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My family, my killers
The grainy video, taken on a mobile phone and played in a British court last year, shows a young woman lying on a bed, telling how her father had tried to kill her that day. She says he gave her some brandy, pulled the curtains and asked her to turn around, at which point she fled the house. It sounds far-fetched, but Banaz Mahmod knew what she was talking about. Within a month, the 19-year-old was dead.
Mahmod, an Iraqi Kurd whose family arrived in Britain as asylum seekers when she was 10, had been forced to marry a Kurdish man from the Midlands. But the marriage was a disaster and Mahmod fled to the family home in south London, saying her husband had raped her.
Back in London she fell in love with another man, Rahmat Sulemani, an Iranian Kurd who her family said was not a good enough Muslim. One day she kissed him on a street. A Kurdish bystander photographed the kiss on a mobile phone and showed it to her uncle, Ari Mahmod. He called a family meeting where it was decided the couple would be murdered.
Three months after she disappeared, Mahmod's naked body was found in a case buried in a Birmingham backyard. The gang of young men her uncle had recruited to kill her had also raped and tortured her, and left the bootlace they used to strangle her around her neck.
Sentencing Mahmod's uncle, father and one of the killers to a collective 60 years in jail, the judge told them Banaz had been an admirable woman who had made one mistake: she fell in love "with an accomplished man that you and you family thought was unsuitable. So to restore your family honour you decided that she should die." The men's standing in their community, the judge said, had been "more important than the happiness of your flesh and blood".
The Banaz Mahmod case horrified Britain. It also showed how far the country has come in fighting the extraordinary phenomenon of honour killings - and how far it has to go.
Police say 12 or 13 Britons - mainly women but very occasionally men - are the victims of honour killings each year. Activists say the figure dramatically understates the true number, and police agree: they are reviewing 117 cases of women who died in mysterious circumstances over the previous 15 years, many of which are thought to have been honour killings. (Police and activists dislike the term honour killings because it appears to excuse the crime, but it remains official use.)
The fact that young British Asian women (from Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi backgrounds) kill themselves at three times the national average for women of their age is also being studied. Could some of these deaths be hidden murders, or suicides imposed on a woman to restore her family's honour?
Women are killed by husbands in about half of all cases, but also by fathers, uncles and younger brothers ordered to do so by relatives. One in nine deaths is carried out by hired killers. One in five British perpetrators is a woman.
Rukhsana Naz, a 19-year old Pakistani Briton, was strangled in 1998 by her mother and brother after she had conceived a child to a man who was not her husband. When another brother came upon the murder scene, his mother said, "Be strong, my son," and ordered him to help dispose of the body.
While precise figures do not exist for the perpetrators' cultural backgrounds, Diana Nammi of the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation says about two-thirds are Muslim. Yet they can also be Hindu, Sikh and even eastern European.
The issue is acutely sensitive among British Muslims, already feeling embattled since the September 11, 2001, and July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks. Reported levels of domestic violence in British Asian communities are lower than the national average, according to The Guardian. But for a small minority of families, the British judge Marilyn Mornington has said: "Honour rests with the chastity and obedience of women in the community. If that is transgressed then the woman must be punished, ultimately unto death."
Britain is not alone: 47 Muslim women were killed in Germany between 2000 and 2006. The UN estimates that 5000 women and girls are victims of honour killings each year. But the British example illustrates how a culturally relativist form of multiculturalism can clash with women's rights and how honour crimes, far from disappearing as migrants settle over generations into new countries, may even be on the rise.
In 2006 one in 10 of 500 young British Asians told the BBC that honour killings could be justified. Nazir Afzal of the Crown Prosecution Service and a leading prosecutor of honour crimes says that when he began work on such cases, "I thought it was an imported practice that would die out when the elder generation [of a migrant community] died. But many of the young people tell me shocking things."
For example, a young Sikh man told Afzal: "A man is a piece of gold and a woman is a piece of silk. If you drop a piece of gold into the mud you can polish it clean. If you drop a piece of silk into mud it is stained forever."
