‘Honour killings? It should be called the devil’s work’: Bekhal Mahmod on the murder of her sister

Bekhal Mahmod, like an avenging angel, doesn’t forgive. To do so would be to betray her younger sister, Banaz. She has watched the film Law Abiding Citizen, in which Gerard Butler takes brutal revenge on the men who murdered his wife and daughter, 50 times. She fantasises about hurting those who murdered her sister in the same way they hurt Banaz. She wishes they would die in jail and their ashes would be flushed down a sewer. She hopes that the people who covered up Banaz’s murder will never see the light of heaven.

She has a long list of people she hates. Her father, Mahmod Mahmod, who arranged the murder of her beloved Banaz in an “honour” killing. Her uncle Ari Mahmod, who pressed Mahmod to have Banaz killed and fixed the murder. Mohammed Saleh Ali, Omar Hussain and Mohamad Hama, who spent hours torturing and raping 20-year-old Banaz, before strangling her to death on 24 January 2006. The south London Kurdish community, who blocked and resisted the Metropolitan police’s investigation into Banaz’s killing with its omertà.

“My counsellor has said that, as someone who has gone through what I have gone through, I should have a lot more hate,” Bekhal says, with a small smile. But she has just the right amount. Enough to keep living, for Banaz and herself.

Not many people would be able to put one foot in front of the other after what Bekhal has endured, much less find the strength to testify against the father who murdered her sister in court. But Bekhal is a remarkable woman.

We are speaking via a video call before the publication of No Safe Place: Murdered By Our Father, her memoir of her abusive chidhood and her sister’s murder. Banaz’s murder was a landmark case that did much to raise public awareness about “honour-based” violence, as well as the inadequacy of the police response to such cases. (Bekhal does not favour the term “honour” killings. “It should be called the devil’s work,” she says, with characteristic forcefulness. “Honour has nothing to do with it at all. It’s dishonour. Disloyalty.”) The lead officer investigating Banaz’s murder, DCI Caroline Goode, made legal history by extraditing two of the killers from Iraqi Kurdistan, where they had fled. Goode was subsequently awarded the Queen’s Police Medal for her work bringing the men to justice. Banaz’s life and murder was documented in the 2012 documentary Banaz: A Love Story and in the 2020 ITV drama Honour, in which Keeley Hawes starred as Goode.

On the call with Bekhal is Dr Hannana Siddiqui of Southall Black Sisters. They met in 2007 during the trial; Bekhal lovingly refers to her as “aunty”. Siddiqui wrote the foreword and postscript to the book.

With Southall Black Sisters, Bekhal is campaigning for Banaz’s law, which would make misogynistic cultural or religious defences aggravating, not mitigating, factors in cases of femicide and gender-based violence. “We are trying to prevent cultural defences like misogyny being a justification for these crimes,” says Siddiqui. She explains that women from culturally conservative communities sometimes find their husbands accusing them of being “dishonourable” women in the family court system, as a way of winning custody. In 2021, “honour”-based offences recorded by English police forces rose by 81%.

Although the men she testified against were convicted, Bekhal had to enter a witness-protection scheme after the trial. No one from her old life can contact her, not her sisters or even Siddiqui – instead, Bekhal occasionally calls her from a withheld number. For her own safety, I cannot describe any identifying aspect of Bekhal’s appearance, but when she appears she is sitting in bright sunshine outside her house, looking happy and healthy.

The secrecy, Bekhal explains, is necessary for the protection of herself and her daughter, who was born in 2006. Even before her sister was murdered, Bekhal was being followed by members of the Kurdish community, who made threats against her life. After she agreed to testify against her father and uncle, the threats intensified. Now, she has a new identity; no one in her life knows about her past. “If I’m shopping and someone has my skin tone or hair colour or looks like my family, I walk away,” she says. When she gets home, she locks the front door and puts the key in her pocket. If people speak Kurdish in public near her, adrenaline courses through her body.

