In the low-quality police video that shows her giving a statement about her husband’s brutal, chronic physical abusiveness, she looks more beautiful than any movie star. Born in 1985, Banaz Mahmod was a Kurdish Muslim whose parents, having been granted asylum by the U.K., took her from Saddam’s Iraq to a pleasant-looking neighborhood in London. The usual “cultural clash” resulted. In 2002, when Banaz’s older sister, Bekhal, started acting like an ordinary English girl, her brother lured her to a remote location and tried to strangle her to death. When she freed herself with a good kick and challenged him – saying, “Look what you’re doing, you’re trying to kill me!” – he “started to cry like a woman” and explained that their father had put him up to it. Bekhal, taking the hint, cleared out, cutting off all ties to her family and community.
Banaz wasn’t so lucky. At age seventeen, her parents married her off to an illiterate chap, Ali, who was “literally just off the plane from Iraq” and whom she’d only met once. From the beginning, he routinely beat and raped her. When she complained to her parents, they took his side. (Her father loved Ali, considering him “the David Beckham of son-in-laws.”) In 2005, after three years of abuse, Banaz finally left Ali and went to the police. In the extensive excerpts from the police video that are featured in the harrowing documentary about her short life and violent death, Bajaz: A Love Story, which won an Emmy earlier this month, Banaz described Ali’s mistreatment of her in detail, noting that one beating had dislocated her wrist and that after one too many kicks in the head she wasn’t able to “remember things so good.”
On the police videotape, we see her asking: “Now that I’ve given this statement, what can you do for me?” She was told that there’d be an inquiry. There never was. It took the police three months to write up her statement. She returned five times, to no avail. As officials admit in the documentary, the police committed a “landslide of mistakes,” missing “all the signs that she was in grave danger.” Banaz missed the signs, too – which, frankly, could hardly have been more obvious. Even after her father tried to strangle her – she managed to escape, scaling a fence, collapsing on the floor of a nearby café, and ending up at a hospital where doctors said they’d “never seen anyone so frightened in their life” – she was persuaded to return home, apparently still unable to fully process the fact that her father was determined to murder her, and assuming, in any case, that if he tried to do so, her mother would somehow manage to protect her.
After leaving her husband, Banaz found a boyfriend, Rahmat. They tried to keep their romance secret. But one day a fellow Kurd spotted them kissing on a street. A phone call was made; a family “council of war” ensued. And the family dishonor was dealt with in the usual fashion. Only a few months after her police interview, Rahmat reported Banaz missing. The police investigation was led by detective Caroline Goode, the documentary’s main talking head. Although over fifty people had been involved in Banaz’s murder, and although “dozens, if not hundreds,” of Kurds in London knew what had happened to her, “not a single member of the community helped us,” recalls Goode, who states flatly that there was a widespread conspiracy “to pervert the course of justice” by giving false testimony and providing false leads.
Despite the stonewalling, however, Goode had an important ally: Banaz’s sister Bekhal, who testified against her family and who appears in the documentary in a full veil – not for religious reasons, but for protection, because she now lives in hiding. Banaz had been strangled to death by three cousins, and at least one of them had also anally raped her – a fact about which he afterwards bragged in a phone call taped by the police. Banaz’s father, uncle, and the three cousins, including two who’d fled to Iraq (and who, according to the film, were the first Iraqi nationals ever to be extradited anywhere), were given life sentences.
The heroes of Banaz: A Love Story are the victim’s sister, Bekhal, who by testifying defied not only her family but the entire Kurdish community, and Goode, who was determined to put the perpetrators behind bars and who, during her investigation, came to feel she’d become a sort of surrogate mother to the slaughtered girl “because she wasn’t loved by her own parents” and because “someone should love her.” The other, unseen hero of this film is the filmmaker herself, another astonishingly beautiful young woman named Deeyah.
Born in Oslo to parents from Pakistan and Afghanistan, Deeyah, as I learned from a profile in Dagsavisen last weekend, started performing on Norwegian TV as a little girl – leading to “brutal threats” from other Muslims – and at age eighteen recorded a song that hit #1 on the Norwegian charts. Not long after that triumph, she was assaulted at a concert and fled Norway for Britain. But there, too, she was the target of Muslim threats. So she moved on to Atlanta, where she spent almost six years and found success as a music producer. (She only recently returned to the U.K.) The Dagsavisen profile is headlined “Betrayed by Norway” because, as Deeyah puts it, “My heart was broken by Norway.” Growing up, she was exposed to plenty of rhetoric about and examples of women’s equality and freedom of speech – but she also experienced firsthand the indifference of mainstream Norwegian society to the rights of women and girls in Muslim communities. This systematic refusal to challenge misogynistic Muslim norms – a refusal that she attributes to a terror of being called racist, but that, as she points out, is itself racist – was what set her on the road to activism.
