‘Her death is not in vain’: Bekhal Mahmod says women and girls must be protected from so called honour based abuse

The blog reflects the views of Bekhal Mahmod with narration by Dr Hannana Siddiqui at Southall Black Sisters (SBS).

In 2015, 14 July was declared a Day of Memory for victims of so called honour based abuse. It marks the birthday of Shafilea Ahmed, who was killed by her parents in a so called ‘honour killing’ in 2003.  This blog pays tribute to all victim-survivors of so called honour based abuse and their bereaved or supportive families and friends.   

In her newly released memoir, ‘No Safe Place’, Bekhal Mahmod recalls a history of repeated abuse from her parents, particularly her father, for being a ‘troublemaker’ – a rebellious child who refused to accept her botched female genital mutilation (FGM) and other restrictions on her body and mind in order to control her sexuality as a girl and then as a young woman. She was first beaten when she was only six for innocently touching her much older male cousin’s odd-looking fingernails; leaving her confused and frightened of her own parents.

“There were no explanations about why I was being beaten until after the beating. No one tells you what is right and wrong. I had to learn the hard way. And even then, I could not agree with my parents about what was right and wrong. I thought their so called ‘honour’ was just ‘dishonour’ and ‘disloyalty’.  How can you betray your own children by killing and abusing them?” Bekhal said.

The FGM, which nearly killed Bekhal, was a turning point for her. Even at the age of eight, Bekhal realised that FGM was wrong and that she did not want the traditional life. Her culture and religion required that she was forced to wear a hijab against her wishes, restricted to the home and to early marriage.

She wanted freedom and saw the possibility of escape when the family moved to the UK as asylum seekers. She faced both racism at school and abuse at home. However, Bekhal had been inspired by ‘girl power’ and women’s rights organisations to become even more defiant. Her parents sought to control her by planning a forced marriage to her much older cousin and sending her back to Iraqi Kurdistan when she was only 15. Bekhal knew that in order to survive, she had to leave the very people she loved. She left home three times. She returned the first time due to threats to her life from her father.

The second time, Bekhal was placed in foster care, but returned home again after the social worker passed on a tape recording from her parents where her father threatened to kill the whole family. Her brother also attempted to kill her on the instructions of his father.

Bekhal departure also led to the child marriages of her younger sisters, Banaz and Payzee and later, the murder to Banaz, creating deep feelings of regret and guilt in Bekhal.

Bekhal said: “I had left home, and because of this ‘shame’, my sisters were forced into marriage to save the honour or reputation of the family.  Banaz later complained to the police that her husband raped and beat her. He treated her like his ‘shoe’, which is what she told me when I last secretly saw her in 2005. I begged her to come with me – but she loved my mother and did not want to bring the family shame.  How I wish I had taken her with me. For soon after this meeting, Banaz, who finally decided to leave her husband and fell in love with another man, her ‘prince’, but of whom the family did not approve, was murdered in cold blood to restore their precious so called family ‘honour.’

Banaz was raped and strangled on 24 January 2006. Her father, uncle (a powerful community leader who instigated the crime) and five male cousins conspired in a ‘council of war’ to kill her and her boyfriend. The couple had reported threats and attempts to kill to the police. In total, Banaz had gone to the police five times, and even named the suspects who later went on to kill her. It appears that the police did not intervene out of ‘cultural or religious sensitivity.’ Later, a police complaints watchdog found serious failings in the police’s handling of the case.

My sister, who had turned to the police for protection, was instead turned away five times, even when her own father tried to kill her in 2005. The police officers with the most serious failing only received ‘words of advice’ – that is like slapping their wrists when they should have been sacked. How can the police give confidence to women in coming forward to seek help when officers are not disciplined and the system improved?

Although the investigating officers before Banaz’s death had failed her, those who investigated her death had gone beyond and above to bring the case to justice. Bekhal was the first daughter in history to give evidence at the Old Bailey in 2007 leading to the convictions of her father and uncle for murder. The other five men were also prosecuted and found guilty or admitted guilt to murder or related crimes. Two had to be extradited from Iraq to where they had fled after the murder- another first for the British legal system. However, despite having achieved justice, Bekhal had to enter a witness protection scheme for her own safety and will be in hiding for life.

Although I have lost my family and old friends, and miss my younger sisters, I still think that it is right I gave evidence against my father and uncle. How could I have lived with myself if I hadn’t? Banaz deserves justice. All victims deserve justice,” Bekhal reflects.

Banaz’s killers were hailed as heroes by their community in the UK and Iraq. The uncle claimed that he felt no shame as he had ‘done justice.’ Although he and most of the others denied the murder at court, implicitly they were attempting to influence the judge and jury by justifying the so called ‘honour killing’ as legitimate within their culture and religion. 

Although my father and uncle received minimum prison sentences for 20 and 23 years respectively, I do not think this is long enough. Banaz could have lived for much longer and had a family of her own which she most desired, had they not murdered her; and I am sentenced for life to grief, fear and loneliness. Their sentences should reflect this pain and loss.”   

Bekhal is calling for “The police need regular training on honour based abuse; and groups like Southall Black Sisters need proper funding to help victims and to empower women in minority communities.

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SBS website for helpline number and other information and advice: www.southallblacksisters.org.uk