Nammi has heard worse: she and her volunteers have had many phone threats in their small east London office. But their main callers are frightened women. Nammi takes them to the police. She has 285 clients, 46 of whom are thought to be at high risk and are in hiding. The youngest is a 13-year-old girl hiding from her father, who believed she was chatting to boys on a mobile phone.
A Kurdish asylum seeker from north-west Iran, Nammi came to Britain 10 years ago. At a school for her young daughter in north London, she met Sobhia Nader, a Kurdish interpreter who Nammi remembers as bright and kind and eager to help. But Nader failed to turn up for their third appointment. Nammi heard she had gone back to her home in Iraq.
What Nammi found later, she says, was that Nader's husband had taken her back to Iraq because he suspected his wife of flirting at work. In Kurdistan Nader was shot on two separate occasions, the second time fatally. The two men who stopped her car before killing her did not harm her husband, and Nammi believes they were his relatives. No one has been prosecuted in Britain or Iraq.
At that time attitudes to forced marriages and honour killings were more negligent than they are today. Only one in five homicide cases led to a conviction for murder; the rest for manslaughter. But in 2000, a spate of high-profile forced marriage cases led the Blair government minister Mike O'Brien to say "multicultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness". Then came the murder of Heshu Yones.
She was a 16-year old Kurdish girl in London, whose father hated her Western dress and Lebanese Christian boyfriend. For 15 minutes, Abdullah Yones chased his daughter from room to room with a kitchen knife, stabbing her repeatedly and finally slitting her throat over the bath.
The judge sentenced Yones to a minimum 14 years but appeared to mitigate the crime's savagery by calling it "a tragic story arising out of irreconcilable cultural differences between traditional Kurdish values and the values of Western society". It was arguable, he added, that "Heshu's conduct provoked her father".
Sitting in court, Nammi felt angry. "So-called cultural sensitivity is a way of letting women down," she says. "Why should any woman not have the same rights as a British woman? Murder is murder."
Afzal also cites the judge's comments and the fact that Yones was jailed for only 14 years, as evidence that reforms were needed. Now, judges are imposing terms of 25 to 27 years, he says. "In the past six years there has been a sea change in the way all of us - judges, prosecutors and investigators - approach the crime."
Nammi agrees the law has improved, but says police must change more. Banaz Mahmoud approached them several times and even provided an accurate list of who would murder her. Police offered her access to a refuge but made the mistake, Nammi says, of visiting her in her home, where she could not speak.
Nammi says the women she represents "are very brave. They make a huge decision to stand against their community. They know they have brought shame on their family, but they still stand up for their rights. They have fallen in love".
A Muslim by birth but an atheist since she was young, Nammi says the rise of extremist and fundamentalist Islam has been dire for women. She points to the revival of stoning of alleged female adulterers in Iran. Another malign effect of the Iraq war, she says, is that violence against women has increased there.
Both in Muslim countries and diasporas, as communities feel under pressure and want to protect their identities in the face of modernisation, traditional views of women are revived.
But Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, of the Muslim Parliament of Britain, says the issue is "not about Islam but about a tribal, rural mindset that says women belong to men and men must at all costs be obeyed".
Afzal, a practising Muslim from a Pakistani family, agrees, saying nothing in the Koran supports honour crimes: "It's the exact opposite". But he says some families will use Islam to justify their authority, telling a daughter that having a boyfriend is un-Islamic.
Britain's response to honour crimes may be evidence of a maturing multiculturalism, in which no cultural practice is tolerated or swept aside simply because it comes from a disadvantaged ethnic group. Afzal says more people are reporting crimes, extraditions of suspected perpetrators who flee the country are being pursued, some community leaders have become "champions" of change.
Yet the killings go on. Just last month a coroner ruled that 17-year-old Shafilea Ahmed of Cheshire had been murdered after she had defied her parents. They wanted her to marry a man in Pakistan; she wanted to study law. Just three days ago, Nammi received a text message that said: "I am an Iranian woman who needs confidential information. Please help me."
Afzal says communities must respond to such calls. "I have heard people say to me, 'Don't talk about this stuff because we are under attack. Don't wash our dirty linen in public.' But I have talked to loads of Muslim women and I can tell you that the greatest fear they have is not Islamophobia or being attacked by racists or being arrested on suspicion of terrorism. It is from within their own family."
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