Note: This article discusses details from the case covered in Honour, and includes themes that some might find upsetting.
Banaz Mahmod was murdered under orders of her family in 2006. Having escaped an abusive child marriage, Banaz had fallen in love with a man of her choosing – something that her parents disapproved of.
ITV's two-part drama Honour has spotlighted the story, from the perspective of DCI Caroline Goode (played by Keeley Hawes), who fought for justice for Banaz and saw that the six men accused of involvement in her killing faced trial.
Banaz's sister Bekhal (played by Rhianne Barreto in the miniseries) also had a central role. Having herself left the family home at the age of 16, she told of abuse and threats of violence from her father. Bekhal would later testify in court, as part of the prosecution's case, along with Banaz's boyfriend Rahmat Sulemani (played by Moe Bar-El in the drama).
Both Bekhal and Rahmat are said to have been subjected to threats and intimidation from within the Kurdish community. Banaz's sister was shielded by a privacy screen in the witness stand, also wearing a niqāb while entering in order to avoid being seen by her family and those from the community that were watching from the public gallery.
Bekhal and Rahmat had to go into witness protection, with new identities and measures to protect their safety.
In 2007, Bekhal spoke publicly in an interview with the Daily Mail.
Not able to show her face without the niqāb, she explained:
"My life will always be at risk... There are people in my community who want to see me dead, and they will not rest until I am. I will never be safe. I wear the veil so no one can recognise me."
Responding to the term 'honour killing', Bekhal told the publication: "Where is the honour in a father putting his status in the community before the life of his own flesh and blood?
"They should be disgusted with themselves. Honour in our community is about men having the upper hand, having the ruling power."
Speaking candidly about her younger sister, she continued: "Banaz was the most beautiful, loving, caring, easy-going girl you could ever hope to meet. Her only crime was to want to have some say in her life. Where is the shame in that?"
Bekhal ran away from her family home multiple times before eventually leaving for good, and being taken into care. She had refused an arranged marriage, which displeased her family and eventually lead to her father attempting to organise having her killed.
"After I refused an arranged marriage, I knew I had two choices; stay and be killed, or leave and live," Bekhal said. "I chose to live but I had to leave everything behind."
She was keen to highlight that this is "not a cultural issue" but a "criminal" one. "People need to take it seriously," she added.
Bekhal is still in witness protection and living under a new identity. Gwyneth Hughes, the writer of ITV's Honour, used her as a source as part of research for the ITV show, but does not know her new name or have her telephone number.
For a piece in the Guardian, where Bekhal's contribution was made 'through a web of intermediaries' so as to protect her identity and location, Bekhal spoke of her involvement and also what she thought of the finished product.
"I explained to her some things about that time she might not have been aware of," Bekhal said of her phone conversations with Hughes. "This is the truth. It's amazing how she has done it. I actually didn't think that she would relay word for word how I explained things to her, but she has."
Bekhal described her viewing experience of Honour as being "very, very emotional" and said that she "didn’t sleep much after watching."
"It shows how the police found the Iraqi Kurdish community; it's such a tight-knit community, so hush-hush and secretive," she continued. "I hope that by shining a light on this issue, it might prevent what happened to Banaz from happening again."
Banaz had five siblings, three of them sisters. Payzee Mahmod was Banaz's younger sister, and she has described their relationship as being "very close."
"Banaz was just 15 months older than me, she was always there for me no matter what situation I found myself in," Payzee said during an interview with Global Citizen earlier this year. "She would joke and say I acted like I was older, but that was because I was bossy and outspoken, while she would be very sweet, compromising, and always wanted to put a smile on people's faces."
Both Payzee and Banaz were subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) before arriving in the UK. As teenagers living in London, aged 16 and 17, Payzee and Banaz were each coerced into marriages with much older men. At one point, the four of them lived together.
"Only me and Banaz had a child marriage, so I am glad my other sisters did not experience this type of abuse. I know first hand how much this has affected me. I lived with Banaz while she was married and witnessed the abuse she suffered.
"However all of my sisters — except my youngest — have had to undergo FGM, which is a devastating fact. I have spoken to my sisters about our experience of this and its lifelong effects, not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically too."
