Five years after Banaz Mahmod’s murder, it’s time for the government to get serious on honour-based violence, argues Fionnuala Murphy from the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation
Five and a half years ago, Banaz Mahmod had her whole life ahead of her. By the age of 20 she already had the courage to leave a violent marriage and to start over again – something that was difficult in her conservative Kurdish family. She was in love with her boyfriend Rahmat Sulemani and looked forward to beginning a new life with him. Then her father and her uncle decided that she had to die.
On 24 January 2006, Banaz Mahmod was raped, tortured and strangled with a shoelace in the sitting room of her parents’ house in Mitcham, South London. Three months later, police discovered a suitcase containing Banaz’s naked body buried under a patio in Birmingham.
Banaz Mahmod’s story is the story of countless women and girls who are murdered each year in the name of so-called honour. As in Banaz’s case, their ‘crimes’ – having a boyfriend, refusing a forced marriage, wanting to make their own choices – are deemed to have brought shame on their families. Their families sanction the murder and then carry it out in cold blood, often with the support and collusion of the wider community. These two characteristics of honour-based violence – it is pre-planned and collective – are what distinguish it from other forms of domestic violence such as intimate partner violence or ‘crimes of passion’.
I use the word ‘honour’ with difficulty, because there is nothing honourable about any of the crimes that have been committed against the women and girls I have met through my work with the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation. At the same time, it is the term that is best understood by the communities that IKWRO works with, and so we continue to use it.
Honour-based violence is predominantly although not exclusively carried out against woman and girls. It takes many forms other than murder, including forced marriage, forced suicide, acid attacks and mutilation, beatings, rape, imprisonment and denial of access to the telephone, internet or friends. While many of these represent serious crimes, in the UK the authorities can sometimes be reluctant to intervene out of a mistaken perception that honour-based violence is a ‘cultural’ practice and is therefore somehow acceptable. Not only does this view stand in the way of progress on the human rights of women from ethnic minorities, but it is also extremely naive. In reality the concept of honour is more about convenience than culture.
In communities where honour-based violence occurs, marriage is generally not a matter of personal choice based on compatibility but rather a system through which families enrich themselves. Women are the currency in this system and are exchanged by male members of their families in return for financial or social benefit. Marriages can enable families to protect or strengthen their ownership of property, to pay off a debt, to deprive women of their inheritance, to build alliances and to strengthen family and tribal ties.
The notion of honour boils down to the control of female sexual autonomy. When a woman’s honour becomes damaged through ‘inappropriate’ conduct (real or alleged) she not only loses her value as an asset but also undermines her family’s ability to participate in the system. Violence is then considered the accepted means through which the family restores their ability to participate. At the same time, by refusing to conform to the values accepted by the family and community – for example by engaging in sexual activity or choosing her own partner – the woman has called the very basis of the exchange system into question. Therefore the wider community may support and even take part in murder as a way of realising their collective responsibility to preserve a system characterised by patriarchy and based on the transactional value of women and girls.
The UN estimates that there are 5,000 such murders each year, although the real figure may be much higher. In the UK, the Home Office estimates that there is one honour killing each month, although it is unclear where this figure comes from. Certainly, what is known is that a much larger number of women and girls face other forms of honour-based violence, including imprisonment, abduction, beatings, mutilation, forced marriage and forced suicide. From April to October 2009 police recorded 211 honour-related incidents in London alone, 129 of them criminal offences.
Banaz Mahmod’s case is different from most honour killings, because her killers were caught by the police and sent to prison. Three men including her father and uncle were convicted of her murder in 2007, and two others who initially fled back to Iraqi Kurdistan, Mohammed Saleh Ali and Omar Hussain, were also sentenced to life in prison at the end of last year. They were the first suspects ever extradited to Britain from Iraq after a sustained campaign by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, and their conviction was a significant step forward for the UK.
While the Metropolitan Police Service’s efforts to bring Banaz’s killers to justice deserve the highest level of recognition, Banaz’s murder also highlighted police failures in recognising honour based violence and in responding appropriately. Before her death Banaz had told police four times that her father was planning to kill her. She even gave them a letter naming those she believed would murder her but this didn’t save her life. On one occasion, a police constable named Angela Cornes was called to attend to a bleeding and distressed Banaz. Banaz’s father had made her drink alcohol, which she had never done before, and had told her to turn her back to him. Banaz noticed that he was wearing gloves and fearing for her life, she ran out the back door and into the garden of the house next door, where she smashed a window to attract attention. The house was empty so she jumped over the back fence and ran to a nearby café.
Rather than investigating Banaz’s claims that her father had tried to murder her, PC Cornes dismissed the young women as drunk and melodramatic. She concentrated on the window that Banaz had broken and threatened to charge her with criminal damage. She refused to go with Banaz to hospital and went against police guidelines by approaching Banaz’s father about the incident. Within a month, Banaz had been brutally murdered.
An investigation into the death of Banaz Mahmod by the Independent Police Complaints Commission found that the conduct of PC Cornes and her supervisor was sufficiently poor to warrant a disciplinary hearing. Unfortunately, disciplinary proceedings were called off after one of the witnesses, Banaz’s boyfriend Rahmat Suleimani, decided not to testify. In fact the IPCC could have continued with the proceedings as there were several other witnesses, and a number of women’s organisations including IKWRO publicly challenged them on their decision. Unfortunately they would not reconsider. No disciplinary hearing took place and PC Cornes was promoted to the rank of sergeant. IKWRO wanted to apply for a judicial review of the IPCC’s decision but was deterred by costs and the difficulty of proving the necessary ‘significant interest’ in the case.
