Tuesday, 12 June 2007

No one has the right to defend their “honour” by murder

by Dr. Aisha Gill
Chair of Newham Asian Women’s Project and Secretary of Imkaan

Banaz Mahmod, an Iraqi Kurd from the Kurdistan region, was garrotted with a shoelace before her body was stuffed in a suitcase and buried in a back garden...

The prosecution in Court 10 of the Old Bailey argued that the killing was ordered by Ms. Mahmod’s uncle, Ari Agha, at a family meeting, and that the killing was endorsed by her father Mahmod Mahmod. A fellow Kurd, Mohamad Hama, 30, earlier pleaded guilty to assisting with the murder.

Prosecuting for the Crown, Victor Temple QC told the court in his summing up that Banaz was murdered because she had fallen in love with a man whom her family did not want her to marry. Temple QC reminded the jury of a mobile phone video recording that was screened at the Old Bailey Criminal Court, in which Banaz Mahmod gave evidence from ‘beyond the grave’ as she was filmed on a hospital trolley by her boyfriend. In the recording, Banaz Mahmod said that she was “really scared” of her father after she broke her arranged marriage. Less than a month before her untimely death, the 20-year-old warned police that her family was plotting to murder her. Also two days before she was killed the family staged a failed attempt to kidnap her boyfriend Rahmat Suleimani. Temple QC also told the jury that if a man or woman in such a community has a relationship outside the confines of marriage they have to hide it. Families who disapprove will go to violent extremes to end the relationship. In chilling closing remarks he commented:

“If one brother wanted another brother to help he may choose the most violent means…in these communities honour is everything which means that brother will kill brother, uncle will kill uncle and father will kill daughter.”

This case has raised once again the complex issues surrounding the phenomenon of “honour” killings. Recent cases have made it clear that in various minority communities across the UK, people are increasingly committing murder in the name of preserving family honour. Culture and religion are often used as justifications for discrimination against women. Cultural reasons are used to maintain honour codes of conduct that deny the advance of women’s rights. Women who experience such violence, particularly South Asian/Iraqi Kurdish women, often live in communities where they are treated as repositories of community and family honour, and subsequently their bodies and sexuality are the sites of vengeance and gender-motivated violence. This woman was murdered for exercising her right to choose her own boyfriend.

What needs to be done?

The case of Banaz has several implications for the awareness of, prevention of, and intervention in cases of honour-based violence. First, there is a need to believe the testimony of a victim who reports that she has received threats of an honour killing by their families. This requires understanding how women understand their experiences, how they respond to violence, where they go for help, what happens when they ask for help, and the effectiveness of that help. There is a need to invest in prevention programmes and to expand financial, legal and support services for women fleeing crimes related to honour.

In the meantime, to deter recurrent patterns of this abuse, punitive responses must be made to those who perpetrate violence; those who conspire to commit murder must be pursued and punished with unrelenting certainty and severity. The criminal justice system must also provide robust and effective responses in the form of promptly responding to calls by vulnerable victims who may be subject to threats to their life so that we do not have another tragic case like that of Banaz. There also needs to be a massive injection of sustained long-term educational campaigns to highlight the various manifestations of honour-based violence. At the community level, there is a need for community participation in efforts to prevent violence, such as efforts to change social norms regarding violence. However, these efforts will need to be complemented by addressing the wider structural inequalities that contribute to the production of violence against women.

Dr. Aisha Gill
Chair of Newham Asian Women’s Project and Secretary of Imkaan
Email: a.gill@roehampton.ac.uk

Other Links
The Times Police ‘failed’ victim of honour killing
Read Aisha's Letter in The Times
FCO Guidelines on Forced Marriage
SOAS and CIMEL research on 'Honour' Crimes
Women's Hour report online
Combatting 'Honour' Based Violence Forum

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