Born in a mountainous town in Iraqi Kurdistan, Bekhal was brought up in a violently patriarchal family where women and girls were subject to oppressive rules. Her first beating, she remembers, came when she was six – because she had touched a male relative’s fingers. From that day on, her father, assisted by her mother, subjected Bekhal and her four sisters to a strict code. Petting a dog, looking at a man in the street, wearing makeup or nail polish, plucking eyebrows and shaving legs were all infractions that incurred savage beatings. Her parents’ favourite insult when she was still a child was qehpik (whore). Where did their obsession with female sexuality come from?

“Control,” Bekhal says, swiftly. Her family valued honour above anything else. “How you are looked at,” she says. “How you are spoken about by others. How you open the door to guests. Who opens the door to guests. If there were no men around, for example, it had to be my brother.” In the tightly knit community where they lived, if the daughters of a family were perceived to be misbehaving, people would talk and the family’s standing would take a blow. Bekhal summarises the reaction: “The girls are whores. They’re loose. The parents can’t control them. So that has to be reined in as quickly as possible, otherwise you’ve lost your reputation.”

As part of this obsession with controlling their sexuality, Bekhal was subjected to FGM at eight. Her nearly blind grandmother decided to perform it herself, says Bekhal, rather than the local woman who cut her sisters and was experienced in this abusive procedure. But her grandmother sliced into a nerve; afterwards, she threw hot oil on the injury to cauterise the wound. Bekhal nearly died. “I always think maybe she did it deliberately,” says Bekhal, “because I was known as a troublemaker. She looked at me like a cat hisses at a dog. I just remember lying on the floor, looking around me, thinking: all you adults and not one of you will say this is wrong.”

Her father, although tender and loving at times – he once rescued a sleepwalking Banaz from a ladder – was terrifying and capricious in his rage. Her mother was also violent. Things only got worse after the family moved to the UK in 1998. As his daughters revelled in western pop music, fashion and makeup, Mahmod enforced ever-stricter physical and mental discipline. “Coming here opened my eyes to a different world,” says Bekhal, whose childhood had been marked by hardship and instability. “Little things, like washing-up liquid, a bottle of Coke, ear piercings, having your nails done.”

At school in south London, Bekhal was bullied for her modest clothing and thick accent. When she tried to assimilate, wearing western outfits and making friends, she was punished for it at home. “I had a cigarette once after school and got caught,” she remembers. “They [her parents] smile in front of others, but you know it’s coming. As soon as you get home, [you put] your arms above your head. Cover yourself as much as you can.” While still at school, Bekhal attempted suicide. Her parents refused to collect her from the hospital.

She finally ran away after her parents tried to force her to marry a cousin. She lived with friends, in a women’s refuge and in foster care. Her family – and her community – were furious at her refusal to abide by the rules they had laid down and worried that other girls could follow her example. Her uncle Ari, who was the head of their family, threatened to kill her; Kurdish men followed her down the street. Her father even told her that, if she didn’t return home, he would kill her sisters. (She briefly returned, but ran away again.) When she was 18, Bekhal says Mahmod paid her brother, Bahman, to kill her. He struck her over the head with a dumbbell, but in the end he couldn’t go through with it.

Bekhal reported the assault to the police, but no action was taken. When she asked to move out of the area and away from members of south London’s Kurdish community, who were stalking her and reporting her movements back to her father, social services did not help. “I had a suitcase with wheels on,” she remembers. “I’d be going back and forth to the housing office every day, spending lunchtime in a cafe, going back to a friend’s house, sleeping on the sofa and using the blanket I had in the suitcase.”

After Bekhal left home, Mahmod and Ari ruled that Banaz and her younger sister Payzee, then 17 and 16 respectively, must marry – arranging their weddings to much older men. “They basically tried to reclaim some honour by marrying them off, because of the shame I had brought by leaving,” says Bekhal. “I do feel guilty.”

Bekhal discovered that Banaz was in a bad way. Her husband was extremely violent and routinely raped her. Shortly after, in May 2005, a friend arranged a meeting between the sisters. It would be their last.

