Diplomatic Pouch / June 6, 2014
By Larry Luxner
Last September, in Pakistan’s extreme northern region of Baltistan, a mother and her two daughters were killed by the woman’s stepson over a video in which the three were spotted — imagine this — smiling and laughing in front of their home during a rainstorm.
Just this past May, Farzana Parveen, 25 years old and three months pregnant, was beaten and stoned to death by her own relatives outside a courthouse in Lahore, Pakistan, after she married a man her family did not approve of.
Both of these crimes made world headlines, but the vast majority of so-called “honor killings” around the world go unnoticed — a sad reality women’s rights activist Deeyah Khan desperately wants to change.
“These killings are not private killings, just for the sake of the family. They are, in a sense, theatrical. They are up close and personal,” said Khan, who was raised in Norway but is of Afghani and Pakistani descent. “They are horrifically brutal for a reason: they’re supposed to send a signal not just to the women, but to the rest of the group as well.”
Khan’s documentary, “Banaz: A Love Story,” tells the sad but true story of Banaz Mahmod — a pretty 19-year-old British girl of Iraqi Kurdish origin who was savagely beaten and murdered by her father, uncle and other relatives in South London after she ran away from her abusive husband and eloped with another man. The 68-minute film premiered at London’s Raindance Film Festival in September 2012, and has been screened in Canada, Norway, Denmark and Australia.
Last month, “Banaz” was shown publicly in the United States for the first time, at the British Embassy. The May 20 event attracted about 125 people — the vast majority of them women — and co-sponsored by the Norwegian Embassy and the European Union.
“We are in the 21st century, but these events bring us back to many centuries ago,” said João Vale de Almeida, the EU’s ambassador to the United States. “The fact is that it’s still happening — not in faraway places but in our own countries. That is what troubles all of us. There’s a role for everyone to play. We need and should count on artists and activists to open our minds and raise awareness about this issue.”
Norwegian Ambassador Kare Aas added: “This is a topic that doesn’t have to do only with Muslim countries. It’s a challenge all of us are facing. That’s why it’s so important to address it internationally.”
Following the screening, the film and its implications were the focus of a panel by Khan and four other women: Stephenie Foster, senior policy advisor in the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues; Kathleen Kuehnast, director of the Gender & Peacebuilding Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace; Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and senior fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies, and Uzra Zeya, principal deputy assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
“In failing to address the plight of these invisible victims, we’re allowing an outrage to continue,” said Zeya. “I don’t even like to use the term ‘honor killings,’ but murder within families, enforced child marriages and all forms of domestic, psychological and physical abuse take place on a daily basis — and the perpetrators have impunity.”
Zeya noted that “in many countries, you have good laws on the books, but people don’t understand that they exist. Ordinary people, and particularly men, must be brought into the conversation so they can understand these warning signs that were so apparent in this case but were dismissed by well-meaning people.”
Said Foster: “We need to listen to people — whether we’re police officers or members of the general public. A lot goes on in peoples’ lives that’s hidden. Banaz herself knew she was not going to have a graceful ending.”
Foster praised the courage of the women portrayed in the film, as well as that of the boyfriend, Rahmet, “who was smart enough to record what had happened to her.”
As seen in the movie, Banaz complained five times to police about her abusive husband — who beat and raped her repeatedly — but nothing was ever done. In one assault, she claimed, her husband almost knocked out her teeth because she dared to call him by his first name in public. After leaving the marriage in desperation, the teenage bride even handed a letter to police naming the very people who would later kill her. Closed-circuit TV footage of the now-dead girl offers proof of her efforts to get help.
“If nobody found out that she had a boyfriend, she would have been alive today,” said Khan. “The knowledge and spreading of this information throughout the community is what generated the embarrassment. What is honorable about the fact that entire families have been destroyed? One is living in hiding, another is dead, the uncle and father are in prison. What did this truly accomplish?”
The “love story” Khan refers to in her film’s title is the love shown to Banaz by Detective Chief Inspector Caroline Goode of London’s Metropolitan Police, who had never even met the girl. Goode successfully pursued the case until Banaz’s five killers were found (two of whom had to be extradited from Iraq, where they had fled). All five, including the girl’s father, Mahmod, and her uncle, Ari, were eventually sentenced to life in prison.
Online, “Banaz” has been viewed more than 117,000 times and has won Emmy and Peabody awards in the United States. But Khan said she made the film over a period of three and a half years — and on a budget of less than $40,000.
“The fact that horrific cases like this happen is utterly devastating,” said Khan, who was raised in Norway but is of Afghani and Pakistani descent. “Unfortunately, it crosses national, cultural and religious boundaries. If it were limited to just one particular place or group, it would be easier to address.”
Khan, 36, has a background in music, though she’s long been active in human rights, and particularly women’s rights.
“We need prominent, strong male voices to stand on our side. Right now, this conversation is being promoted mainly by women’s rights groups,” she said. “What are the men doing? They are not here. The only thing I see them doing is being the guardians of traditions and orthodoxy — and that ends up hurting us even more.”
At least some of the inspiration for this film came from Khan’s own upbringing.
“When I was young, people would say to me, ‘you are bringing dishonor to us by making your own decisions. You are shameful to us.’ These words — shame and dishonor — are intertwined, and very much a part of the cultures and communities we come from,” she explained. “I wanted Western audiences to understand what this abuse really does to women. Most of the public dialogue around honor killings is usually flat and simplistic. We end up talking about Muslims. We never get to understand what’s going on.”
In fact, she says it’s important to understand that it’s not exclusively a Muslim issue.
“I’m not trying to protect or cover anything up, but the fact is that this goes on across religious lines. We must acknowledge that,” Khan warned. “Otherwise, we will miss other girls who are at risk because they’re not Muslim and they’ll slip through the cracks — and we’ll have another Banaz who happens to be Hindu, Sikh or even Christian.”