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Interview with Deeyah Khan Award-winning Documentary Film Director and Music Producer

Photo courtesy of Deeyah Khan

For December 10th, Human Rights Day, we highlight a story by music producer and Emmy and Peabody award winning film director Deeyah Khan. Deeyah talks about honour-based violence and the tragic story of a young woman by the name of Banaz Mahmod.

Banaz’s life was marked by betrayal. As a child she underwent FGM at the hands of her grandmother. At age 17 she was married off to a man she had met only once to strengthen family alliances. In her marriage she was abused, beaten, raped and forced to endure isolation. At age 19, she left her husband and returned to her family home hoping for safety and security, only to be betrayed again: first by the British authorities who didn’t take her pleas for help seriously when she suspected she was in danger, then by her family, who took her disobedience as an unforgivable act. At age 20 she disappeared and was never heard from again until she was discovered buried under a patio, wedged in a fetal position inside a muddy suitcase— a victim of so-called ‘Honour’ Killing. --(Deeyah Khan)

Women For Action: Can you tell Women for Action a bit about you, your background and how did you come about making Banaz: A Love Story?

Deeyah Khan: I grew up in a community where honour is a form of social currency which  is a source of concern from the moment we are born. ‘Honour’ can be the most sought after, protected and prized asset that defines the status and reputation of a family within their community.  This burden weighs most heavily upon women’s behaviour. This collective sense of honour and shame has for centuries confined our movement, freedom of choice and restricted our autonomy.  You cannot be who you are, you cannot express your needs, hopes and opinions as an individual if they are in conflict with the greater good and reputation of the family, the community, the collective.  If you grow up in a community defined by these patriarchal concepts of honour and social structures, these are the parameters you are expected to live by.  This is true for my own life and experiences.

Autonomy, is not acceptable and can be punished by a variety of consequences from abuse, threats, intimidation, exclusion by the group, violence of which the most extreme manifestation is taking someone’s life; murdering someone in the name of ‘honour’.  This is something that has interested me through much of my life especially because of my own experiences of meeting resistance and opposition for my expression and life choices, which at the time strayed from the acceptable moral norms afforded to women of my background. I understand what it is like when people want to silence your voice.  I have addressed these honour concepts in various forms through the years but I have always wanted to do more, especially about the most extreme form of guarding this “honour” known as honour killings.  The medium I felt would allow me the room to explore this topic most in-depth is the documentary film format.

This is why I set out, almost four years ago, to make a documentary film about honour killings.  My intent was to shed light on this topic and to learn about through reviewing an extensive list of cases across Europe that could help us to understand the extent of this issue and its existence within the European and American diaspora. The purpose of this project being to create a film that would serve primarily to educate and inform, and to help us understand the issue better and to consider what can be done to prevent or reduce these crimes.  As I started researching and delving further into various cases, I came across the story of Banaz Mahmod. I realized that this case would best illustrate the constructs of honour, the lack of understanding around this topic in the Western world, and the severe need to do more across social, political and community lines. As a result, Banaz’ story has become the anchor for the topic in the film and shows the lessons needed to be learned from her tragic death.

Women For Action: Can you give a working definition of honour based violence for those who are new to the topic?

Deeyah Khan: Honour-based violence is committed by a person’s own relatives, often acting in collaboration, to restore status which is thought to have been lost through some kind of ‘shaming’ act. The paradigm is a father who kills his daughter because he believes she has had some kind of unapproved sexual relationship but there is a great deal of variety in these crimes.‘Honour’-based violence is all about the relationship between the family and the community. The collaborative nature of honour based violence is what makes it the most challenging for protection agencies.

Women For Action: So in honour based crimes, violence is used to restore honour to the victim’s family. Why is violence perceived as necessary for restoring honour? Does the nature of or amount of violence correlate with how much honour is restored to the family?

