Photo: BBC

Murdered by my Father

A few days after watching Murdered by my Father I asked my sister what she thought of it. She said ‘he reminded me of dad’ in a low surprised tone, as if she had just made a discovery.  Then she changed the subject. Until recently that’s how we’ve done things. That’s how we’ve coped. Moved on  ̶  or at least pretended to move on.  But she didn’t really need to say anything else. I understood.

The ending of the film is in the title. The story, you know, will be about a young girl in an Asian family who falls in love; the ’wrong‘ kind of love, and is killed by her own father for the sake of so-called honour.  But as Arundhati Roy says, great stories are not about surprise plots and secret endings. Great stories ‘are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t.’

And yes, I know this story. It is as familiar as the house I lived in; as familiar as the life I was forced to live. Only we were lucky: there was a different ending. And really, most Asian youths, caught between the modern world and that of their parents, also know this story to some extent. Yet, there has been very few platforms within and outside of our communities for discussions on identifying honour abuse and the suffering it causes.

Watching the film, you are delivered the presence of a loving father character, torn by the love for his daughter and his uncompromising need to maintain the honour of the family. The dutiful daughter, Salma, lost in a maze of pre-set rules and expectations; Walls too high, too rigid, too suffocating, and most importantly, the vital presence of interfering community members.  Those familiar with honour-based abuse will not be surprised to see the emotional blackmail, the heart to heart talks where a parent tells you they love you while breaking you into pieces, their tearful eyes when they say they are thinking of your well-being, as they save their pride and reputation with the shackles they put around your feet.

But as a survivor, you also find yourself identifying with the more subtle twists of the plot. Parts that helped the story move along realistically and parts that were a result of meticulous attention to detail by the author Vinay Patel, and advisors from organisations such as IKWRO, who have for years worked and campaigned on issues related to honour abuse.

The Honour Code
One of the most chilling moments of the film for me was a scene where after a series of texts from Salma’s boyfriend, her father Shahzad reaches his hand across the breakfast table and demands her phone.  A breath-taking moment of silence follows, but Salma manages to delete the messages before handing Shahzad the phone. Shahzad’s fears are put to rest.  Salma puts her arms on her father’s shoulder and gives him a vindicated smile.  This is a perfect example of the co-existence of complete surrender and rebellion.  I’m at once angry at Salma. I want to shout at her across the screen.  I’m angry at myself.  I’m angry at the complete surrender that cost me some of the most important years of my life. But what choice did I have? I was a child. That’s how the honour code survives, how it consumes lives. ‘This is the way we do things’ your family tell you. ‘It’s your culture,’ the outsiders tell you.  It’s my fate, you tell yourself, until you finally accept. I’m going to be destroyed within the confines of this code, or I’m going to rebel against it. Quietly. Secretly.

My rebellion was faking school letters so I could go to the library and study. My sister’s rebellion was ripping her jeans so she could look like her peers. Our ultimate crime was running away so we could go to university.  Hiding away from the community because we were those ‘prostitutes’ who ran away.

And here is where the target is, for organisations like IKWRO that work so hard to shatter this myth of ‘honour’ as an honourable concept and as a part of ‘culture’. It is why it is so important that amazing women like Diana Nammi and Deeyah Khan continue their work showing victims and survivors they don’t have to be ashamed anymore. Victims are not doing anything wrong. Survivors are not outsiders.

The Role of the Community
Throughout the film there are reminders of the omnipresent eye of the community, an essential ingredient for the effectiveness of honour abuse.  Nowhere is this more obvious than the awkward social gatherings: weddings and engagement parties, where you are expected to behave honourably, where you are observed by others as a representative of your family and their virtue.

Going off on a tangent from the content of the film, regardless of how you carry yourself, in these gatherings or in general, there is inevitably a man who speaks or acts inappropriately.  Sexual harassment is universal ̶ but coupled with the honour code, the price for the women is many times higher.

