IPCC: Met 'could have done more' to save Banaz
IPCC Investigation determines that the MPS “could have done more” to prevent the murder of Banaz Mahmod
Dr Aisha Gill
It took the murder of Banaz Mahmod to expose, yet again, how often the police service fails to protect young women (IPCC Inquiry, 2008; Britten, 2008) in minority communities in the UK – women who face violence perpetrated by their families in the name of so-called ‘honour’, a concept used to justify heinous acts of dishonourable violence (Gill, 2008). Banaz’s case highlights that this horrific problem still has not been properly addressed, is under-investigated (Brady, 2008), and is under-resourced in terms of the specialist provision that the women can seek out to protect themselves if they do not receive support from the police (Gill & Banga, 2008).
Cry for help
Honour-based violence is not a hypothetical issue affecting remote population groups; it is immediate and brutal, ruining or even ending the lives of vulnerable women in the UK. Banaz was one victim of many, but one of the things that makes her case unusual was the extended nature of her ordeal (Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), 2007). Enraged by her audacity at breaking up her own troublesome marriage and by her decision to fall in love with an Iranian Kurd, Banaz’s father held a family meeting, at which – at the insistence of her uncle – it was decided that her punishment would be death. Her father actually made one attempt to kill her before her eventual murder on New Year’s Eve 2005. He forced her to drink alcohol and tried to subdue her before the assault. However, realising the danger she was in, Banaz managed to break a window and escape, cutting herself badly in the process. She found a telephone and made a frantic call for help to the police, who played down her distress as either an attention-seeking ploy or the consequence of a private family matter. Her cry for help was dismissed by a female police officer as ‘dramatic and calculating’ – this officer later admitted that she had made a “dreadful mistake” (Barton and Wright, 2007).
The officers who attended the scene and accompanied Banaz to hospital did not believe her story, and even considered charging her with criminal damage for breaking a window while making her escape. Her plight forced her to record a telephone video message on her boyfriend’s mobile phone, telling of her ordeal after she had been unable to persuade the police of the threat to her life; this message was later used to bring about justice in her case. Banaz’s death a short while after this incident was a brutal indictment of the police’s dismissive response (Gill, 2008) – her father eventually committed the murder in January 2006, with the assistance of a young fellow Kurd, and Banaz’s body was then stuffed in a suitcase and buried in a Birmingham garden.
Fatally lax policing practices have allowed some of the perpetrators in this case to reoffend; shockingly, however, such systemic failures are the norm in cases of violence against girls and women (Newham Asian Women’s Project (NAWP), 2008). For instance, despite the case having been reported to them on four separate occasions, the police either ignored the evidence or failed to institute follow-up investigations into the threats to kill Banaz made by her uncle and father. In the 20 years that NAWP have worked with thousands of victims of gender-based violence, we have observed that such disastrous failures in police response are not uncommon.
For example, in 1993, Partivaben Patel was admitted to Newham General Hospital after being beaten with a hammer by her husband. Partivaben reported her husband’s abuse to East Ham Police but, because she was afraid to take any further action, she returned home. A week later she was dead (NAWP, 2007). NAWP campaigned to ensure that her death would not become another femicide statistic.
Fifteen years after this case, violence against women is still prevalent (EVAW, 2008) – a crime typically perpetrated by men, on women and children. Although the vast majority of victims are women, the abuse of women by husbands, boyfriends and other family members is not a phenomenon restricted to one part of society, but is found in every socioeconomic, cultural and racial group. It occurs with alarming frequency and severity in the UK, accounting for a quarter of all violent crime, and with more repeat victims than any other crime (Povey, Walker & Kershaw, 2005).
