“ITV’s Honour misses a huge opportunity to tell Banaz Mahmod’s story”

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Mariam Khan, author and editor of It’s Not About The Burqa, powerfully explains how ITV’s Honour has “stripped Banaz Mahmod of her agency.”      

Amid the backdrop of a global pandemic and a rise in domestic violence, comes Honour, ITV’s two-part drama focusing on the real-life honour killing of Banaz Mahmod.

Mahmod, for those who haven’t yet heard the name, was a British Iraqi-Kurdish woman who was forced to marry a man at 17. When she divorced him and began a new relationship, her family arranged for her to be murdered.

This is an important story. However, I have long been frustrated over the portrayal of Muslim women on TV, as they are usually always presented as oppressed or submissive, with no room for agency or autonomy. The only storylines, too, seem to revolve around honour killings or terrorism.

But when I learned that Honour doesn’t actually centre on Mahmod, I was intrigued. 

Honour’s story is told through the eyes of DCI Caroline Goode (Keeley Hawes). I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is a lack of sensationalism in the TV show, an almost unwillingness to demonise an entire community for the actions of some. It feels like a conscious attempt at a more mature approach to a difficult subject.

However, despite setting out to honour Banaz Mahmod, the show has, like so many before it, missed the mark. 

Honour on ITV
A scene from ITV’s Honour.

Mahmod contacted the police five times before her murder. Despite being described as quiet, she spoke up for herself and fought for her life against those who should have protected her.

None of this is shown in Honour: in this show, Mahmod isn’t allowed to be anything more than the victim that she was forced to become in the last few moments of her life. This is not how you honour someone, and I can’t understand why there wasn’t a focus on Mahmod’s life, her struggle in her community, her determination to fight for herself.

Instead, the story uncomfortably flirts with a white savour narrative in the form of DCI Goode, and the lazy stereotyping that is usually associated with Muslim women has been painted onto Mahmod’s character. And we see this through the show’s brushing over Mahmod’s repeated attempts to contact the police: her courage and strength and commitment to find justice for herself in each of those moments in which she entered a police station or spoke to an authority figure is blended into the background.

As writer and actor Farquan Akhtar puts it, “[the focus] shifts the story from being about [Mahmod] to the white detective who ‘got her justice’.” 

Then again, it seems the focus on Mahmod and her courage to save herself was never the central narrative Honour wanted to portray. Indeed, screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes has said that Honour is “ultimately… uplifting” because of “the sheer heroism and dedication of the police officers who hunted down her killers.”

And, throughout the show, the story of Mahmod’s life is eclipsed and hijacked by DCI Goode’s feelings and actions. Mahmod’s grief is demonstrated only with a clip from a police station interview, in which she asks the attending officer, “What can you do for me?”

The rest of her pain, the rest of her life, is painted through the eyes of DCI Goode. 

DCI Goode is angry on Mahmod’s behalf. She wants to know why the police didn’t take the young woman’s concerns seriously. And yet, even so, the limitations of DCI Goode’s understanding is all too clear: she’s an outsider, and this means that the obvious gap in the show – which should be filled by Mahmod’s story – can’t be accessed by the audience.

This is best demonstrated when we see DCI Goode become frustrated after Mahmod’s mother fails to cooperate with the police in a bid to protect her husband.

“I expected so much more from a woman, from a mother,” says the police officer.

There is a sense of disgust, but also an unwillingness to consider the unique position Mahmod’s mother is in: caged by her husband, his brother and community whilst having to come to terms with the fact that her daughter has been murdered by the patriarchs in her family.

The complexity of this narrative isn’t shown or even allowed to be considered. Instead, we just see DCI Goode’s self-righteous rage. 

As well-intentioned as DCI Goode is in seeking justice for Mahmod, there is no escaping the fact that the show centres on a white woman and her struggles throughout the investigation. It’s almost as if Mahmod’s pain or fighting isn’t important enough, or won’t translate to the audience, until there is a white gaze thrown on top of it.

We have seen this happen in real life: after the New Zealand Christchurch terror attack, for example, much of the media focused on Prime Minister Jacinda Arden and the grace she displayed in her empathy and support of the victims. Little attention was shown to those who were actually affected by the attack.

There is a dangerous precedent here: it is as if the humanity of people of colour cannot be acknowledged until a white person comes to perform and repackage their pain. 

Honour: Keeley Hawes.
Keeley Hawes’ character, DCI Goode, is at the centre of Honour’s narrative.

Of course, many will watch Honour and believe that DCI Goode played the role of a good ally. And, yes, she did in her role as a senior investigating officer. However, the positioning of her role on screen as more prominent than the woman upon whom the entire show is based isn’t the position an ally should take.

Being an ally means allowing someone’s story to be told without placing yourself at the centre of it, and that isn’t what has happened here. In contrast, the 2016 BBC drama, Murdered By My Father (which admittedly has its own flaws) sees the main character Salma live her own narrative with agency. As a result, the impact of the show is more authentic, fair and respectful than that of Honour

I was willing to give Honour a chance. However, while the show makes an effort to tell Mahmod’s story, it offers little opportunity for hers to be centred in her own narrative.

It’s such a missed opportunity, because the devastation of honour killings is the loss of a voice and a life. And, while Mahmod is sometimes viewed through police footage, old memories and other people’s recollection of her character, her agency has been stripped.

Instead, her death is used as a plot point to further a pro-police narrative and it leaves me wondering which part of this story is, to use Hughes’ words, “uplifting”. 

Because this is, after all, not the story of a vulnerable courageous woman who wanted to live: it’s a story about how the police failed her.

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Honour airs on ITV at 9pm on Monday 28 and Tuesday 29 September

Images: ITV

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