FJA Shortlist 2021

Category: Contribution to Civil Rights

Authors: Nils Adler, Pascal Vossen

Murder in the Name of Honour

The original publication is available via the following link: 

El País - November 29, 2020

English translation

A 19-year-old woman sits in a south-London police interview room, her shoulders hunched as she clasps a paper cup. She appears calm, speaking softly in lightly accented English. A camera mounted in the corner records everything. “People are following me,” she tells a police officer “at any time, if anything happens to me, it’s them”.

This was one of five times Banaz Mahmod, who had moved to London from Iraqi Kurdistan when she was 10-years-old, approached the police for help. She had recently divorced her abusive first husband from an arranged mar- riage and was in love with another man, something that her family perceived to have shamed them in the eyes of the local community.

On the grainy police footage Banaz can be seen asking the officer politely “Now I have given my statement, what can you do for me?”. A time code flickers just below Banaz on the screen; it’s October 2005.

Three months later Banaz’s body was put into a suitcase and buried under- neath a freezer in a Birmingham back-garden. Under the orders of her father, Mahmod Mahmod and her uncle Ari, Banaz had been tortured and mur- dered by two of her cousins and a henchman name Mohamad Hama.

This was one of the first widely publicised cases in the UK of a so-called ‘hon- our’ killing, the most extreme form of ‘honour’ based violence (HBV). Banaz’s murder shocked the nation as would the evidence, revealed years later, of the failure by the police to act on her repeated warnings.

Blending into the residential obscurity of a small town in North East England lies a women’s refuge, its nondescript facade masking the layers of security protecting its inhabitants. Crouched on the floor in the warm glow of the TV sits Sara*, a young Pakistani woman brought to the UK after an arranged marriage with a British-Pakistani man. She fidgets with her Dupatta, a tradi- tional shawl, as she jokes with one of the refuge’s members of staff, a playful grin flashing briefly across her face.

Sara is at risk of being killed in the name of so-called ‘honour’, but unlike Banaz’s case twelve years before, police had responded immediately after a tip-off from her brother in Pakistan.

Her story had begun in 2010 after she moved to the UK following an ar- ranged marriage to live with her new husband and his family. Just two weeks after arriving in the country, her sister-and-law and mother-in-law had called her to the kitchen table and laid out a set of rules that Sara would be forced to live by rules designed to humiliate and condition her into a life of domes- tic servitude. “I wasn’t allowed to use the same toilet I was made to clean and disinfect every day” explains Sara “instead I was made to use a hospital commode”. Every day would follow the same strict schedule of cooking, washing, and cleaning.

It’s the exhaustion that Sara remembers most vividly “around midnight my sister-in-law would always want a massage, this could last up to two hours, and I would have to be up before anyone else to clean the whole house.”

Sara felt helpless. When she had married her husband, she had promised to uphold both her family’s and her in-law’s honour by staying with him. Di- vorce was not an option, so she spent the next eight years behind the four walls she now refers to as ‘prison’.

On a couple of occasions Sara was taken to see a doctor, but before leaving the house, her sister-in-law made it clear that if she spoke to someone, they would throw her down the stairs.

Sara still can’t tell us everything, disclosing too much information about her perpetrators could further determine whether she lives or dies. Her in-laws interpreted the very act of cooperating with the police as bringing their fam- ily’s name into disrepute and until they feel she has been punished Sara’s life will remain in danger.

The Halo Project Charity, a national project that supports victims of HBV, runs the women's refuge where Sara now lives. Within the confines of the building, Sara is safe, but the staff remain acutely aware of the risks she faces on the outside. One wrong move could prove fatal.

There are an estimated 12-15 reported cases of so-called ‘honour’ killings in the UK each year, a figure which according to the The Halo Project could be much higher because many go unreported as victims fear implicating mem- bers of the family or community.

Understanding what exactly constitutes an ‘honour’ based crime can be diffi- cult, especially in the UK where the judicial system uses it as an umbrella term for various offences that are often covered by existing legislation.

Diana Nammi, the Executive Director of the Iranian & Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) provides this definition “HBV is normally a col- lective and planned punishment, perpetrated mainly against women and girls, by their family or community; because it is believed the person has done something perceived to bring shame on the family or the community.”

In western societies, HBV is not always viewed within the broader context of violence against woman and girls where the focus tends to be on specific forms of domestic violence and in particular, acts of intimate partner vio- lence. Instead, HBV tends to be dismissed incorrectly as endemic to one specific culture or religion.

The UNFPA estimate that globally around 5,000 women and girls are mur- dered each year in the name of so-called ‘honour’. India and Pakistan both have recorded rates of ‘honour’ killings of around 1000 per year. The major- ity occur in the Middle East and South Asia, but cases have been recorded worldwide.

There are a number of high-profile cases in Europe that have sparked public debates about HBV in their respective countries. The first murder in the EU that was recognised as honour-based violence was in 2002 after twenty-six year old Fadime ┼×ahindal was shot in the head by her father in Sweden.

