I grew up in a community where "honour" was a form of currency that determined each family's status in the community. It was expressed by stifling the autonomy of women from birth to death. As I grew up, I began to hear more and more whispered stories of beatings, forced marriages, and even murder, which were justified by this idea of "honour."
It was all shrouded in silence, covered in the dread of what the neighbours would say. As I became more vocal about women's rights, and made contact with women working on the front line, I discovered that even where women, and men, tried to escape this violence, the police and other services could be uncomprehending and unhelpful.
Then, I heard the story of Banaz Mahmod, a 20-year-old woman in London, U.K., gang-raped, garrotted, stuffed into a suitcase and buried in waste ground, for the crime of a kiss in a train station.
Her murder was carried out under the orders of her own father and her uncle. Banaz was married off to a man she had barely met at the age of 17, who subjected her to extraordinary abuses. She divorced him, and went on to rebuild her life with a new man, continuing her studies and returning to the family home. But her ex-husband continued to harass her and her family, and Banaz's behaviour was judged as shameful. One fateful day in 2005, Banaz's family held a meeting at the house of her uncle, and decided that her life must be sacrificed for the sake of the family's reputation. Banaz contacted the police five times, yet never received the help she needed. I had to tell her story and so began a four year effort to make the film that became Banaz: A Love Story.
When Banaz went missing, the second hero of the story appears: DCI Caroline Goode, of London's Metropolitan Police. Her dedicated quest for justice for Banaz and her dauntless pursuit of the perpetrators extended far beyond the U.K. to Iraq where two of Banaz's killers became the only men to have ever been extradited from that country to face British justice.
Banaz's story is just one of thousands, across many countries, including Canada, which has been rocked by the murders of Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, and of their stepmother Rona Amir. And by the failure of Canadian services to protect these women and girls, despite having, like Banaz, several warnings and several requests for help. None received the attention and support they deserved.
We need authorities, decision makers and politicians to provide the same protection and preventative action for women of ethnic minority communities affected by "honour"-based violence and oppression as they would for any other crime in any other part of society. We need them to understand that the complex nature of "honour" means that what is needed to protect women from a conspiracy involving their fathers, uncles, brothers, mothers and cousins may be different from the domestic violence that they are more used to seeing from husbands and boyfriends.
My documentary, Banaz: A Love Story has allowed Banaz to speak, to regain the voice that was ripped from her. Initially conceived as a personal project which could be used for training police and other public sector workers, the film can still serve that purpose, so that the people who are in a position to help are alert to the risks of violence within the family. The potential for escalation, the need for immediate recognition and individual protection measures will save lives like Banaz's and Zainab's and Sahar's and Geeti's and Rona's.
To learn more about honour-based violence in Canada and around the world, watch TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin on February 26 at 8 pm with guest Deeyah Khan, followed by the North American television premiere at 9 pm of Deeyah's Emmy and Peabody Award-winning documentary Banaz: An Honour Killing (AKA Banaz: Love Story).
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