Deeyah Khan: Violence is necessary to restore ‘honour’ only when the shame is public knowledge. If the family is able to contain the information and keep their status free from any slights, then there might be no violence, even for fairly serious ‘offences’ against the ‘honour’ code. On the other hand, if a person is widely believed to have done something shameful, then it may not even matter if they have actually done anything at all. ‘Honour’ is something which comes from the eyes of the community, and the violence is performed for the benefit of the community. So if the offence is well-known throughout the community, there may be an act of public violence, to make a grand statement of the restoration of the family into the community. If the offence is less well known, then less flamboyant expressions of violence will be adequate.

Women For Action: One of the participants in the film said the collaborative nature of honour based violence makes it different from other forms of violent crime. Can you elaborate on this?

Deeyah Khan: Because the ‘honour’ of the entire family is called into question, then the family have an interest in colluding or encouraging the crime. While this kind of collectivity might be more common in gang violence, it’s unusual in domestic violence. While there may be problems of violent men and violent couples in relationships, and of abusive parents, there is rarely the level of collusion you can find in crimes of this nature, where mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, cousins and siblings may all play a role in criminal activities. This gives honour based violence a very dangerous risk profile, particularly since many countries have systems which are set up to provide protection to people escaping violence from an individual rather than collectives, and the organisational power of the family can be formidable.

Women For Action: Who is most at risk and what are some causes of honour based violence?

Deeyah Khan: Mainly, the victims of honour based violence are young women, between adolescence and marriage. This is a period when ‘honour’ becomes the most vulnerable, where young women may resist marriages arranged for them, may start socializing with her male peers to the extent that they provoke gossip, and may rebel against parental control. Any of these behaviours can be counted as ‘dishonourable’. However, women of any age can be targeted, to the extent that women who eloped in their youth can be killed when their families found them, even if they are grandmothers by this point. Also, young men can be targeted, but as we have seen in the recent case in Turkey where a young man was buried alive by his girlfriend’s family, these are often victimized by the relatives of a girl they are accused of ‘dishonouring.’ It is rare for a family to kill one of their male relatives, unless he is gay, in which case it can happen. Many young women, like Banaz, are let down by officials in the West because of their lack of understanding and training in identifying the signs of an honour crime as well as for fear of upsetting cultural sensitivities—and at times from a sense of a general apathy surrounding violence against minority community women.

Women For Action: It seems like mostly men carry out the physical side of honour based crimes. Could you tell me about the mothers role in honour based violence and how that impacts the victim?

Deeyah Khan: Mother’s roles vary, along with their choices. When there are disputes like this in the family, there is a great deal of pressure on all members of the family. Sometimes, in ‘honour’ killings, it is seen more as a way of saving the victims brothers and sisters, who will be excluded from the community, then as a punishment. It is like a sacrifice, and you can find that mothers will collude in this, for the sake of their other children, or out of fear for their own safety.

Women For Action: What sort of challenges were you faced with while making the film?

Deeyah Khan: I was most saddened, from the very beginning of this project, to see how absent Banaz was from her own story.  Normally a biographical film will feature family members, friends, and other people who knew the person sharing their love, their memories and thoughts about the person who has died, showing home videos and photographs and the other mementoes of loving relationships.  In this film, that was just not the case at all. The only person in the film speaking about Banaz and who had known Banaz when she was alive was her sister. Everyone else in the film came to know Banaz after she had passed away. We even put out calls in local newspapers and reached out through Facebook and other social media to find anyone who would have known her and would be willing to share their memories of her, but no one came forward.  This hurt my  heart until I came across the footage of Banaz herself, showing us the suffocating reality of her life.  Watching this tape for the first time was one of the most painful experiences of my life. I had spent three and a half years working on this documentary, learning everything I could about this young woman's life — and her death, and we were in the final editing process, and then suddenly here she was present on this tape. No one else would come forward to speak about her, but here she was herself in the final moments of the process of making this film.  It was a harrowing experience to finally be able to hear and see her tell her own story.

I found it excruciatingly sad to see her and at the same time I felt so glad and privileged to finally get a chance to see her and hear her.  No one listened to her in her life, so the least we can do is listen to her now.

