I don’t know what to call this… untitled horror, I guess

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.

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  1. #1 by ejay on January 7, 2014 - 3:37 pm

    I don’t know what to say. Everything that you have experienced, though it sounds similar to what I’ve grown up with, seems to be apart of another galaxy. I can’t imagine what it must have been like, sitting there, and listening to them discuss killing someone. I watched the documentary you linked to, and though it does have its problems, damn, if it doesn’t leave you speechless. It’s like these people don’t have kids out of a desire to love them, but have kids simply because it’s the thing to do and everybody does it, so why don’t I do it, too? It also shows the negative repercussions of promoting a patriarchal society (as conservative Islam does). When scholars say that we should obey our fathers/husbands/(and sometimes brothers), they never take into account those who do and will abuse that power. They simply pretend it doesn’t exist or that those who do abuse their power aren’t following Islam correctly, and therefor, isn’t the fault of the scholars. The most chilling part about that documentary was the list of names and photographs right at the end, listing every one who killed those girls and realizing that it was mostly their family members. People who were supposed to love them unconditionally. How does this happen? Why does this happen?

    I hope for the best for you, sending love and internet hugs your way.

    • #2 by xcwn on January 8, 2014 - 12:42 am

      Yes, they don’t admit that teaching that girls and women have to obey fathers, husbands and sometimes other male relatives sets the stage for abuse. And the “but they weren’t following Islam correctly” canned response functions as an all-purpose “get out of jail free” card.

  2. #3 by ayasmom on January 7, 2014 - 3:50 pm

    Such a delicate path to weave through, deciding how to instruct your children regarding things that you and your (ex) spouse disagree on. You do have your work cut out for you and I am not envious. The contextualization of a discussion of honor killing in North America is jaw dropping, but at the same time I know these people, I know these international students who are just having a good time abroad, and I know these families whose girls have been raised here. I wonder how intellectually for the father the Islamic teaching of responsibility for ones own actions is completely disregarded in situations like this?

    • #4 by xcwn on January 8, 2014 - 12:48 am

      In my experience, there’s a wide but usually unacknowledged gap between the theoretical belief that “in Islam, everyone is responsible for their own actions”, and social realities. Males often got away with doing things that were acknowledged as sinful with minimal censure, while the “sins” (actual, or just rumored) of a female had a much more long-lasting effect on her reputation, and were seen as reflecting badly on her family. And as with so many gaps between theory and practice, it was usually either ignored or rationalized “Islamically.”

  3. #5 by Laury Silvers on January 7, 2014 - 8:32 pm

    Not exactly sure why you should think that you should be over that.

    • #6 by xcwn on January 8, 2014 - 1:09 am

      Because it’s been about ten years since it happened? Because in the end, nobody died?
      Maybe it’s because of the way that “honor”-killing is typically discussed—as mainly a problem because it results in deaths. So that since nobody died, I shouldn’t be so haunted by that incident?
      I don’t know.

      • #7 by Laury Silvers on January 8, 2014 - 1:41 am

        Given what I have come to know about you from your blog, I would venture to say that it is a crystal-clear moment that tells you nothing you went through should be minimized. I know survivors sometimes talk themselves into saying, “It wasn’t that bad.” That day tells you it was that bad, all of it. Not just what almost happened to her. What happened to you. I think healing comes as we fully accept what has happened to us so that we may properly grieve it. I don’t think we get over things until we realize that it makes perfect sense that we should not be over it yet. If that makes any sense at all. Forgive my arm-chair psychologizing.

        Anyway, even after healing, can we ever forget? And maybe that is not a bad thing since it drives us to act against these murderous systems of power that tell us that obeying men is obeying God.

      • #8 by xcwn on January 8, 2014 - 2:01 am

        I don’t know. It’s absolutely horrifying.
        I’m still trying to get my head around how that happened, and what sort of people these were… and I suppose still are.

        And the system is murderous. Absolutely.

  4. #9 by Laury Silvers on January 9, 2014 - 2:52 am


  5. #10 by nmr on January 9, 2014 - 3:53 pm

    I think I would call this post “The Kitchen Conspiracy” or maybe “Witness to a Persecution” or “Strangers in the Kitchen”? Who is your favorite murder-mystery writer?

    • #11 by xcwn on January 11, 2014 - 3:25 pm

      Somehow, I fail to find any humor in the whole thing.
      Haven’t read any murder mysteries since that incident. I find that whole type of writing really disturbing now. Don’t know if I will be able to get back into being able to enjoy it.

  6. #12 by nmr on January 16, 2014 - 9:29 pm

    Sorry, didn’t mean to be flip, but step back a moment.

    People murder other people all the time for exceptionally stupid reasons. Don’t you remember the story about the three brave young men and the devil who says, “I’ll show you death.” and they say “Where?” and he says, “Under the tree” and they go there and all they can find are three big pots of gold, and then….

    The other thing I was thinking, your ex probably deliberately included you in the discussion because he knew you would categorically reject the entire rationale. It seemed like a kind of preview, “See, this woman is going to be like the jury of your peers in this country, and they are NOT going to buy your argument.” I feel like you were being manipulated.

    • #13 by xcwn on January 19, 2014 - 6:07 pm

      Yes, people do kill one another for ridiculous reasons. Unfortunately.
      As for why my ex included me in the discussion—yeah, you might be right. I had largely bought into the whole equation of sexual “immorality” with shame, but he likely knew that I would draw the line at killing. Though, there’s also the thing about being in that kind of sub-culture for a while—you get in the zone. All kinds of stuff that seems absolutely crazy to me now somehow almost made sense back then. I suspect he knew that too.

  7. #14 by Ambaa on January 27, 2014 - 9:58 pm

    How horrifying. I’m so sorry you went through that and especially that it still haunts you.

    Your stories are so powerful and I find that I have to pace myself reading your blog or it throws me into flashbacks of my own (though nothing close to as scary as that)

  8. #15 by kisarita on February 11, 2014 - 2:24 pm

    i hope you’ll one day be able to communicate about this with your children

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