While the IPCC’s failure to adequately discipline PC Cornes and her supervisor was extremely disappointing, IKWRO was still hopeful that the police planned to improve practice on honour-based violence. Earlier in 2008, the Association of Chief Police Officers released a strategy which identified priorities including training for all officers, setting up a resource tool and making honour-based violence part of the performance management and inspection regimes of all police forces.
More than three years on, progress is being made in implementing the ACPO strategy, but it is much too slow. The government doesn’t even have an accurate figure quantifying the prevalence of honour-based violence in the UK. Identifying the scale of the problem was the first priority in ACPO’s strategy and police forces are supposed to use an honour-based violence marker to flag incidents of this kind. However, while police in all London boroughs now publish their honour-based violence figures, as of 2010 (two years after the ACPO strategy came out) freedom of information requests showed that at least three police forces still did not have any way of counting honour-related incidents and were not aware that such a flag even existed.
What’s more, training, which we see as an absolute essential, has still not been rolled out three years after it was promised. In a new action plan on violence against women and girls, released earlier this year, the coalition government promised to develop a training programme for police. They did not promise the funds which will be needed to roll it out. They did not mention how this training will happen in the context of massive cuts to the police force.
Meanwhile, more than five years on from Banaz’s death, we still see examples of bad practice on a worryingly regular basis. We recently took a client who was facing death threats to make a report at a police station in London. The first officer we saw had no understanding of honour-based violence or of the risk posed to the woman by her family, and our advisor had to fight to get him to take the complaint seriously. Had the advisor not been there, our client probably would have given up.
We also worked with a woman who had gone to the police when her husband – whom she had recently left – threatened to throw acid on her. The officer she reported these threats to went directly to her husband, in breach of the guidelines. He naturally denied his wife’s claims and, before they’d even taken our client’s statement, the police had already decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed.
These examples are not the exception. The advisors at IKWRO tell stories like this all too often. What they illustrate – like Banaz’s murder – is that it is absolutely vital that all police officers are trained on this issue, especially those who have contact with the public. Police must be able to spot honour-based violence, and must know what they should and shouldn’t do in order to protect victims and prevent crimes before they happen. Victims should not have to wait any longer. This training must be developed and rolled out now.
Of course the problem doesn’t end with the police. Social workers, doctors, nurses, midwives, teachers, the UK Borders Agency, refuge staff and all others who come into contact with potential victims of honour-based violence need to know how to identify cases and what they can do to help. At present, awareness is patchy to say the least. In February, my colleague spent a day walking around a South London borough visiting clinics, housing offices, libraries and other public buildings, asking staff there to display a poster advertising the help that we offer to victims of honour-based violence. Several people said that they did not know whether they could put the poster up. A receptionist in one GP’s surgery said it wouldn’t be possible to display information about our services. When asked why, she said that it might “offend men”.
The government’s action plan on violence against women and girls commits to “identifying and sharing examples of best practice” with local areas. IKWRO is concerned that this will not be enough. We are calling for the Home Office to install a cross-government coordinator who could oversee training for government agencies and could help to build awareness and activism against honour-based violence at community level. A coordinator could also lead on developing a national honour-based violence strategy, which is an important way to ensure that all branches of government are playing their part.
Of course, the UK’s response shouldn’t end at the UK’s borders. In many countries the perpetrators of honour killing have widespread public support. The police may refuse to investigate or charge suspects and even when they do the judge will have his own ideas about what constitutes justice, rarely sentencing honour killers to more than a year or two in prison. Politicians can be part of the problem too, and in some countries they have voted in laws which exempt those who kill in the name of honour from punishment. Banaz’s killers were not the first to have sought a safe haven overseas. If the UK government is serious about bringing those who kill in the name of honour to justice, then major diplomatic pressure will sometimes be needed.
Problematically, the UK does not have extradition treaties with some of the countries where honour killing is most prevalent. For example, British Pakistani Zafar Iqbal fled from London to Pakistan in 2001 after strangling his wife because she had insisted on a divorce. He cannot be brought to justice in the UK because there is no extradition agreement between the Pakistani and British governments. It may be possible to negotiate a one-off extradition treaty but the government has not attempted to do so. Indeed, even in the Banaz Mahmod case, the Crown Prosecution Service initially resisted trying to extradite Ali and Hussain back to the UK because they were unsure whether the extradition treaty between Britain and Iraq was valid. If not for the determination of the officers who worked on the case, and campaigning by organisations like IKWRO, they might never have been convicted. The UK government needs to proactively pursue all those who commit honour killing including those who flee overseas.
On top of this our government is a major player in the global aid architecture and in international institutions such as the UN. It should use its influence to challenge complacency with regards to honour killing and to improve women’s access to justice. The UK can take the lead by allocating part of its overseas aid to projects which protect women at risk of honour killing, wherever they are in the world.
Finally, what is really vital is to ensure that government spending cuts do not undermine efforts to tackle honour-based violence. Progress has been made since Banaz Mahmod was murdered in January 2006, but there is much more to do and an increase in leadership is urgently needed. The government must ensure that they have the resources, the staff and the will to prevent honour killing, protect all women and girls at risk and bring perpetrators to justice. Banaz Mahmod’s death was a tragedy and it should never have happened, but it taught us many lessons. Now, more than five years on, it’s time to put them into practice.