As a society we have let down Banaz, and as her community we have let her down, so the least we can do now is paying her the respect to listen to her and to learn from her experiences,  and to honour Banaz  through addressing this issue with complete honesty and courage.

I deeply regret that it took her death for people to start the process of learning more about this problem, although measures have been taken to improve the understanding around this, in my opinion, reflected in the research I have done, there is a very long way to go before we can adequately understand, protect and support women at risk.  We don’t need empty slogans or lip service; we need real effective action on this issue.  Living in Western societies, we need our lives as “brown” women to matter as much as any white British, Norwegian, French, German, Swedish, American, European or any other woman and fellow human being.

Women For Action: Can you tell us how you came up with the title of the film? Why is Banaz’s story, A Love Story?

Deeyah Khan: All of the honour killings I researched are horrifying, heartbreaking and devastating, and no one case felt any less sad and tragic than any other.  The reason I ended up choosing the story of Banaz was not because of the horror but because of the love.  Banaz’s story was different in my eyes from most other stories because there was love in spite of the hatred she faced in her life. After death, there were people who loved her and cared about her, one of whom was the most unexpected person I could have imagined, a police officer, of all people,  DCI Caroline Goode.   The other was Banaz’s sister Bekhal, who sacrificed her own safety and peace of mind for the sake of her love for her sister and her need to honour her memory through achieving justice. I have the greatest respect for Bekhal, her courage and determination defines true honour for me.

After her death, Banaz found another family in the unlikeliest of places: the Metropolitan Police. It took Detective Chief Inspector Caroline Goode and her team five years to find and prosecute the perpetrators of this brutal crime, which included her father, uncle and a male cousin. This case spanned two continents and resulted in the only extradition from Iraq by Britain in modern history. In death, Banaz found a family willing to do whatever it took to protect her memory.

Women For Action: What are you most hoping viewers take away from Banaz’s story?

Deeyah Khan: I want people to be aware that ‘honour’ based violence is a real thing and we need to take it seriously. Saying that there are different kinds of violence against women in the world, and that we need to understand and respond to them is not racist or prejudiced. In fact, assuming that violence against women is the same everywhere is a massive overgeneralization which only goes to obscure the real experiences of women like Banaz that we need to attend to. On the other hand, I wanted to present the reality of crimes of ‘honour’: too often these are linked to right-wing attempts to link these crimes to Islam. While the Muslim world does, at this point in history, have a shameful deficit in women’s rights, from discriminatory laws to a rising tide of extremism, ‘honour’ crimes are both much, much wider and much, much older than Islam.

Women For Action: After watching the documentary I was most struck by how many times Banaz reached out to the authorities and she was not taken seriously. At the end of the film, the statistic stated in 2010 there was 3,000 honour based crimes in the UK with no specialized unit. Four years later, is there any change in the legal system and processing for honor violence and or honor killings?

Deeyah Khan: Since Banaz was filmed, forced marriage has been criminalised, and seeing as many ‘honour’ cases relate to forced marriage in one way or another,  I think that this is bound to have a positive effect. Also, next year there will be a comprehensive investigation into responses to honour based violence in the UK. I’d say there are improvements, but there is a long way to go, for the UK, and perhaps even more so for many other countries who haven’t responded as effectively.

Women For Action: Is there an upgrade in these type of investigations since Banaz’s story has been told? What happened to the police officers that failed to adequately take Banaz’s case under serious consideration?

Deeyah Khan: Banaz’s case showed both the failure of the police to understand her comprehension, but also the talent and commitment of the investigative team. I believe that this case, and the publicity surrounding it, has served as a wake-up call to many British police forces.

Women For Action: Has the female police officer that was shown interviewing Banaz, made  a statement or apologized for failing to do her job?

Angela Cornes was reprimanded after an enquiry, but she retained her job and was in fact promoted soon afterwards.

Women For Action: Do you have any tips or resources that Women for Action’s readers can use to stop honour based violence?