Even when it’s not as sinister; when it’s just a friendly hello, a helpful sales assistant in a store, smiling and asking if they can help, as a girl you are not safe from being treated like a criminal. ’Who was he? Why did he smile at you? What did he want? Why did you smile back? Stay here. Stay with me. Stay close.’  And so you do. You stay close, in the shelter of your abusers.

Inappropriate looks from men in the community tell your family that you are now sexually mature. A time bomb, an issue that needs dealing with.  Family meetings are held, the ‘problem’ discussed. A concerned relative might try to bargain you a few more years of education ̶ but your fate  is sealed. Your husband is chosen. He was likely chosen the day you were born.

Under the watchful eye of the community, all sorts of abuse; emotional, physical, sexual and even murder, are packaged by the family as honourable and necessary for a greater good.  If you are treated as slave labour, it’s to teach you to be a good housewife, a good mother. If you are under constant verbal abuse it’s because you want to be a ’dirty whore‘, you want to bring shame to the family.  The community is complicit in their silence or with active involvement.

The Sibling Bond
Watching the relationship between Salma and her young brother Hassan, I was reminded of the tension between me and my middle sister.  I was the conformist, the peacekeeper seeking a quiet life so we could squeeze in a few more years of study while I made an escape plan. My sister, on the other hand, was the one pushing boundaries, causing tension.  We were played against each other. Made to hate each other.  We both benefited from the peace I tried to keep, and the boundaries she tried to push ̶ and we both also suffered from both.  The tactic my stepmother seemed to apply was divide and conquer.

In the film, Hassan’s position is different. He is male, with all the freedoms and privileges that his gender bestows upon him from birth. As Vinay Patel points out, he serves as an example of the complicity of male siblings in honour crime. Even at that young age, Hassan feels responsible to act as a co-guardian of the family honour.  He passes judgment, he ignores Salma’s calls for help when she’s locked up and he calls their father when Salma is attempting to escape. Often brothers, male cousins, and uncles assign themselves the custodians of family honour, guarding and controlling the women, eternally afraid of ’the bewitching and demonic powers‘ of female sexuality.

In the end, Hassan is used as a tool to emotionally blackmail Salma. I believe it is primarily her love for her younger brother that makes her go back to try and resolve the situation with her father. In our own case, on the day we ran away from home, my stubbornness not to leave my youngest sister behind and to hide outside her school until the end of her class, brought us within metres of being caught. But I knew that if we left without her, we would either never see her again, or be forced to return back home out of concern for her safety.

I know so many women who have sacrificed their well-being, accepting forced marriages and remaining with abusive husbands in the belief that by not bringing ‘dishonour’ to the family, they will ensure a better future for their younger siblings.

Honour as a Weapon
Honour-based abuse thrives in parts of the world besieged by war and conflict, years of sanctions or political upheaval. Day to day survival is the real struggle. In immigrant communities in the West, the struggle is poverty, racism, social inequality and exclusion. Remaining a part of the community of your fellow countrymen is as essential as the oxygen you breathe. Staying true to what you consider as your heritage gives you roots, gives you meaning. There is no time for social change. The honour code is familiar, is ‘safe’, ‘it works’, and it empowers the men. Honour becomes a social currency, woven into their notion of survival. Given so much power, there is no wonder then that the honour of the women can be weaponized against them and their families. The community has ears and eyes everywhere ready to report back any indiscretion committed by a female member; ready to shame, ready to destroy.

In Murdered by my Father as the tension in the narrative builds up, we see a culmination of so many of the previously mentioned factors in a scene involving Shahzad and other men of the community. Haroon, a business colleague of Shahzad, to whom Salma has been betrothed, has seen Salma kiss her boyfriend goodbye. This occurs during his own engagement party to Salma, no less. He is hurt and wounded. He is out for revenge, armed with the power to humiliate and emasculate Shahzad with Salma’s ‘dishonour’.

