My journey to becoming a women’s rights activist began when I was a young child in Kurdistan, Iran and I attended a wedding with my family. At one point during the celebration, everything changed. The guests, who had been eating, dancing and laughing minutes before, began shouting – and I saw the bride crying in a corner. I heard people were saying that she was not a virgin, and that her father and brothers would kill her. I was too young to know what virginity was, but I realized that it was very dangerous for a woman not to have.
Soon after, I began thinking about what I could do to change things for women. At age 15, I was training to become a primary school teacher and set up an organization for women. We held meetings underground to educate and assist women in crisis. This was around the time of the Iranian revolution and the government tried to arrest me several times. I owe my life to friends who helped me escape.
I became a Peshmerga; a freedom fighter for the human rights of women, children, and the Kurdish people. For 12 years, I traveled within Iran, Iraq and Kurdistan. Women and girls opened their hearts to me and I learned that domestic violence and “honour” based violence, including forced and early marriage were the norm. Women were rejected by their families when they sought protection from their husbands. And so I heard the stories of women who committed suicide by setting themselves alight, and I saw beautiful faces mutilated and burned with acid. I heard from girls who were raped and forced to marry their rapists or murdered themselves.
Women came to us for protection and we worked with them, setting up self-help groups in villages, and holding community meetings in mosques and in schools, to talk about women’s rights. We were among thousands of people fighting for freedom and equality, but we came under attack by government forces. I stayed and continued to fight until I became pregnant and I had another life to consider. I had to protect my unborn child, so I sought refuge in the UK.
When I arrived in the UK with my child, I spoke only a few phrases of English. I was shocked to learn that my interpreter, who had been instrumental in enrolling my child in primary school, had been murdered by her family. I was even more appalled when the police said they wouldn’t investigate because her death didn’t occur in the UK. The misery and mistreatment of women had spread. The police considered it an “honour” killing and therefore, a “cultural” issue. A British citizen had been murdered, and the police weren’t interested. This woman had lived in the UK for 11 years, was educated and spoke fluent English. If she could be killed, what about the women who couldn’t speak English, didn’t know their rights or were afraid to seek help?
My new life in the UK had its own challenges. We were living in a dangerous, run-down London estate, plagued by gang activity. I put all of my energy into surviving – keeping us safe and looking for something better – but I couldn’t stop thinking about my interpreter. I dreamt of setting up an organization to help women like her and to campaign against “honour” based violence. I wanted to raise awareness of this brutal practice, both within the communities and among police officers, social workers and teachers.
So, what is “honour” based violence? It is normally a collective and planned crime or incident, mainly perpetrated against women and girls, by their family or their community. The perpetrators act to defend their perceived honour, because they believe that the victim(s) have done something to bring shame to the family or the community.
It can take many forms including “honour” killing, forced marriage, rape, forced suicide, acid attacks, mutilation, imprisonment, beatings, death threats, blackmail, emotional abuse, surveillance, harassment, forced abortion and abduction.
There is an absence of data on the number of “honour” killings that take place each year. The most commonly quoted statistic is the estimate dating back to 2000 from the United Nations of 5,000 “honour” killings every year. However we know that many cases go unreported and that often reported cases are not properly investigated and reported and that the real figure is far, far higher.
Finally, in August of 2002, in collaboration with friends and with help from the Refugee Women’s Association, the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO), was founded. One of our campaigns was Justice for Banaz. Banaz Mahmod, was a 20 year old British Kurdish woman who as a child in Iraq was forced to undergo Female Genital Mutilation. She migrated to the UK with her family and attended school until she was 17 years old, when she was forced into a child marriage to a much older man. He was very violent and raped her often but her family refused to let her leave him because they felt that by doing so she would bring them shame. Ultimately, her family decided that she must be punished and that she had to be killed. They raped and murdered her and buried her in a back garden in a suitcase.
We faced backlash while raising awareness of this case; I was threatened and attacked outside of the court. Despite the danger, we persisted, and our campaign resulted in the extradition of her two killers from Kurdistan, Iraq, where they had fled following her murder. I am proud to report that earlier this year the 8th person was convicted in relation to her murder.
To learn more about the work of IKWRO please visit our site at: http://ikwro.org.uk/
Join We Talk Women as they tackle this subject and honour the life of Banaz, at No Honour in Killing on October 2nd.