ITV’s latest true-crime drama, Honour, dramatizes the investigation into the murder of Banaz Mahmod, who was tortured, raped and killed at the command of her family in January 2006. Her death was commissioned after she brought ‘shame’ onto them and their community by leaving a forced marriage and subsequently entering a relationship. As such, it was an ‘honour killing’, or so they considered it. In reality it was a brutal and senseless murder of a very young woman, and an abhorrent crime.

The trial was prosecuted by Victor Temple QC, leading Parmjit (Bobbie) Cheema, now Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb, who recognised that the case had to be approached differently; it wasn’t like other ‘domestic’ type murders, not least because for the offence to be committed, it required the community to give its consent to the killing in order that ‘honour’ be restored.

Finding witnesses to support a prosecution and go against family and community would inevitably prove difficult. The prosecution therefore needed to cast its net wide, to be imaginative, and clear that they were taking the case very seriously indeed. In the event, Banaz’s sister, Bekhal Mahmod, did support the prosecution and had to enter into witness protection as a result. It can only be imagined how much courage going against family and community took.

In March 2007 at the Old Bailey, Banaz’s father and uncle were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum term of 20 and 23 years respectively. In sentencing the ‘barbaric and callous’ murder, Brian Barker, then Common Serjeant of London addressed Banaz’s father and uncle stating: ‘You are both hard and unswerving men for whom apparent honour in the community is more important than the happiness of your flesh and blood and for whom killing in the name of honour is to be put above tolerance and understanding.’

The extent of the plot to kill Banaz was revealed as more convictions followed in 2010, when two of Banaz’s cousins were also found guilty of her murder, and another of perverting the course of justice by disposing of her body.

The case served as a wake-up call for police and the criminal justice system. New training in ‘honour killings’ was rolled out, but despite such changes, in 2015 an inspectorate review reported that only a small number of police forces were ‘well prepared for the complexity that honour-based violence can pose’. Nearly 15 years later, there are still lessons to be learned, and the criminal justice system has yet some distance to go to protect those vulnerable to this form of honour-based violence (HBV) which, it must be remembered, can also be meted out to boys and men.

In September 2019, the CPS revised and updated its Violence against Women and Girls Strategy. The guidance now addresses the novel offence of forced marriage (FM) and evidential considerations to be applied when reviewing and charging such cases (FM is now a specific offence under s 121 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014). There is currently no specific offence of ‘honour based crime’, instead it is an umbrella term used to encompass various offences covered by existing legislation including:

  • physical abuse;
  • psychological pressure (strict monitoring, humiliation, threats);
  • forced marriage;
  • abandonment (leaving someone in their country of origin or sending them back there);
  • forced suicide;
  • honour killing (murder).

These HBV offences are said to be underpinned by what is generally described as a ‘collection of practices, which are used to control behaviour within families or other social groups to protect perceived cultural and religious beliefs and/or honour’.

Such developments must be seen in the context of wider movement in the system, notably the Law Commission’s Consultation Paper of 23 September 2020. This proposes to add sex and/or gender to the existing protected characteristics (race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and transgender identity), in the hope that so doing will help to tackle misogyny, and ‘ensure…that women enjoy hate crime protection for the first time(Criminal Law Commissioner Professor Penney Lewis). 

The proposals have been well received. Labour MP Stella Creasy, who campaigned for the review of hate crime laws, said: ‘Misogyny drives crimes against women – recognising that within our criminal justice system will help us detect and prevent offences including sexual assault, rape and domestic abuse.’ And although initially trivialised in the media as ‘arrests for wolf-whistling’, comprehensive analysis of a pilot scheme in Nottinghamshire to treat public harassment of women as a gender hate crime found that the vast majority of people interviewed wanted the policy to continue.

The Law Commission’s work is ongoing, with a consultation open until 24 December 2020. This invites responses from all those who have experience all forms of hate crime, as well as experts in the area, which will inform the Law Commission’s recommendations to Government. It is hoped that when those recommendations are published in 2021, they will recognise that HBV is not just an extension of ‘domestic abuse’, and that although the victims of HBV are largely female, that is not always the case; men and boys should not be excluded from the remit of HBV offences. However, in the interim, any sentence of an HBV offence will likely receive an automatic uplift as set out in the Sentencing Council’s Guidance on Domestic Abuse.

With stricter quarantining restrictions being imposed up and down the country, now, more than ever, those in the criminal justice system must be vigilant against HBV. Karma Nirvana, a charity that runs a helpline for victims of HBV and professionals working with them, has reported that since 23 March 2020 contacts have increased by 90 per cent compared with the same period last year. Up until 14 August 2020, it had received 4,999 appeals for help. But, as Banaz’s sister told the BBC during a recent interview: ‘So much needs to change. Helplines / organisations are underfunded. They are run under the ground because they don’t have the funding they need.’  

Certainly, to tackle the problem at its root, it is essential that there be better understanding, education, and support, so that those in Bekhal Mahmod’s position are able, like her, to realise that there are alternatives to silently following the family decree, and find the courage to speak out.

Sources of support can be found at:

Karma Nirvana - helpline 0800 5999 247
Refuge - helpline 0808 2000 247
Government support for victims of domestic abuse (COVID-19)

Published on 13 October 2020