Fadime, whose family had moved to Sweden from Turkey when she was a child, had opposed an arranged marriage and fallen in love with a Swedish man called Patrik; a relationship that ultimately cost her life.

In 2005, Hatun Sürücü, a twenty-three-year old woman was killed by her younger brother in Berlin, Germany because she had rejected a forced mar- riage with her cousin. In 2006, twenty-year old woman Hina Saleem was mur- dered by her father in Brescia, Italy after refusing an arranged marriage.

HBV is not specific to a particular religious community, in fact, a number of survivors we interviewed cited their religion as a source of comfort, and in one case, a woman was able to find common ground with one of her perpe- trators over their atheist beliefs.

So-called ‘honour’ killings are just one form of HBV; others include forced marriage, rape, forced suicide, acid attacks, mutilation, imprisonment, beat- ings, death threats, blackmail, emotional abuse, surveillance, harassment, forced abortion and abductions.

The aforementioned Iranian & Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) is a UK based charity that represents women and girls from Middle Eastern, North African and Afghan communities at risk of HBV. At their of- fices in London, Randa and Tara*, two women from Iraqi Kurdistan, discuss how their families' define the terms ‘honour’ and ’shame’.

Randa who grew up in a small but politically well-connected rural community chooses a local expression to illustrate what honour meant for her family “When I was young I would hear people say: as a woman you are white [sym- bolizing purity] three times: when you are born, when you are married and when you die.” When Randa left an abusive marriage and fled to the UK, she knew what the consequences would be “In my family’s eyes I have stained the family name, in order to clean it I have to be made white again”. “Do- mestic violence, and HBV often exist in parallel, the key difference is what motivates the violence,” adds Sara Browne, campaign manager at IKWRO.

According to Ms. Nammi examples of acts that are perceived to have shamed a family can include “wearing what are deemed to be “inappropri- ate” make up or clothes, talking to unapproved people of the opposite sex, expressions of sexual autonomy, public displays of affection, having a boy- friend, resisting a forced marriage, sex outside marriage (losing virginity, pregnancy, adultery), not being heterosexual, being a victim of rape, seeking divorce (even in the event of domestic abuse), reporting/fleeing domestic abuse or forced marriage and rumours or suspicions of any of the above.”

Tara, who was abandoned by the man she was forced to marry as a teen- ager, explains “honour is like bread, once you break it, you cannot put it to- gether again.”

A secret refuge in Kurdistan

In a secret location outside Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish Region of Northern Iraq sits a women’s refuge run by the Kurdish Regional Government. It’s a grey monolithic building set against the city’s scenic mountainous backdrop.

The refuge is designed to protect women who face almost certain death if family members see them but with a reinforced wall, half a dozen security guards and security bars on every window the building is in effect a prison for its fifty or so inhabitants.

It’s a warm autumn day when we meet Parwa* in one of the refuge’s therapy rooms. The air conditioning isn’t working, so the tainted windows are edged open, allowing a rare sliver of natural light to enter the room. Her burgundy dress and red nail polish contrast with her strikingly pale complexion, a result of the three years she has spent deprived of the sun and isolated from the outside world.

Parwa had known the man who raped her. They had grown up in the same tight-knit rural community, and like many of the young men in the area, he had gone to find employment in Sulaymaniyah. He was a few years older than Parwa, and when he moved back a few years later, she was in her last year of school. Despite being married with children, he began to pursue her, calling her and eventually following her. She repeatedly rejected his ad- vances until one day, exhausted after a day at school and a gruelling shift at the local bakery, she reluctantly stepped into his car after he had pulled up alongside her and offered her a lift home.

A few hours later as Parwa received treatment at the local hospital, members of the man’s family began to gather in the waiting room. They immediately set about questioning the set of events she had provided to the police “they asked why, if what I said was true, was my underwear not red from blood? I told them you know why because my underwear is black.” Parwa pauses as she threads prayer beads between her fingers “Still today, no-one knows my story, everyone has their versions, but no-one listens to mine.”

Panicked by the rumours circulating in the community her family began to pressure her. They told her, “You have lost your virginity, you have cost us our honour” and forced her to decide between marrying the man who had raped her or death.

Parwa says she has lost all hope of a normal life. The man who attacked her is now the same man who holds the key to her freedom. Since the event, they have only spoken once, and his closing words still haunt her today “I didn’t take your virginity, you took it yourself.”

A short drive away lies the headquarters of Asuda, an NGO providing sup- port for victims of HBV in Iraqi Kurdistan. Lava* has just finished her session with one of Asuda’s resident psychologists when we meet her. She is brought some Chai Kurdi a local tea which she sips while messaging on Fa- cebook.

It was on the same social media ten years earlier that Lava had first started chatting to Farzad*. They had struck up a friendship that as the years pro- gressed became increasingly romantic in nature.

They began to meet in Azadi Park, once the site of a Ba’athist military base but now a popular hideout for young couples who meet behind the cover of the bushes and away from the prying eyes of any disapproving members of their communities. Lava had to be especially careful, she was Muslim, and Farzad was Yarsani (a syncretic religious group from Eastern and Western Iraq) something, he had told her, his family would disapprove of.

