, decision-makers, and politicians to provide the same protections and robust actions for women of ethnic minority communities affected by honor-based violence and oppression as they would for any other crimes in any other part of society. It is not acceptable to shy away from abuses against women in some communities for fear of being labeled racist or insensitive—the very notion of turning a blind eye or walking on egg shells and avoiding action to protect the basic human rights of some women because they are of a certain ethnic background is not only fatal; it represents true racism.
We cannot continue to allow this slaughter of women in the name of culture, in the name of religion, in the name of tradition, and in the name of political correctness. If we allow this to continue, we are betraying not only Banaz, but also thousands of other women and girls in her situation. We should do all we can to protect all individuals in our societies regardless of skin color, cultural heritage, or gender, without fear.
We must challenge these paradigms in every way we can. Centuries-old mindsets, entrenched gender roles, and power relations will take time to change, but we can make a real and immediate difference in challenging the lack of awareness, the lack of political will, and the lack of sufficient training and understanding when it comes to front-line people who can help individuals at risk. This includes police, doctors, nurses, schoolteachers, social services, and so on. At the very least the ignorance of authorities and their lack of understanding and training in Western countries should not be a contributing factor in the continuing abuse of thousands of women (and men). We cannot allow it to be the reason that these young people continue to suffer in silence.
Banaz is among those who dared to ask for help; the majority of young people at risk for honor-based violence may not come forward at all.
TRUE EXAMPLES OF HONOR
All of the honor killings I researched are horrifying, heartbreaking, and devastating, and no one case felt any less sad and tragic than any other. I ended up choosing the story of Banaz not because of the horror of her story, but because of the love. Banaz’s story was different in my eyes from most other stories because there was love in spite of the hatred she faced in her life. After her death, there were people who loved her and cared about her, one of whom was the most unexpected person I could have imagined: a police officer, Detective Chief Inspector Caroline Goode. The other was Banaz’s sister, Bekhal, who sacrificed her own safety and peace of mind for her love for Banaz, and her need to honor her memory by achieving justice. I have the greatest respect for Bekhal. Her courage and determination defines true honor for me.
From the very beginning of this project, I was most saddened to see how absent Banaz was from her own story. Normally, a biographical film will feature family members, friends, and other people who knew the person. They share their love, memories, and thoughts about the person who has died, showing home videos, photographs, and other mementoes of loving relationships. In this film, that was not the case at all. The only person in the film speaking about Banaz and who had known her when she was alive was her sister. Everyone else in the film came to know Banaz after she had passed away. We even put out calls in local newspapers and reached out through Facebook and other social media to find anyone who would have known her and would be willing to share their memories of her, but no one came forward. This hurt my heart until I came across the footage of Banaz herself, showing us the suffocating reality of her life. Watching this tape for the first time was one of the most painful experiences of my life. I had spent three and a half years working on this documentary, learning everything I could about this young woman’s life and death. We were in the final editing process, and suddenly here she was, present on this tape. No one else would come forward to speak about her, but here she was herself, in the final moments of the filmmaking process. It was harrowing to finally be able to hear and see her tell her own story.
As a society we have let Banaz down. No one listened to her in her life. The least we can do now is honor her by listening to her and learning from her experiences, and by addressing this issue with complete honesty and courage.
A version of this article was previously published with the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) on November 3, 2012.