Deeyah Khan: You can help by making yourself aware of the dynamics of honour based violence, particularly if you work in a profession where you might come into contact with women at risk. I established a website at HBVA with some materials. The other thing you can do it support and show solidarity with organisations that provide help to women at risk. Whether these are based in the West, or the Middle East or South Asia, they are often attempting to meet intense and urgent needs for help with inadequate funding and sometimes, opposition and harassment from their communities. A small donation can go a long way. Also, we need to support all initiatives to reduce violence against women and domestic violence, and ensure that  honour based violence  is covered and recognised as a subcategory of these forms.

Women For Action: How can we connect Western women to the topic of honour based violence?

Deeyah Khan: I think women everywhere connect quite naturally with Banaz’s story – it is natural and human for us to understand, and even to identify with, her desires for freedom and self-determination, and to admire her courage and grace even in intolerable circumstances. What is more challenging for those of us brought up in more individualistic cultures is understanding how important ‘honour’ is to families, because this is a product of living in environments which are much more tightly knit and personal. It’s harder to connect with the motivations of those who enforce the system, but to understand ‘honour’ we need to make that leap of empathy as well.

Women For Action: Can you tell Women for Action about any current projects you are pursuing to further awareness of honour based violence?

Deeyah Khan: During the process of making this film, there were two points that stood out as particular needs that I could concretely do something about. The first, was to create a place where people interested in the subject and in need of information about honour violence could go to find out more. The second, was to create a place where the victims, whose families intended to erase them from the world, could be remembered. So I created The Honour-Based Violence Awareness Network (HBVA) and the Memini Memorial initiatives in collaboration with volunteers and experts from around the world.

During the process of making the film I found that after exhaustively searching the web for information on the subject, my need for research and data was unfulfilled. I continued interviewing experts in the field, ranging from policy makers to NGOs, activists, police officers and legal professionals and realised that they also shared my frustration at the lack of accessible and comprehensive information about Honour Based Violence. During these interviews, I quickly became aware that Honour Based Violence is little understood in the West–with alarming consequences.  We know that Honour Based Violence is far more widespread than current figures indicate, because it is under-reported, under-researched and under-documented; and therefore, easily misunderstood, overlooked and mis-recognised. I found this absolutely unacceptable. As a result, I developed the Honour Based Violence Awareness Network (HBVA).

In collaboration with international experts, HBVA is an international digital resource centre working to advance understanding and awareness of Honour Killings and Honour Based Violence through research, training and information for professionals; teachers, health workers, social services, police, politicians, and others who may encounter people at risk. HBVA builds and promotes a network of experts, activists, and NGOs from around the world, establishing international partnerships to facilitate greater collaboration and education.  HBVA draws on the expertise of its international partners, collaborators and experts from Pakistan, Iraq, UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, India, Norway, Denmark, Bangladesh, Jordan, Palestine, France. Some of the esteemed HBVA experts are Unni Wikan, Asma Jahangir, Yakin Erturk, Rana Husseini, Serap Cileli, Ayse Onal, Yanar Mohammad, Dr. Shahrzad Mojab, Aruna Papp, Hina Jilani, Dr. Tahira S. Khan, Sara Hossain.  Additionally, born as a result of this film project, is Memini, an online remembrance initiative set up to ensure that the stories of victims of honour killings are told, defying the intent of those who wanted to erase them. Our personal and community silence allows these violent expressions of honour to survive and is what makes these murders possible in the first place. Memini is a small and humble step towards ending that silence.

Women For Action: Is there anything else you wish to tell the readers?

Deeyah Khan: If we worry about offending communities by criticising honour killings, then we are complicit in the perpetuation of violence and abuse, in the restriction of women’s lives. Our silence provides the soil for this oppression and violence to thrive. It is not racist to protest honour killings. We have a duty to stand up for individual human rights for all people, not for just men and not just for groups.  We shall not sacrifice the lives of ethnic minority women for the sake of so-called political correctness.

