I just watched the short film, “Banaz: A Love Story.” About a woman who was killed by her family in the UK. For reasons of “honor.”
Really really really bad idea. I’m still shaking. Nauseous. And it’s really late, but somehow I have to get up and go to work tomorrow. I don’t know if I can sleep.
The film itself has some issues (what film on this sort of thing doesn’t?). The oft-repeated street scenes of blurry identified hijabis, or shots of women wearing shalwar kameez through fences… were at best stereotypical and not at all original. It didn’t provide much in the way of social and political contextualization of this particular case either, which is also a definite drawback. Family dynamics like that are produced and sustained by a number of concrete social and political factors (as opposed to simply “culture” or being “old fashioned” or some immigrant mens’ feelings of being unmanned when they move to “the west”).
But. Problems aside, it was fairly balanced, I thought. Which from my perspective is not too helpful, in a way. All these years later, I am still trying to get my head around that family meeting that took place in my kitchen. About ten years ago now. I really, really should now be over it.
One of my nieces had been dating a boy. A Muslim foreign student from a very wealthy country. Her family didn’t trust him at all, were convinced that he was just using her (which turned out to be true… but that’s another story), but had tried to make the best of a bad job and convince them to “make it halaal” and at least get married. The boy had rudely refused. The parents had then forbidden my niece to see him. But she kept on seeing him behind their backs, and finally ran away from home, and was living with him. Her parents were sitting in my kitchen, along with her mother’s sister and her husband, my ex (aka her uncle), and me. All of the adult members of the extended family in North America, basically, barring a cousin of her father’s (not sure why he wasn’t present). And the subject of discussion was whether to kill her. And, what to do about her boyfriend.
No, I am not making this up. I wish that I were.
The kids were upstairs somewhere, probably listening through the heating vents to the conversation going on down below. Her father wanted to kill her, and at least break her boyfriend’s legs, if not kill him too. Her aunt’s husband and my ex didn’t agree, however, and did their best to convince him that there was no way that he could get away with it, so he had better not try it. I threatened to go to the police.
That scene is frozen in my mind. The old kitchen table, with the cheap plastic tablecloth covering the scratches and dents in its top, which we were sitting around. The worn wooden chairs. The cold gray of the not-all-that-clean tiles on the floor. My niece’s mother’s face, so pale and drawn. How everything had seemed so surreal, unfolding in slow motion.
In the end, her father decided not to do anything to her. That neither of his brothers-in-law agreed that he should kill her was probably a factor. Another factor was likely that her boyfriend dumped her shortly after, leaving her heartbroken and (thanks to him) missing a credit card that was quickly maxed out. After a fair amount of family drama, she reconciled with them, settled down, got married to a man of her own choice, and seems happy enough.
All’s well that ends well, as they say. Nothing happened to her in the end. Her family has forgiven her. Nobody speaks about those events any more. He also seems to have decided not to be so controlling of his younger kids. Presumably, he wants to avoid similar problems in the future. So, why is that scene still frozen in my mind? Why is it still lodged there, making me shake and feel nauseous whenever it bubble to the surface?
Perhaps it’s the stark horror of the scene. That a father holds a meeting to discuss killing his daughter. That this could be an issue to be calmly discussed.
And the thing is, as long as I’ve known him, he has generally been a pretty calm and polite guy. Not the sort you’d expect would think of killing anyone, much less a child of his.
Perhaps it’s the arguments made by his brothers-in-law that seem to have finally dissuaded him: You’ll never get away with it. The story will be splashed all over the news, everyone will know about it. No honor in that. And you’ll be in jail for the rest of your life. Then you’ll just have ruined your life, and the life of the rest of your kids, and for what?? For the sake of one foolish girl? She’s not worth it. Don’t bother yourself, she’s not worth it….
Did his brothers-in-law (one of whom is my ex) make those arguments because they knew that this was what was most likely to convince him? After all, if he didn’t believe that his daughter is an autonomous moral agent with the right to make her own mistakes, there would be little point in trying to convince him of that under those circumstances. Better to speak to him on his terms, and hopefully avert a tragedy.
Or were the arguments they made a fairly accurate reflection of what they actually thought? That for them the main issue was that it’s not worth doing since you’re going to get caught. Which implies what about the course of action they might have supported if getting caught didn’t seem likely?
There’s a part of me that cannot ever entirely trust them. Which sometimes poses problems, since my kids still want to have a relationship with the extended family. My kids don’t entirely understand why I can’t trust that family. I don’t want to traumatize them, or put them in a position where they feel torn between me and them. And it all sounds crazy. A discussion about killing around the kitchen table? Really? Their nice uncles and their father did that??
In the early days of my marriage, my ex used to tell me about honor killings as they took place in the country he was from. He was critical of them, and spoke of them as “old-fashioned.” He would say that the younger generation (meaning, his generation), at least those who were educated, wouldn’t usually kill a woman who had brought them shame, but would choose to leave it to God to punish her for her “immoral” acts. It was evident that he felt that this approach is much more enlightened.
Perhaps it is, in a way. Given the context. But there is the implied threat in that formulation. Men have the power to choose whether or not to kill. The more enlightened will magnanimously choose not to, and will instead leave the woman to God’s judgment (and public scorn and shunning, often).
Somehow, this frozen kitchen scene still lives in my memory. It is as though someone threw a rock into a pond, and after the splash, the water ripples outward, and outward… in slow motion, forever. Whether or not anyone dies or is physically injured in honor-related violence, the larger impact is that of the threat itself, and what this threat represents. The idea that a girl or woman can be killed because she has allegedly brought shame to the family is based on the notion that the life of a girl or woman who is even thought to have done that is worthless. Absolutely worthless.
And this is an attitude that one internalizes. It is extremely hard to dislodge. This attitude is in itself violence. A spear to the heart. Poison to the soul, that kills slowly.
I still have that residual terror in my bones. That awareness that on some level, they still think that what I do in my personal life is their business, as long as any kid belonging to their patriline lives with me.
I don’t know what my kids heard through those vents, or what they might or might not remember. There is really no easy way to bring up such a topic. I don’t know if they would benefit from seeing the film. Probably way too heavy for my youngest. Or even for the others. But my sons have definitely been influenced by the patriarchal attitudes of the extended family, and sometimes do relate to their sisters in a controlling or judgmental manner. I am going to have to address this issue somehow, sooner or later….
I am still shaking.