“That’s what happens to naughty girls, Bakha!”
Behya Mahmood (Mother of Bekhal Mahmood)
During the uprising against the honour killing of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman, for a reason as trivial as inappropriate attire, I stumbled upon this book. It was an eye-opener for someone like me who had heard of honour killings but had never fully understood the extent of the suffering of women in some parts of our Society. This book is a true story and account of incidents from the life of the author, Bekhal Mahmood, and the price she had to pay for her freedom. Not unlike other survival stories, this book too has an account of the author’s travail, suffering, loss, determination, strength, and struggle. This book gives an account of the horrific domestic violence Bekhal Mahmood had to endure and the cost her sister had to pay for not following the norms of her Kurdish community. It also shows how these atrocities are normalized through religion and culture, because of which even the mature women in the family blindly encourage, incite, and follow these ancient traditions without so much as reasoning or questioning.
The brave heart author, Bekhal Mahmood, wrote this memoir with the help of her social worker, Dr Hannana Siddiqui, who is the Head of Policy and Research at Southall Black Sisters. She has enlisted memories she has from as young as only a year old; and how her experiences, life and understanding of parental love changed from an incident that occurred when she was just a mere 6-year-old innocent girl. Bekhal very beautifully encapsulates the memories of her childhood living in a small village, the simpler existence, before technology took over, and the agonizing verbal and physical abuse she endured for being a ‘troublemaker’ and for having an opinion. It also portrays her perpetual insurgence to change the fate her family had decided for her. The book discusses the grave brutalities inflicted on women, including female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage, verbal, physical and sexual abuse and above all, Honour Killing.
The book also gives an account of the case of Banaz Mahmood, Bekhal’s younger sister’s brutal rape and honor killing conspired by her father, uncle, and Kurdish community members for not following the norms expected of a Kurdish woman. It also describes how even the Police failed to protect Banaz despite her filing complaints with them about her family’s conspiracy to kill her. Bekhal was the first daughter in the history of the Kurdish people to give prosecution evidence against her father and other family members for the murder of Banaz. Bekhal has now been on a witness protection scheme for over 13 years and lives in terror even today. She has been battling depression and has had a history of self-harm due to the ordeal she endured. She is now a mother to a daughter whom she hopes to raise to be strong by giving her the love, acceptance and understanding she lacked growing up. Bekhal has been campaigning to introduce ‘Banaz’s Law’ with Dr Hannana Siddiqui hoping to have a cathartic release for the loss of her beloved sister and to make sure no one else suffers the same fate. The law aims to prevent the use of misogynous cultural defences to mitigate male violence against women and girls. The law will regard such defences as an aggravating factor, attracting longer sentences and re-framing violence in the name of ‘honour’ as a crime of dishonour. The book offers insight for those who are interested in women’s rights, feminists and those fighting for gender equality. The many memories the author describes, mostly those of pain and suffering, go to show how memories from our past, both good and bad, often leave an indelible mark in our minds and play a very important role in our personality development and behavioural traits. It makes us realize why we need to be kind and accepting of people as we do not know their personal challenges, trauma, and covert abuse at home. The book causes one to question the society we live in where people don’t feel safe and heard at home with their family, and how some cultural practices we consider outdated are still taking place in some minorities/communities.
As a social work student, this book helped me gain a better understanding of the kind of circumstances and people I may have to work with and how I should never assess people by their comportment without knowing their story and their lived experiences. It makes me passionate about being in the field of social work as I would want to advocate for women who face similar circumstances. The author says she appreciates the indefatigable support her social worker provided her, which has helped her cope with life. This book should make one aware of these atrocities, speak up against them, help and provide comfort for those undergoing these torments and make a concerted effort to eradicate honour killings and abuse of women from our societies. It is a book with a lot of emotion, suffering and vulnerability.
I would recommend this book as enlightening to Police officers who often fail to fully decipher the circumstances around honour killings, social workers who may work with vulnerable people from diverse cultures, Educators who play a significant role in imparting knowledge and women who may be suffering in silence.