I’d rather hurt feelings than see women die because of our fear, apathy and silence. We need to stand in solidarity.  In order to create change we need to care.  We need authorities, decision makers and politicians to provide the same protections and robust actions for women of ethnic minority communities affected by honour based violence and oppression as they would for any other crimes in any other part of society.  It is not acceptable to shy away from abuses happening against women in some communities for fears of being labelled racist or insensitive– the very notion of turning a blind eye or walking on eggshells and avoiding to protect basic human rights of some women because they are of a certain ethnic background is not only fatal, but represents true racism.

We cannot continue to allow this slaughter of women in the name of culture, in the name of religion, in the name of tradition and in the name of political correctness.  If we allow this to continue, we are betraying not only Banaz but thousands of other women and girls in her situation.  Surely we should do all we can to protect all people in our societies regardless of skin colour, cultural heritage or gender, without fear.

We must challenge these paradigms in every way we can.  Centuries old mindsets, entrenched gender roles and power relations will take time to change, but we can make a real and immediate difference in challenging the lack of awareness, the lack of political will, the lack of sufficient training and understanding when it comes to front line people who can help people at risk. This includes police, doctors, nurses, school teachers, social services and so on. At the very least the ignorance of authorities and lack of their understanding and training in European countries should not be a contributing factor in the continuing abuse of thousands of women (and men). We can not allow it to be the reason these young people continue to suffer in silence because they fear they won’t be understood and won’t get the help they need. Banaz is among the people who dared to ask for help; the majority of young people at risk of the various forms of honour based violence may not come forward at all.

Although the story of Banaz is filled with so much darkness, Detective Chief Inspector Caroline Goode shows us what can be achieved if we just simply care.  Caroline went above and beyond the call of duty, going to the ends of the earth to find justice for Banaz–not just to fulfill her obligation as a police officer, but from feeling duty bound and seeing Banaz with a mother’s eyes and feeling with a mother’s heart. I am grateful to have found Caroline and Banaz through this journey. For me, Caroline’s dedication and integrity, her compassion and her professionalism, represents the highest expression of truly honourable behaviour. The core lesson I have learned is that there is hope, but more has to be done – and I am committed to doing what I can, however small the action. I believe one thing we can do is to remember the victims.  I believe if their own blood relatives discarded, betrayed, exterminated and forgot them, then we should adopt these girls as our own children, our own sisters, our own mothers and as fellow human beings. We will mourn, we will remember, we will honour their memory and we will not forget!

More About Deeyah

Deeyah Khan, is a critically acclaimed music producer and Emmy and Peabody award-winning documentary film director, whose work highlights human rights, women’s voices and freedom of expression. Her skill as a multidisciplinary artist led her to use music and film as the language for her social activism. Born in Norway to immigrant parents of Pashtun and Punjabi ancestry. The experience of living between different cultures, both the beauty and the challenges, dominates her artistic vision.

Her 2012 film Banaz: A Love Story won several international awards. This documentary, chronicles the life and death of Banaz Mahmod, a young British Kurdish woman killed in 2006 in London on the orders of her family in a so-called honour killing.  Deeyah is also the recipient of several awards for her work supporting freedom of expression and in 2012 she was awarded the Ossietzky prize by Norwegian PEN.  The focus of her work and access to voices that are often overlooked and misunderstood has led to increasing demand as a speaker at international human rights events and platforms including the United Nations.

Deeyah is the founder and CEO of social purpose production company Fuuse which creates works in the intersection of art and activism.

Deeyah’s talk with UN Women:
Film director Deeyah Khan speaks to UN Human Rights Council

More Women For Action Articles on Honour Violence:

No Nation Can Afford to Look the Other Way : Honor Construed!

The World Can Help Restore Honor and Faith by Shedding Light On Violent Traditions

Interview with Filmmakers, Neena Nejad & Xoel Pamos and Cast Member, Ruth Trotter from The Price of Honor



(By Mishel Bunkley and Julene Allen)

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Julene Allen