Honour Killing – an update

The issue of so-called ‘honour’ killing recently came to the fore again when it was the subject of a national television production starring Keeley Hawes as DCI Caroline Goode.   ‘Honour’ told the story of DCI Goode’s investigation into the murder of Banaz Mahmod in 2006.  It serves as a timely reminder that many remain at risk from honour-based violence today.

In 2006 DCI Caroline Goode, a Metropolitan Police homicide detective, was asked to lead an  investigation into the disappearance of Banaz Mahmod, a young woman whose family had fled Iraqi Kurdistan after falling victim to state persecution under Saddam Hussain’s government.  DCI Goode became alarmed  because Banaz’s parents seemed unconcerned.  Her disappearance had been reported to police by her boyfriend.  Telephone analysis and covert recordings were soon to turn what had started as a missing person investigation into a full blown murder investigation.  Banaz’s body was eventually discovered by DCI Goode’s team.  The body had been placed in a suitcase and transported by car from London to Birmingham where it was buried in a deep grave in the back garden of a residential house.  The concealment being the result of a highly organised family conspiracy – as is often the case with honour killings.  Banaz’s father, paternal uncle and another relative were convicted of murder (two further family members were later extradited from Iraq to face further related charges).

The background behind the case was enough to disturb even a veteran detective like DCI Goode.  This was because it  became apparent that the sole motivation for the murder was the perpetrators’ notion of family ‘honour’.  Banaz had left her husband and started a relationship with a new boyfriend from her community.  Banaz’s family considered that this behaviour had not only brought shame upon them, but that the only way to redeem their honour was through the death of Banaz.  While the fact that Banaz’s husband had regularly beaten and raped her (one particularly serious assault had caused memory loss and bleeding from the ears) was not something which had concerned her family in the slightest.  

While the murder to Banaz Mahmod was one of the first such cases to bring the issue to national attention, it was not the first case of its kind. The first murder in the UK that was recognised by the police as an ‘honour killing’ was the murder of Heshu Yones by her father in 2002.  The murder being motivated by the father’s outrage at his daughter’s behaviour (she had a boyfriend from a different community and had ‘failed’ a so-called virginity test carried out by female relatives).  Sadly, in this early case, the trial judge considered the father’s explanation as a mitigating factor for sentencing purposes.  Since then, as a result of the work of activists campaigning in the area (including many members of SAL), there is now a much wider understanding about the motivations behind honour killing and purported cultural explanations would no longer be accepted as mitigation.  

In 2008, I was involved in a pilot project run by the Crown Prosecution Service which monitored the prosecution of cases involving honour based violence in areas of England and Wales.  When the pilot was evaluated some of the results were disturbing.  For instance, it indicated that honour crime was on the increase and the average age of perpetrators was 29. So, the indications were that the practice seemed to be reviving within some communities and families.  On a positive note, as a result of the findings of the pilot project, the CPS began to monitor all prosecutions of honour crimes across the country, specialist prosecutors were trained, and a national policy for prosecuting such crimes and supporting the victims and witnesses was put in place.

That honour killing has been brought back onto the radar is timely.  In the first few weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, charities supporting victims of domestic violence, honour based abuse, and forced marriage reported a surge in the number of calls made to their helplines.  The behaviour appeared to have been fuelled by the lockdown which saw individuals confined to their homes with their families with no access to their usual support systems (such as schools and social services).  Therefore there is still work to be done to raise awareness, to support victims, and to change attitudes that are still permitting these hidden harms to continue within what should be the sanctuary of the family home. 

Lynne Townley is a barrister and lecturer in Bar Vocational Studies at The City Law School, University of London.  She is currently writing-up her PhD thesis on honour crime.  Lynne was the national policy advisor at the Crown Prosecution Service on honour crime and forced marriage and she drafted the first national policy guidance on prosecuting honour crime in 2008.  Lynne is as an academic expert on the CPS Community Accountability Forum on Domestic Abuse and Honour Based Violence.

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