Still from 'Banaz - A love story'
Still from ‘Banaz – A love story’

Artist and activist Deeyah explains the motivation behind her documentary film Banaz: A love story which features IKWRO. A shortened version of this documentary was shown on ITV on 31st October.

Deeyah writes:

I grew up in a community where honour is a form of social currency which  is a source of concern from the moment we are born. ‘Honour’ 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 behaviour. This collective sense of honour and shame has for centuries confined our movement, freedom of choice and restricted our autonomy.  You cannot be who you are, you cannot express your needs, hopes and opinions as an individual if they are in 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 honour and social structures these are the parameters you are expected to live by.  This is true for my own life and experiences.

Autonomy, is not acceptable and can be punished by a variety of consequences from abuse, threats, intimidation, exclusion by the group, violence of which the most extreme manifestation is taking someone’s life; murdering someone in the name of ‘honour’.  This is something that has interested me through much of my life especially because of my own experiences of meeting resistance and opposition for my expression and life choices which at the time strayed from the acceptable moral norms afforded to women of my background and I understand what it is like when people want to silence your voice.  I have addressed these honour concepts in various forms through the years but I have always wanted to do more, especially about the most extreme form of guarding this “honour” known as honour killings.  The medium I felt would allow me the room to explore this topic most in-depth is the documentary film format.

This is why I set out, almost 4 years ago, to make a documentary film about honour killings.  My intent was to shed light on this topic and to learn about through reviewing an extensive list of cases across Europe that could help us to understand the extent of this issue and its existence within the European and American diaspora. The purpose of this project being to create a film that would serve primarily to educate and inform, and to help us understand the issue better and to consider what can be done to prevent or reduce these crimes.  As I started researching and delving further into various cases, I came across the story of Banaz Mahmod. I realized that this case would best illustrate the constructs of honour, the lack of understanding around this topic in the Western world, and the severe need to do more across social, political and community lines. As a result, Banaz’ story has become the anchor for the topic in the film and shows the lessons needed to be learned from her tragic death.

Banaz Mahmod’s life was marked by betrayal. As a child she underwent FGM at the hands of her grandmother. At age 17 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 age 19, she left her husband and returned to her family home hoping for safety and security, only to be betrayed again: first by the British authorities who didn’t 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 age 20 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 so-called ‘Honour’ Killing.

After her death, Banaz found another family in the unlikeliest of places: the Metropolitan Police. It took Detective Chief Inspector Caroline Goode and her team five years to find and prosecute 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 her memory.

Banaz’s life and murder is just one among thousands of stories around the world where families chose to obey their community and peer pressure instead of honouring their duty to love and protect their children. Through Banaz’s story, which covers many of the classic patterns of Honour Crimes and oppression, we explore the broader topic of honour killings that is becoming particularly prevalent within diaspora communities in Europe and the US.  3000 honour crimes were reported in the UK alone in 2010.  Despite these staggering figures being considered the “tip of the iceberg”, many young women, like Banaz, are let down by officials in the West because of their lack of understanding and training in identifying the signs of an honour crime as well as for fear of upsetting cultural sensitivities—and at times from a sense of a general apathy surrounding violence against minority community women. Honour Killings are an ongoing genocide where the murders of women and girls are considered ‘justified’ for the protection of a a family’s reputation. Although , for Banaz, justice did eventually prevail, she was still found dead in a suitcase.

Caroline’s extraordinary dedication shows that effective action can be taken, and that a new benchmark for detection can be set.

During the process of making this film, there were two points that stood out as particular needs that I could concretely do something about. The first, was to create a place where people interested in the subject and in need of information about honour violence could go to find out more. The second, was to create a place where the victims, whose families intended to erase them from the world, could be remembered. So I created The Honour-Based Violence Awareness Network (HBVA) and the Memini Memorial initiatives in collaboration with volunteers and experts from around the world.

During the process of making the film I found that after exhaustively searching the web for information on the subject, my need for research and data was unfulfilled. I continued interviewing experts in the field, ranging from policy makers to NGOs, activists, police officers and legal professionals and realised that they also shared my frustration at the lack of accessible and comprehensive information about Honour Based Violence. During these interviews, I quickly became aware that Honour Based Violence is little understood in the West–with alarming consequences.  We know that Honour Based Violence is far more widespread than current figures indicate because it is under-reported, under-researched and under-documented; and therefore, easily misunderstood, overlooked and mis-recognised. I found this absolutely unacceptable. As a result I developed the Honour Based Violence Awareness Network (HBVA).

In collaboration with international experts, HBVA is an international digital resource centre working to advance understanding and awareness of Honour Killings and Honour 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, UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, India, Norway, Denmark, Bangladesh, Jordan, Palestine, 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, Sara Hossain.  WWW.HBV-AWARENESS.COM

Additionally, born as a result of this film project, is WWW.MEMINI.CO. Memini is an online remembrance initiative set up to ensure that the stories of victims of honour killings are told, defying the intent of those who wanted to erase them. Our personal and community silence allows these violent expressions of honour to survive and is what makes these murders possible in the first place. Memini is a small and humble step towards ending that silence.

Although the story of Banaz is filled with so much darkness, Detective Chief Inspector Caroline Goode shows us what can be achieved if we just simply care.  Caroline went above and beyond the call of duty, going to the ends of the earth to find justice for Banaz–not just to fulfill her obligation as a police officer, but from feeling duty bound and 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, represents the highest expression of truly honourable behaviour. 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 honour their memory and we will not forget!

If we worry about offending communities by criticising honour killings, then we are complicit in the perpetuation of violence and abuse, 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 honour killings. We have a duty to stand up for individual human rights for all people, not for just 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’d rather hurt 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 honour 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 happening against women in some communities for fears of being labelled racist or insensitive– the very notion of turning a blind eye or walking on egg shells and avoiding to protect basic human rights of some women because they are of a certain ethnic background is not only fatal, but 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 thousands of other women and girls in her situation.  Surely we should do all we can to protect all individuals in our societies regardless of skin colour, 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, 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, school teachers, social services and so on. At the very least the ignorance of authorities and lack of their understanding and training in European countries should not be a contributing factor in the continuing abuse of thousands of women (and men). We can not allow it to be the reason why these young people continue to suffer in silence because they fear they won’t be understood and won’t get the help they need.

Banaz is among the people who dared to ask for help; the majority of young people at risk of the various forms of honour based violence may not come forward at all.

All of the honour killings I researched are horrifying, heartbreaking and devastating, and no one case felt any less sad and tragic than any other.  The reason I ended up choosing the story of Banaz was not because of the horror 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 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, of all people,  DCI Caroline Goode.   The other was Banaz’s sister Bekhal, who sacrificed her own safety and peace of mind for the sake of her love for her sister and her need to honour her memory through achieving justice. I have the greatest respect for Bekhal, her courage and determination defines true honour for me.

I was most saddened, from the very beginning of this project, 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 sharing their love, their memories and thoughts about the person who has died, showing home videos and photographs and the other mementoes of loving relationships.  In this film that was just not the case at all. The only person in the film speaking about Banaz and who had known Banaz 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 women’s life — and her death, and we were in the final editing process, and then 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 momemts of the process of making this film.  It was a harrowing experience to finally be able to hear and see her tell her own story.

I found it excruciatingly sad to see her and at the same time I felt so glad and privileged to finally get a chance to see her and hear her.  No one listened to her in her life, so the least we can do is listen to her now.

As a society we have let down Banaz, and as her community we have let her down, so the least we can now paying her the respect to listen to her and to learn from her experiences,  and to honour Banaz we through addressing this issue with complete honesty and courage.

I deeply regret the fact that it took her death for people to start the process of learning more about this problem, although measures have been taken to improve the understanding around this, in my personal opinion, reflected in the research I have done, there is a very long way to go before we can adequately understand, protect and support women at risk.  We don’t need empty slogans or lip service; we need real effective action on this issue.  Living in Western societies, we need our lives as “brown” women to matter as much as any white British, Norwegian, French, German, Swedish, American, European or any other woman and fellow human being.

It feels surreal but deeply satisfying to finally stand at the point of completion.  It has been a very long, hard and emotionally difficult process. It is my first film ever, and I feel proud to have had the opportunity to work on a project like this, and honoured to get to tell the story of such remarkable women such as Banaz, Bekhal and Caroline.

One of the things that has been very moving about this project is that, every single person who has been involved with the film has done so out of love for Banaz and for this project, and I have a deep feeling of gratitude for everyone who took part..Even though I did not have the budget to make a film like this, the time and commitment of my team made it possible — not only have people worked for significantly reduced rates, but often they have also worked for free. For example, the master musician Dr. Subramaniam contributed a soundtrack for the film because he believed in the project and wanted to contribute even though I was unable to pay him his usual fees.  The entire process of this film has been like this and I have nothing but gratitude for the hard work, care and passion of everyone involved.

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