For those who aren’t familiar with the basic facts about honor culture, Banaz: A Love Story is a useful primer. Like most such films, to be sure, it shies away from the words “Muslim” and “Islam.” When Banaz says on the police videotape, twenty-two minutes into the documentary, that “for a Muslim female it is very hard to get a divorce,” it is the first reference to her religion in the entire movie; in discussing the contexts within which honor killings take place, Deeyah’s talking heads prefer to use terms like “tribal,” “culture,” “village culture,” “Asian,” “Iraqi,” “Pakistani,” or “Middle Eastern” – anything but “Islam.” One of the interviewees insists that honor killing is “not an entirely Muslim phenomenon and it’s a danger to think so.” No, it’s not entirely a Muslim phenomenon – it occurs, though at drastically lower rates, in some non-Muslim cultures, mainly in the Middle East. But the overwhelming majority of honor killings are committed by, and in the name of, Islam – which, if you’re even remotely familiar with the views of women promulgated in the Koran, is hardly surprising.
In any event, Banaz is far more than just a primer on honor culture. It’s an emotionally wrenching piece of work that takes viewers far beyond the grim statistics. One would have to be less than human to watch it and not feel – even if it’s for the thousandth time – a raw, burning outrage at the whole sick concept of honor culture. Imagine a family having a “status” based on the “virtue” of its female members! Imagine a “community” in which every loser family is so obsessed with its “status” in the eyes of all the other loser families that that “status” needs to be maintained at any cost, including the death of its own supposedly beloved children. Imagine a “culture” in which a family’s “status” can mean so much and a loved one’s life so little! There’s a term, folie à deux, for a madness shared by two people, usually living together in relative isolation from others; I didn’t realize until I just looked it up that it’s an actual psychiatric diagnosis, and that the DSM also recognizes such broader variations as folie à trois, folie en famille, and folie à plusieurs. When entire communities, convinced beyond a doubt that they are doing Allah’s work, conspire without hesitation to enable and cover up the barbaric killing of an innocent girl, how much more does it take, one wonders, to justify labeling what they think of as their faith as a mental disorder?
Deeyah’s documentary can now be viewed online, as can a discussion of the film held in Oslo back in January, featuring Deeyah, Goode, and the always appalling Unni Wikan, a social anthropologist at the University of Oslo who has been showing up at these kinds of events forever and whose self-appointed role in them, it would seem, is chiefly to remind the audience, as she put it this time around, that we need to say “again and again” that honor killings “are not grounded in Islam.” When an audience member from a Kurdish background challenged her on this, she replied that “Islam can be used or misused for all kinds of purposes,” insisted (outrageously) that “in the Koran there is nothing to justify” killing women, and pointed to the lack of a tradition of honor killings “in some parts of Indonesia” as evidence that Islam has nothing to do with it. Contradicting Goode’s statement that Banaz’s parents had not loved her, Wikan insisted that the people who commit honor killings do so even though they love the victims deeply: “there is no discrepancy between, on the one hand, loving your daughter or sister and, on the other hand, feeling compelled by the community to kill.” Honor killing, she added, “makes victims of so many.” Meaning what, exactly? Well, on previous occasions, Wikan has stated categorically that the perpetrators of honor killings are themselves victims of the practice, in the same way as the people they murder; but on this occasion, apparently sensing that the audience and her fellow panelists would react to such a sentiment with outrage, Wikan refrained from spelling that opinion out explicitly. But she did go so far as to maintain that those who view perpetrators of honor killings as monsters are “feed[ing] racism.”
To be sure, Wikan was the outlier on a panel that was – to an extent that is unusual in the venues haunted by Oslo’s cultural elite – refreshingly non-PC. “Political correctness,” Goode pronounced, “is killing people.” Deenay didn’t hide her disgust with Islamic “religious and community leaders,” saying, to obvious audience approval, that government “needs to stop legitimizing these weird guys.” Still, there was a clear agenda on the part of all the panelists to try to keep Islam out of the picture as much as possible. (Honor killing, Deeyah claimed, isn’t about Islam but about “collective vs. individual” societies.) Yet the person who got the most applause of all was that audience member who went after Wikan, pointing out that Islamic texts and Islamic theological authorities alike are unambiguous in their support for violence against women. It’s a shame, but no surprise, alas, to see women like Goode and Deeyah making such heroic contributions to the fight against the evil of honor killing, yet hesitating to take the necessary final step of acknowledging that its prevalence in the Islamic world – and in the West’s Islamic communities – is no coincidence.
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