Six years after they had first spoken the relationship appeared to be going well. They were both attending the same university and seeing each other regularly. But it was when they started having sex that Lava began to worry “if my parents knew I had lost my virginity before marriage, their first reac- tion would be to kill me”. In these moments of post-coital anxiety, he would reassure her “soon, after we finish our studies, I will come and ask for your hand in marriage”.

Slowly he began to grow distant until eventually, he stopped picking up her calls. Rumours of their relationship began to circulate at their university, and finally, she confronted him. My family will kill me! she reminded him, he re- sponded, “if you have slept with me, you must have slept with many people as well, I don’t believe I broke your hymen.”

Lanja Azad Said, a psychologist at Asuda, commenting on Lava’s case ex- plains that she meets people from all backgrounds: Muslims, Christians, Yazidis… “but the problem almost always revolves around the same thing - a woman’s hymen.”

Lava was desperate to stop the rumours from reaching her father. He loved her, but she feared the sense of shame would overcome him “he wouldn’t think it was his daughter he was killing, he would become completely de- tached.”

In desperation she reached out to Farzad’s father, begging him to persuade his son to marry her, he responded: “If you ruin my son’s life, I will strangle you from behind.” But the fear of what the rumours could do his family’s honour eventually drove him to reconsider, and after initial resistance in which he offered to pay for hymen reconstructive surgery, he arranged that his son would marry Lava.

It was two months into an abusive and miserable marriage that Lava found support from Asuda. Lava says she still carries a sense of shame but is deter- mined to rebuild her dignity. Today, she writes poetry to claim back owner- ship of her story. A line from a poem she wrote for her mother reads “Keep them away from me, do not let them see my defeated face or touch my bro- ken body.”

Men also suffer from HBV

HBV can also affect men. Karma Nirvana a UK based charity that runs a help- line to help people at risk of HBV estimate that today, one in five cases in- volves a man.

Lucky Roy Singh, a Sikh from Manchester in the UK, was forced to endure months of abuse after pictures of his marriage to another man emerged on the internet. They showed Lucky dressed in a traditional female ceremonial wedding outfit, the result of a plan by his mother-in-law to avoid rumours that her son, part of the same close-knit community as Lucky, was gay.

Lucky had just moved in with his partner and his family when the pictures went viral. “My mother-in-law was just so angry with the fact that everybody knew that she became violent, she would lock me in cupboards, throw hot water on me or punch me.” Abandoned by his own family and determined to make his marriage work Lucky withstood nine months of abuse before seeking refuge at a homeless shelter and starting on his long road to recov- ery.

Today, with the support of Karma Nirvana, Lucky’s story has taken a redemp- tive twist. Now a successful author and actor Lucky describes himself as an ‘honourable Indian Drag Queen’ embracing the identity that had once been imposed on him. “I felt like I was forced to be a woman, so now I find it em- powering to make money from it, to do modelling, it's like a slap in my mother-in-law's face”.

Lucky doesn’t believe in the term ‘honour’. “It’s a tarnished word, honour is just an opinion someone has of you, but that should never reflect on yourself

- you should be allowed to have your pride and dignity.” Lucky would attend the temple during his ordeal and credits it as a sole source of support “Being Sikh means you are your own student, you create your own path, and for me that is progression.”

Since Banaz’s murder twelve years ago, the British Police have taken signifi- cant steps in tackling HBV, including the introduction of a Forced Marriage Unit that operates a public helpline offering advice to survivors and women at risk as well as legislation introduced in 2014 that criminalizes forced mar- riage.

Alongside the dedicated work of charities like IKWRO, The Halo Project and Karma Nirvana the change in legislation had an immediate impact on the number of cases of HBV reported to the police - a 53% increase since 2014.

However, recent figures show that only 5% of these cases are referred to the Crown Prosecution Service. “What survivors want most is to be made safe forever” explains Ms Nammi “but many loose trust that they will be pro- tected due to failures in the criminal justice and welfare systems. Many also fear what the perpetrators will do their loves ones if they pursue cases mean- ing too many never see justice”.

The actions of the British police have enabled Sara to rebuild her life but Yasmin Khan, the founder of The Halo Project, believes there is much more to be done “women who we work with are like warriors in terms of their tol- erance of inhumane treatment, we must work with communities and individu- als like Sara to help them before they reach crisis level.”

The collective nature of cases like Sara’s means she faces multiple risks. In a letter to the police, Banaz had once identified who she thought could kill her. She had written “numbers 2,3,4, and 5 said they are ready and willing to do the job of killing me and my boyfriend.” In the end, it is estimated that there were more than 50 people involved in her case.

Sara shares her story today to inspire hope and tell other women in her situa- tion that there is help out there. “Sara, like so many survivors, can help us to learn, act and change the way society deals with HBV” explains Yasmin Khan “change is now, change is together, together we must eradicate this abhor- rent abuse of human rights”.

(*some names have been changed to protect the identity of the source)

The original publication is available via the following link: