Film captures tragic story of honour killing victim Banaz Mahmod

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 1 Oct 2012 15:20 GMT
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LONDON (TrustLaw) – The video frame lingers on the smile of a pretty teenager, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. When the sound comes on, it becomes clear that the footage is taken from a police interview. With the camera rolling, Banaz Mahmod quietly predicts her own death.

It is October 2005 and Banaz has gone to the police to report being tailed and threatened by men from her conservative Kurdish community in London.

"In the future or at anytime, if anything happens to me, it's them," she tells an officer at the station - the first of five occasions she approached the police for help.

Three months later, Banaz was killed in her family home in a suburb of the capital. The 20-year-old was raped, stamped on and eventually garrotted with a shoelace in an attack lasting more than two hours. It was months before Banaz's body was discovered - curled up in a foetal position in a suitcase buried in the garden of a house more than 120 miles (190 km) away.

Five men, including her father and uncle, were convicted of her murder. They had killed Banaz for bringing 'shame' on her Iraqi Kurdish family and the wider community; first, by walking out of an arranged marriage that was punctuated by beatings, sexual abuse and humiliation at the hands of her husband; and then, by falling in love with a man the family disapproved of.

The murder shocked Britain, waking it up to the phenomenon of honour violence thought to affect thousands of women in the country every year, but which until a few years ago remained hidden.   

It also exposed a lack of understanding among the police about honour-based violence - defined as crimes committed to protect or defend the honour of a family or community.   

Seven years on, the case is brought to life in a new documentary chronicling the extraordinary lengths detectives went to to deliver justice – even tracking down two of Banaz’s killers to northern Iraq where they had fled after her murder and getting them extradited for trial in the UK.

Most remarkable of all is Banaz’s police interview which is being shown for the first time in Banaz – A Love Story. Filmmaker Deeyah said she felt compelled to offer Banaz what was denied to her in life - a chance to be heard.

"She was so brave, so courageous. She was among the few people who did dare to come forward and did dare to ask for help, and this is how she was treated," Deeyah told TrustLaw in a phone interview. 

"Her story is so tragic from beginning to end in every single aspect you look at. There's so much pain." 

“I WAS LIKE HIS SHOE”

Born in 1985 in Iraqi Kurdistan, Banaz was 10 when she came to Britain with her family as refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.

Lovingly described on film by older sister Bekhal, as so beautiful with her hazel eyes, apple cheekbones and heart-shaped face, "that you could look at her forever," Banaz and her four sisters had a strict upbringing in a community governed by men.

All but one of the girls were subjected to genital mutilation, a practice widespread in their native Iraqi Kurdistan, which involves the partial or total removal of the genitalia. As they grew up, the sisters were forbidden from wearing perfume, plucking their eyebrows or growing their nails.

'Improper' behaviour was policed by a web of neighbours, cousins and other members of the community. Reports of 'dishonour' were immediately fed back to her parents.

At 17, Banaz was married to a man from Iraq whose cruelty drove her back to her parents, only to be ordered to return. 

Banaz told police her husband forced her to have sex with him. He made her believe her family loved him more than her and once threatened to stick a knife in her if she called him by his name in front of guests. It is something that is not done in her culture and a mistake she had already made.

"I didn't know if this was normal in my culture or here," she said in her statement. "I was only 17 so I just let him do what he liked whenever he raped me. It was like I was his shoe and he would wear it just whenever he felt like it." 

CONTROL

Unlike murders that may be committed by one person, honour killings are sanctioned by many. The stain on one family’s reputation is seen as a stain on all.

Crown Prosecution Service figures put the number of honour killings in Britain at 12 every year but senior prosecutor Nazir Afzal suspects there are more with reports of British people being taken out of the country and killed abroad in so-called ‘export deaths’.

In the film, Afzal - the chief crown prosecutor for northwest England - also makes the point that parents are usually the ones to report a child missing but in the case of honour killings, the parents are often involved in the deaths.

In 2010, almost 3,000 cases of honour violence were reported to the police in Britain, according to research by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation.

The problem is not confined to the Muslim community, Deeyah said. There have also been instances of honour-based violence among Sikh and Hindu communities and even some cases involving Christians.

A Muslim of Punjabi and Pashtun heritage, Deeyah experienced honour abuse growing up in Norway where she chose a career in music before backlash from the community led her to stop performing.

"People felt completely comfortable stopping us in the street ... and lecturing me about what I can and can't do and if I don't straighten out, that not only should I be raped but I should be killed and my stomach should be slit," she recalled.

She was only spared the kind of suffering Banaz endured because of her father, she said: "The only difference is my father stood up to it and he chose his daughter. He didn't choose the community."

Banaz’s sister Bekhal also defied the community when she testified against her family in court. Now she lives in hiding.  

Following her death, a police watchdog criticised two police forces for failing to take death threats against Banaz seriously.

Her police interview ends with the officer encouraging Banaz to call the police if she feels in danger. Yet it was three months before her statement was even written up.  

Premiered at the London Raindance film festival last weekend, Banaz - A Love Story is due to be screened on Britain's ITV television channel on Oct. 31 as part of its Exposure series

Related story: Six ways to stop honour-based violence