When I learned that BBC3 had produced a drama about a case of honour-killing in a London family, my first reaction was one of skepticism, entirely because of the title, Murdered By My Father. It was a phrase one could imagine splashed in all caps over the front page of a tabloid, promising voyeuristic kicks and gory, lurid details (like this Daily Mail story), but with little interest in actually respecting the memory of victims or delving deeper into the causes of such horrific crimes. Thankfully, Murdered By My Father doesn’t adhere to these expectations; it is a more meditative, well-researched take on the social forces that conspire to perpetuate the patriarchal culture that makes honour-crimes possible, and even encouraged.
The drama focuses on Salma, called Sal affectionately, a college student who lives with her little brother Hassan, also called Hass, and their widowed father Shahzad. Sal has struck a “deal,” as she calls it, with her father that after her finishing her studies she will marry the man, Haroon, to whom she has been promised. Shahzad works for Haroon’s father, and the proposed marriage is at least partly about strengthening and deepening these economic ties through kinship relations–not an unfamiliar feature of arranged marriages, and one that isn’t shied away from by screenwriter Vinay Patel. In fact, Patel notes in a conversation with Kajal is that one striking fact that he took away from his research for the drama was the economic component to the maintenance of honour and one’s standing in a community. There is the potential of building financial security for one’s family through strategic marriages, but there is also the threat of economic ostracization if one loses face with others in the community.
“One of the most interesting things that came out of my research was this idea that honour isn’t just an ephemeral thing, it can have a hard economic reality to it,” Patel said to Kajal.
This subtle feature of the narrative is an example of one point, among several, where Murdered By My Father achieves some essential nuance, revealing how cultural norms that oppress women aren’t only about seemingly “ephemeral” ideas, as Patel says, but also fit into into a larger web of factors like economic insecurity, and the corresponding mores than turn women’s bodies into currencies for their menfolk to exchange. As the narrative unfolds, the viewer continues to be presented with these kinds of harsh realities and unsettling complexities.
As Sal’s relationship with her father, and her father’s interactions with people like Haroon’s father Zubair, shows, Sal is stuck a man’s world, where a single daughter is by default trouble waiting to happen. She is acutely aware of the little, hidden surveillances a woman of her age is subjected to by men, particularly those who assume they own her. Yet that doesn’t stop her from rekindling an old relationship with Imi, who has newly returned to London and is determined to continue seeing her despite the dangers involved– dangers, it must be said, that Sal faces alone. As she is increasingly unable to keep up appearances, and her marriage to Haroon nears after being pushed forward by an anxious and suspicious Shahzad, Sal begins to feel so trapped that she sees no other option but to tell the truth and try to convince her father how “they can both be happy.”
It would be easy to make this a story about a independent everywoman turned-victim at the hands of a “medieval” patriarch, as Imi calls Sal’s father. Despite the cringe-quality of the title, one can’t escape from the fact that it’s technically accurate–this is a story about a young woman who is murdered by her father, and it’s important to flatly name that atrocity for what it is. Launching into socio-cultural contexts can sometimes feel like entering a minefield; either you end up with a caricature of a woman-hating culture or you, equally horribly if unintentionally, attenuate the bald horror of a woman being brutally killed by regurgitating the same explanations as her murderers–honor, family, shame, reputation–without interrogating their essences. Either way, the individuality and struggles of our lost women are distorted in a swirl of shocking court statements, cultural excuses, and, in a final act of violence, the stories and judgments of men.
One thing that Murdered By My Father does well, then, is that in so many small moments and pointed words exchanged, it doesn’t take these cultural terminologies at face value. For one, it exposes the reality that the nebulous terms “honour” and “shame” in large part mean “inflated and fragile male ego” and have very little to do with women’s selfhood detached from that ego. It shows how that fragility can turn someone into a monster. The drama doesn’t frame the eventual killer Shahzad as a terrible man from the outset. He is a widower, trying to support his children and honour the wishes of a late wife who played a key role in setting up Sal’s engagement (a brief but critical reminder that women too have parts to play in enacting patriarchal violence). He has his tender moments with his family. Nevertheless, the impulse to police Sal and protect his manhood is always there, a constant undercurrent. It’s there when he demands to see her phone when she giggles at a text message at the breakfast table. It’s also there when he tries to explain to her, with affection, that she carries the family reputation with her, and he fears what people see in him when they look at her. The “they” of his fears are central to the drama, and to honour-crimes in general–honour is a thing that is spoiled in the eyes of the “theys” after all, and as Patel writes it, those eyes and the sharp tongues that go with them play an integral role in encouraging and legitimizing patriarchal violence, and even covering it up after the fact.