NAWP deals with hundreds of women each year who come to us when the prosecution of their abuser is dropped, either by the police or by the Crown Prosecution Service. In challenging their decisions, we often find that the prosecution’s case has broken down because of any number of failures: key evidence may have been inaccurately recorded, misinterpreted or destroyed, or not even gathered by police officers in the first place; the accused may well have been deemed more credible than the victim by the police; or a delay in reporting the crime may have been considered by the criminal justice system to have discredited the complainant. But perhaps the most devastating practice of all, and the one most relevant to the murder of Banaz, is that police officers who ignore the testimony of female victims or witnesses are rarely reprimanded; and if they are, as they were in the case of Banaz, they are only given “written warnings and words of advice” (IPCC, 2008), a practice which is not only shameful but unjust. Is this the only punishment to be meted out for failing Banaz? Furthermore, police forces that fail to gather or share relevant intelligence are the norm, with the result that subsequent incidents often occur where inexperienced officers fail to recognise cries for help (Middle East Centre for Women’s Rights, 2007; Gill, 2008).
Such failures are not surprising, because the government offers little in terms of investment in resources for minority women subject to gender-based violence. During the widespread coverage of Banaz’s murder, not a single prominent politician spoke out to condemn violence against women, call for a public inquiry or even propose a parliamentary debate. It was actually left to the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) violence-against-women movement to step forward and demand such an inquiry. Significant resources have been invested by the Government in the so-called ‘community cohesion agenda’, which has ruthlessly bulldozed services that were set up to support women who are desperately trying to lead violence-free lives. (For example, Ealing Council’s decision to cut the funding of Southall Black Sisters.) Money is thrown at initiatives intended to integrate communities, at the cost of excluding women from BME communities from the very services that they need to build their futures and to empower them to escape the violence perpetrated against them.
Enough is enough
Above all, we need to understand why the police service cannot, or will not, use its powers to protect women. At this very moment, somewhere in the country, an Asian woman could be in danger of her life as a result of domestic violence. Whether or not she will be able to reach a specialist refuge is questionable, as such lifelines are being denied to vulnerable women in the name of ‘community cohesion’. Whether or not she will be protected by the police attending the scene of the violence is anyone’s guess.
Public confidence and trust in the system will not grow, and lessons will not be learnt, unless agencies accept culpability when they make mistakes and act to rectify them, in order to bring real change in the efforts to save the lives of vulnerable women. Such changes require investment, commitment and accountability for mistakes made. When governments cut back on specialist services, as has been happening in the case of the Southall Black Sisters and other such agencies, the first to suffer are those in the greatest need.
Solving the killings of women is one thing; solving the complex social issues inextricably linked to those killings is quite another. But if we do not do it, and soon, how many more young women are going to end up dead? Violence and murder against women – the “honour-based” crimes that I prefer to call dishonourable crimes of murder – may be universal; but they are not inevitable, if we are ready to stand up, speak out and challenge the structures of inequality across society in order to change the way in which services are delivered. Each one of us must be clear and unequivocal: enough is enough. These human-rights violations should not be tolerated, and we will not remain silent or rest until “honour-based” violence, this insidious weapon of patriarchy, has been eradicated.
Dr Aisha Gill is the Chairwoman of Newham Asian Women’s Project and a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Roehampton University: email@example.com
Britten, B. (2008) Police failed to heed pleas from honour victim, available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2008/04/02/nhonour102.xml
Gill, A. (2008) Killing Women for ‘Honour’ and the Quest for Justice in Black and Minority Ethnic Communities, Criminal Justice Policy Review (f/c).
Gill, A. , Banga, B. (2008) The Reality and Impact of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 on BMER Women Experiencing Gender-Based Violence, Safe Journal, UK.
Crown Prosecution Service, (2007) Forced Marriage and Honour Crimes, pilot study in the UK, London.
Barton, F., Wright, S. (2007) Murder girl's five cries for help that were ignored, available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=461280&in_page_id=1770&in_a_source
Newham Asian Women’s Project (2007) Annual Report: Celebrating Twenty Years of Working with Women; Working against Violence, NAWP: London.
Nicholas, D. Povey, A. Walker & C. Kershaw (2005) Crime in England and Wales 2004/2005, Home Office.