When Bekhal saw her sister for the first time in three years, she was appalled. Banaz was gaunt and visibly terrified. Her thin arms strained over a basket of laundry; her husband forbade her from using the washing machine. “Every time I turn on the washing machine, I see the look on her face,” she remembers. “She looked like she had been through a fight with a cat. She had scratches on her face and marks on her skin. Her tooth was chipped.” She says her greatest regret is not forcing Banaz to leave.

A few months later, Banaz did leave her husband, returning to her parents’ house. She fell in love with an Iranian man called Rahmat Sulemani. In October 2005, she visited the police and told officers in excruciating and heartbreaking detail how her husband had raped and beaten her and that she was being followed by Kurdish men. She gave officers the names of the men who would later kill her. Unbeknown to Banaz, she had been spotted kissing Sulemani outside a tube station. Her father and Ari decided that Banaz had to die.

In December 2005, Mahmod locked Banaz in the home and forced her to drink alcohol. Sensing something was about to happen, she broke a neighbour’s window trying to get help, but no one was in. She managed to escape and ran down the street, collapsing outside a cafe where someone called the police. An officer dismissed her claims as “manipulative and melodramatic” and wanted to charge Banaz with criminal damage for breaking the window. “The biggest mistake they made of my life and Banaz’s life,” says Bekhal of this police failing. “Because if they hadn’t done that, there is a possibility she would still be here.”

“If I run away, I’m dead,” Banaz said in hospital afterwards. “If I go home, I’m dead.” She returned home. A month later, the second attempt to kill her was successful. An attempt was also made on Sulemani’s life, but he survived. Police visited Bekhal, then pregnant, to break the news. “I was on the verge of ending my life,” she says. Instead, securing justice for her sister, and becoming a mother, gave her a reason to carry on. “If I wasn’t a mother and I had gone through this experience, I can 100% say I’d probably be a crackhead, or I’d be dead already,” she says.

In all, 50 members of the Kurdish community were linked to Banaz’s murder, from giving her murderers false alibis to helping them dispose of her body. In 2007, Sulemani and Bekhkal testified in court – Bekhal from behind a full-face veil, to protect her identity. “My voice was shaky,” Bekhal says. “I was on edge. Anything could have made me burst into tears. It was horrible. But I would have hated myself for not doing it.” She was so fearful of the reprisals that might come that she arranged for a friend to raise her daughter if anything happened to her.

Mahmod and Ari were convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 and 23 years respectively; Mohammed Saleh Ali, Omar Hussain, and Mohamad Hama received between 17 and 22 years.

But that was not the end of the tragedy. In 2016, Sulemani killed himself. Like Bekhal, he had been living in witness protection. “He once told me about a dream he’d had where he was at the sea and she was halfway up to her waist and she kept reaching for him,” says Bekhal. “And he was reaching for her. And then she turned around and went. They couldn’t be together in this life. At least they are in another.”

Her relationship with her culture is complicated, but there are habits from her childhood that she can’t leave behind. “Silly stuff,” she says. “I don’t use a mop. I get down on my hands and knees and clean.”

Her emotions towards her mother are also complicated. Her mother warned Banaz of the plot against her life, but also stood by her husband after the murder. Bekhal says: “I will always have love for her and I do love her … but at the same time, she failed my sister. She failed me.” She desperately misses her younger sisters Ashti and Payzee, now an anti-child-marriage activist. Bekhal is proud of her, but worries for her safety. She has chosen not to re-establish contact with her younger sisters for fear of risking her child’s safety. “I have to protect my home.”

Before we spoke, I had expected a timid, visibly traumatised person, but Bekhal is formidable. Straight-talking, she is the sort of person who would set you right in a conversation, but is also warm and sisterly. But when I ask her whether she has any message for Payzee and Ashti, she breaks down. “That I will always love them and they are always in my thoughts,” she says, in a strangled voice.

At the end of our conversation, I ask Bekhal: where does your resilience come from? “From being a child,” she responds. “The suffering. It makes you resilient.” She squints into the sun. “But also for Banaz,” she says. “It has got to be Banaz who has given me the strength to carry on and not give up.”

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org

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