Surely, Shahzad’s barbarity doesn’t arise out of a vacuum. He responds and reacts to accusations of his own failure and insults that are slapped on him by other men through questioning the character of his daughter. However, it’s important to note Patel doesn’t write him as a man pushed to extremes by circumstance or social pressure alone, but shows that the currents of male entitlement run deep–making honour crimes not simply a “social” problem of oppressive communities but one of gender formation at its individual roots. It actually takes very little prodding for Shahzad to be prompted to violence in several scenes, and it is incredibly telling that the words that ultimately move him to kill Sal are not those of other men, but her own. In their final confrontation, where she pleads with him to reach a mutual understanding, she breaks down and calls him a coward in exasperation. That’s all it takes for him to attack her, a revelation of his own truth–but where Sal sees a coward for a man who hasn’t the strength to stand up for his daughter in the face of society, Shahzad sees it in a man who would let his daughter challenge his manhood and get away with it.
Sal is herself a conflicted and multi-dimensional character rather than simply a generic victim or statistic. She desperately seeks autonomy. At the same time, she also fears abandoning her brother and father, and defends Shahzad against Imi’s disdain by acknowledging how “much he has done” for her. (There is a way in which these kinds of moments fall slightly flat, as Imi is posed as the relatively more ‘enlightened’ character in those dialogues even though he is far from flawless.) Sal even once blames herself for letting her relationship with Imi go so far.
As a recent report on honour-based violence in the UK has shown, women do often internalize feelings of guilt and shame after abuse, which can prevent their seeking help or even recognizing that injustice is being done in the name of cultural pseudo-ideals. Sal’s guilt is subtle, but it turns out to be lethal for her since it is what drives her back home after first running away, in the hopes that she can make things right. Obviously, that doesn’t make anything that transpires her fault. Instead, what it shows is the hegemony of these structures of patriarchal oppression that seep even into the most remote corners of the mind, and how combating honour-killings doesn’t start simply at the point of preventing or seeking justice for violence. It starts with dismantling every norm that conditions a woman into ever feeling guilty for things done to her, and that is a struggle that’s universal, not restricted only to families like Sal’s.
In case one is still left wondering after watching Murdered By My Father why such a drama was conceived in the first place, the closing credits include statistics on the rate of honour-based crimes in the UK, emphasizing the very present and immediate nature of these atrocities. The makers seem to be trying to counter the notion that making a film about this subject is either a voyeuristic stunt or a smear-campaign– the kinds of accusations leveled against the recent Oscar-winning documentary on honour-based violence in Pakistan, A Girl in the River. It is true that making films on issues as awful and intractable as honour-based violence, especially in diaspora settings, is to tread a fine line between creating forceful social commentary, even activism, and producing something that is, well, just plain insulting, often Islamophobic and frankly disrespectful to the women who have suffered such violence (see this trailer for an eyebrow-raising example of the latter).
Vinay Patel has reflected on this inevitable issue as well, noting that these kinds of programs can easily be re-purposed as tools for “bigots and racists out there salivating at any opportunity to give a kicking to a maligned group of people.” However, as he says, that cannot be an excuse to simply remain silent. For then how distant is keeping mum to protect one’s community from bigots’ prying eyes from perpetuating yet another kind of violence on women by suppressing their stories? Murdered By My Father tries its best to overcome these dichotomous difficulties by focusing on characters and emotional trajectories, taking us into the minds and struggles of the central actors as they spiral towards tragedy. As a result, Murdered By My Father falls on the positive side of that fine line. Moreover, as the producers and writer have mentioned, it was a product of intense research and consultation with groups fighting against honour-based violence. For that, it should be watched and its message contemplated.
Murdered By My Father can be viewed in iPlayer now and is currently only available in the UK.