This review was originally a guest post on journalist Michelle Johnson’s film blog, Copper Beeches.
Norwegian Pakistani activist, musician and film-maker Deeyah Fuuse is no stranger to controversy within the orthodox Muslim community. Working from a very young age with some of the greatest names in the South Asian music business, including Usted Fateh Ali Khan and Talvin Singh, Deeyah became increasingly successful as an artist in her own right. However, the recognition she gained infuriated many, and she was subjected to threats of abduction, violence and even death. In 2006, she shifted her focus away from creating art to harnessing its transformative power for social change, and now works behind the scenes to fight against human rights abuses and promote freedom of expression. She has won a number of awards for her work, including the internationally renowned Freedom to Create prize. Her latest project, Banaz: A Love Story, was screened earlier this month as part of the London Raindance Festival.
The film follows the story of Banaz Mahmod, whose brutal murder at the hands of her own family in 2006 caused a media sensation, and remains one of the most high profile cases of ‘honour’ killing in Britain to date. Through a series of profoundly moving interviews with Banaz’s sister, members of the police unit that dealt with her case and footage of Banaz herself, the film highlights this brave young woman’s terrifying struggle for love.
Mahmod’s family fled as refugees from Sadam Hussein’s violent regime in Iraqi Kurdistan when she was ten years old. At the age of 17 she was married to an Iraqi man who was deeply abusive towards her physically, mentally and sexually. Despite repeated pleas to her family to help her leave the marriage, Banaz was told to go home and ‘try harder’ to do her duties as a wife. At around this time, she met and fell in love with Rahmat, a man who loved and respected her, and who aided her pursuit for freedom. Trapped in constant fear with no way out, Rahmat was her lifeline. But when members of her family followed her and saw Banaz out with Rahmat in public, her father, uncle and cousins concluded that she had brought shame on the family and conspired to end her life. For Banaz, this meant constant surveillance, an attack from her father and a final ordeal lasting over two hours, where she was repeatedly raped, strangled and stamped upon until she died. Her body was eventually found curled up in a suitcase buried in a back garden.
This was never going to be an easy film to watch, but despite the horrifying details of Banaz’s tragic end, Fuuse reveals an heroic character in Banaz; one whose extraordinary bravery and determination in the face of life-threatening danger transforms the miserable silence of oppression into a demand for the most basic of human rights. Accounts show that Banaz approached the police on no less than five separate occasions to alert them to the plans she knew were being made to kill her, and in footage taken from an interview with the police, she gives the following warning: “People are following me and, still now, they follow me… at any time, if anything happens to me, it’s them.”
Interviews with experts on honour-based violence and murder explain that in many Middle Eastern and South Asian communities, a family’s ability to control its women is a marker not only of its worth and status in society as a whole, but also its ability to maintain social and economic survival. A woman who is deemed to have undermined authority is seen to cast shame on her family, and the only way to reclaim their honour is to erase her existence. If they fail to do so, the family can often be ostracized completely. In Britain today, it is estimated that on average one girl is murdered in the name of honour every month, although the actual numbers are believed to be much higher.
The aim of honour killings is to wipe out completely all traces of their victims’ existence. The most incredible aspect of Deeyah’s work is that it renders void the very motivation at the heart of such cases by immortalising these women. It is a powerful message to those who still misunderstand the true meaning of ‘honour’: “We are watching, and the world will know that shame is yours and yours alone.”
Despite being more than three and a half years in the making, with the project running out of funding midway through, Banaz: A Love Story pays a moving tribute not only to Banaz, but to the increasing numbers of women reported in the press as victims of honour killings. Deeyah’s memorial website Memini records the stories of countless women, never letting their tragic sacrifices be forgotten. The film also highlights the plight of those you will hear much less about in the media – those too afraid to speak out and who see no escape, resigning themselves to a life of abuse and misery. They are the unseen victims of honour-based oppression, and it is to them that I believe Deeyah does the greatest service in her tireless efforts to raise awareness through organizations such as Sisterhood, the Honour Based Violence Awareness Network (HBVA), and Ava