Now an ambassador for IKWRO (an Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights charity, that ran a 'Justice for Banaz' campaign after her disappearance), Payzee is a fierce advocate for the rights and protection of women and children.
Earlier this year she gave a powerful and emotional TEDx talk where she spoke at length about her own experiences as a child bride and a survivor, as well as what happened to her sister Banaz.
Please note: video contains discussion that some might find distressing:
Payzee is now at the forefront of a national campaign to change the law in Britain, with the aim to ban child marriage. If you're aged 16 or 17, it is legal to get married in the UK providing you have the consent of your parents – something that can put children at risk of coercion.
"I didn't realise it at the time what it was [an exploitative marriage] but I feel it was mental abuse that stayed with me for many years. He would use my age against me and said I was too young to make my own decisions," said Payzee of her own experience. She was eventually able to divorce her husband.
Talking about her sister's murder and the trial that followed, Payzee told Global Citizen: "No one wants to attend a trial for their loved one's death, let alone their father being prosecuted for it. The only word I can use about how that feels is heartbreaking."
Banaz had made a number of reports to the police before she went missing in January of 2006, and Payzee argues that they "didn't believe my sister" and "they didn’t take what she was saying seriously".
"I know that training and awareness on honour-based abuse was also lacking. The police still don't have mandatory training," she added.
This is something that she hopes that ITV's two-part drama will help to change. Speaking of the series, Payzee told the Guardian: "My biggest hope is that this film will start the right conversation. You think about different groups of people watching it. You hope they don't think: 'Oh she went to police five times, I'm not going.'
"You hope the right people will think: 'If ever I'm presented with a case like that, I'll act quickly.' You hope young people who have a belief in the 'honour' code might think about how toxic those beliefs can be."
When it was first announced that Honour would be coming to screens, Payzee shared concerns about the fact that the central focus would be on the police detective and not her sister Banaz. However, having now watched it, she is welcoming the spotlight it will shine on the issue, despite the perspective chosen for the story.
"It's a surreal feeling to watch your family. It was very emotional, like reliving the trauma," she told the Guardian.
SO MANY INCREDIBLE WOMEN WHO HAVE SHAPED WHO I AM & WHO I AM BECOMING. ❤️— Payzee (@PayzeeMalika) March 8, 2020
I dedicate this day to my sister, Banaz. A remarkable woman who taught me love, strength & kindness with no bounds.
I am, because of you. You live in my every moment & are changing the world for girls ❤️ pic.twitter.com/Al05gLw6ma
At the time of Banaz's case and trial, still trapped in her marriage, Payzee did not publicly comment. On why she recently decided to speak out, Payzee explained:
"I was 17 when I lost my sister. My whole world was turned upside down.
"Every day I hoped no one would experience what I did. I was just a child trying to navigate life, but all of a sudden this tragic event happened. It broke me, I didn't understand any of it, I couldn't make sense of why my sister had just lost her life, why anyone would do such a thing.
"After many years I felt like it was time to help others. I knew I had to do something. I speak out because my sister didn't have a voice and I want to honour her in everything I do."
Honour aired on ITV and is available on the ITV Hub.
If you've been affected by the issues raised in this feature, a number of organisations may be able to offer help and support. In an emergency, call 999:
- IKWRO (Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation) aims to protect Middle Eastern and Afghan women and girls who are at risk of ‘honour’-based violence, forced marriage, child marriage, female genital mutilation and domestic violence.
- The NHS website has information about FGM, and if you're concerned that someone may be at risk, call the NSPCC helpline on 0800 028 3550 or email@example.com.
- If you're trying to stop a forced marriage or you need help leaving a forced marriage, call the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) on 0207 008 0151 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The National Rape Crisis Helpline is 0808 802 9999, and Rape Crisis Scotland's helpline is 08088 01 03 02.
- The National Domestic Violence Helpline, run in partnership between Refuge and Women's Aid, is free and open 24/7. Call 0808 2000 247.
- Ashiana offers help, support and guidance to women in need from Asian, Turkish and Iranian communities. Services include specialist advice and advocacy and confidential, one-to-one counselling.
- Samaritans (116 123, www.samaritans.org) and Mind (0300 123 3393, www.mind.org.uk) can provide support on a variety of mental health matters.
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