As Haroon casts Shahzad out of the business and essentially also the community, he tells Shahzad that he is no longer family: ‘No one in my family will shame us like you have Shaz… You are a disgrace Shaz…you and your slut of a daughter.’ ‘Go home and take care of your filth,’ Haroon’s father shouts at Shahzad.

Shahzad in turn initially disowns Salma, tells her she is a stranger to him, tells her she’s shamed the family, that ‘Hassan doesn’t need a whore for a sister.’ ‘Stay away from us or you’ll see what needs to happen,’ Shahzad says.

‘Nothing needs to happen… Not if you are not a coward,’ Salma pleads.   A familiar plea I used to will my dad to see in my eyes. Too scared myself to say it out loud.

The shaming never stops, even once we had left home and were disowned, my dad would call on the phone and quote other people’s words that were used to shame him for what we ‘had done’ to him. He would shame us in return and of course, there was always still the all-seeing eyes of the community, reporting back the lengths of our skirts and the descriptions of people we had been seen with. Exactly 20 years on this month since we left the family, the shaming still hasn’t stopped.

Men and Honour Based Abuse
As the author and producers of the film have highlighted, Murdered by my Father aims to not only tackle the role of men in honour-based abuse but violence against women in general, attempting to engage men in bringing about change. My own take was that it’s also a great illustration of how men can be victims of patriarchy and honour abuse as well. Although there are much fewer incidences, men too are forced into marriages they do not want.  They can face prosecution and even death for their sexuality.

In the film, Imi, Salma’s boyfriend, is confronted with her dead body as he rushes to her house to help her.  Similarly, in the real world, many men have been left with the loss of their loved ones after honour killings. Men who have wanted to help, but have been powerless in stopping the abuse or who have faced violence themselves. Just last week, the boyfriend of Banaz Mahmod, an honour killing victim, was found dead, following suicide, ten years after Banaz’s death at the hands of her family.  He had lived in isolation, under police protection and had attempted to kill himself twice before. ‘There is no life after Banaz,’ he is known to have said.

In the film Salma’s father, Shahzad is also a victim in a way. He is torn between the love of his daughter, and the honour of his family. The abuse from the community costs him his reputation and his job. He comes to feel that murdering his own daughter is the only way to limit the damage, and stop the shame. In the end, he kills himself too, leaving young Hassan the only remaining member of their small family.

Yes, in reality, many of the men who comity heinous acts of honour violence revel in self-righteous pride for restoring the ’honour‘ of their families. They may consider themselves  heroes and indeed be celebrated by the community as such.  Banaz Mahmod’s killers were recorded to be boasting details of her murder, after they escaped to Iraq. Thanks to tireless campaigning by individuals and groups such as IKWRO, the men involved were extradited back to the UK and are currently serving life sentences.  Eventually, they will be released and they may never feel remorse for what they did, but in a more enlightened world would these men’s lives not have been better spent too?

Since its release on BBC3, Murdered by my Father has been very successful in initiating further discussions on honour killings and honour-based violence. It has already helped to improve understanding of the issue for many, and could be very useful in training professionals such as teachers, social workers, and police officers.

The story of an honour killing is tragic and gripping. It is a vital part of the narrative that demands attention, serving to remind us of the dangerous consequences of continued failings by authorities to respond appropriately to signs and cries for help with this type of abuse.  It provides women’s organisations with a powerful tool for continued campaigning.

But in watching the film we need to see honour abuse in its entirety, and remember that while incidences of honour killings are alarmingly high, there are also millions of women worldwide who continue to live and suffer in ’honour‘ walled prisons, abiding by all the rules or fighting hard against them.  When I called the police I was told because there were no bruises, there was no sign of violence, an unwanted arranged marriage was my culture.   Before there were bruises, before there were murders, there was Shafilea Ahmed feeling incredibly alone and trapped, there was Banaz Mahmod desperately trying to convince the police to take her seriously.  I hope their stories and those of many others that have helped shape this film teach us to listen.