Trigger warning: abuse, domestic violence.
ITV’s two-part factual drama Honour follows the 2006 murder investigation of Banaz Mahmod. Banaz was murdered in an “honour” killing after leaving her child marriage and finding a boyfriend, supposedly bringing shame on her family. She was found buried in a suitcase in a derelict garden in Birmingham; her father and uncle were among those convicted of her murder.
Honour is a sensationalised opportunity for front-line officers to address victims of honour based abuse (HBA) and say, “sorry for failing you, sorry for continuing to fail you, sorry that one of the rare instances when we redeemed ourselves, after failing you, has now been commemorated in a televised drama”.
The drama written by Gwyneth Hughes is centred around Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Caroline Goode, the detective responsible for bringing Banaz’s murderers to justice. There was a risk that in telling this story from the perspective of the detective, and not the victim, the drama would become a white saviour narrative. A risk Hughes’ script didn’t manage to avoid.
Several scenes depicted the workaholic team getting takeaways at their desks, sleeping on the office floor and visiting testifiers late at night, all of which frame the ultimate conviction of Banaz’s killers as the inspiring work of an exceptional and dedicated team (though they undoubtedly were), rather than the civic and moral duty of law enforcement officers. DCI Caroline Goode, played by Keeley Hawes, did not rest until Banaz’s body was found and all those suspected of murder were convicted. But we cannot afford to dwell on what one woman, or team, did right when there were swathes of people who repeatedly, and sometimes deliberately, got it wrong.
Even the re-enactment of Banaz, played by Buket Komur, pleading for help in her hospital bed, visibly battered and distressed after her father attempted to strangle her, is shown through Goode’s gaze. Goode watches the evidence tape with tears in her eyes, relaying to the audience her own emotional investment, and sorrow for how ruthlessly this woman was failed by those supposed to love and protect her. This scene is, at best, intrusive, encouraging us to empathise not only with Banaz but with Goode as well, and at worst, a perverted diversion of our attention.
I worry that this drama elevates the efforts and experiences of the wrong people, and places little emphasis on the importance of collective responsibility.
Banaz Mahmod went to the police five times before she was killed, and offered an exact list of the names of those repeatedly trying to end her life – a fact our on-screen inspectors continue to remind us of in a bid to exhibit self-awareness: “we fucked up”. On every occasion, Banaz was dismissed or ignored, and one police woman even tried to convict her of criminal damage for breaking a window while her father attempted to strangle her. PC Lorna Wilson, the officer in question, shows a chilling lack of remorse in the two scenes she features in, close to that of Mahmod Mahmod, who dismisses the investigation into his daughter’s disappearance as a “fuss about nothing”.
Banaz was sought after by her own family for rejecting a life and marriage she was forced into as a child. Thankfully, Honour does include Bekhal Mahmod – Banaz’s older sister who escaped from home and currently lives under witness protection – as a supporting character, providing vital insight into the life Banaz was trying to leave behind. Bekhal is one of the few voices elevated in the series who has the authority to speak on the abuse, isolation and sacrifice that is common in child marriages. She also serves as a key witness in the murder trial, wearing a veil and only speaking from behind a curtain in fear for her life.
Currently in the UK, 16 and 17 year-olds can marry with parental consent, but, more often than not, parental consent is parental coercion, and young women are subject to a life of emotional and physical abuse. Bekhal survived what her sister did not, as did their younger sister Payzee Mahmod, who does not feature in Honour but is now an activist and campaigner to end child marriage and HBA. Of the show, Payzee says “please allow this show to be a wake up call for any front line professionals watching, you have a duty to care and protect!”
Honour has the potential to raise awareness of “honour” abuse and child marriage in the UK, but there is still a long way to go. I worry that this drama elevates the efforts and experiences of the wrong people, and places little emphasis on the importance of collective responsibility. This is not a cultural problem that we cannot fix, nor is it exclusive to the Iraqi Kurdish community. While young women are still legally entering abusive marriages and relationships, in any community, neighbours, friends, family, teachers, co-workers and the police all play a part in protecting victims from abuse.
Honour is not just a weekday watch for true crime enthusiasts; Banaz Mahmod was someone’s sister, someone’s daughter, someone’s girlfriend – and she is not a rare case. It is a shame that the televised story that belongs to Banaz was crafted and centred around those with the weakest grasp of what her life was like. We should aspire to live in a world where bringing people to justice is not remarkable, but regular practice. A world where we are able to look beyond the binaries of victim and perpetrator, and examine the systems, laws, and cultures that allow honour based abuse to exist.
Confidential honour abuse helpline, Karma Nirvana – 0800 5999 247.
Words by Nikki Peach