We spoke to screenwriter Vinay Patel about fictionalising real-life stories of violence within families – and avoiding negative ethnic stereotypes along the way.
Rania Alayed, a 25-year-old mother of three from Manchester, went missing in June 2013 and her body has still never been found. What we do know is that her husband killed her – "in self-defence" by his account – and then hid her corpse somewhere along the A19 with the help of his two brothers, before impersonating her by texting from her mobile phone after her death. She'd become "too westernised" for his liking.
It's considered a pretty standard case of honour-based violence – any violence motivated by shame brought upon a family or community – and is a lot more prevalent in the UK than you might think. According to charity IKWRO (the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation), there have been nearly 12,000 reported cases of this type of domestic violence here since 2010, including beatings, kidnappings and an estimated 60 murders (of which 29 are confirmed).
If it wasn't Rania's appalling case in 2014, or the first-ever National Day of Memory for Victims of Honour Killings last year, then thrillers Honour and Catch Me Daddy have informed some viewers about this sort of crime. Now, new BBC 3 drama Murdered By My Father looks to probe the psychology that can drive parents to murder members of their own family. It's a horrific account of how widower father Shahzad (played by Adeel Akhtar) kills his own daughter, Salma (Kiran Sonia Sawar), who's snubbed an arranged marriage and is seeing a boyfriend he disapproves of.
We caught up with the show's screenwriter, Vinay Patel, whose research team has worked closely with families and survivors of real-life cases – from Iranian, Kurdish and Pakistani backgrounds – to create a powerful and realistic mix of all their stories.
VICE: What first drew you to this project?
Vinay Patel: I was originally approached to do it by the BBC. I remember when it first came into the agency, I really didn't want to do it. Basically, I didn't want to be an Asian writer writing something about an honour killing, especially at the start of my career. There's a certain stereotype that you want to try and escape.
But I came in and talked with the execs and they seemed to want to do something interesting. I was very interested in the father figure, because I think with something like this, you're trying to think about what questions the audience is bringing. And here, it's: "why would anyone do that to their kid?" I thought that if we're doing a drama, let's try and get into the head of that person and see how his relationship with his daughter works, and try and make that something recognisable.
Your research and writing didn't seem to focus on one individual story, given the dangers survivors might still face, but instead got information charities, the police and the survivors themselves. Can you tell me a little more?
I think the thing with issue dramas is that they are telling you that this is exactly how it happens, that there are the same specifics across everything. But [honour violence] is actually as varied a crime as anything else would be, like murder or burglary – there are different motives, different thresholds people go through.
So I was trying to look for what was common among them, and it was that driving the violence was always this attempt to have a very strict control over the lives of these women. And I was trying to find enough that was familiar across all cases that you could turn that into a place of drama, while keeping enough facts that kept it truthful. We kept a check on that by sending drafts off to the charity for them to look at.
How did you feel about presenting this story to a young, predominantly white British audience for whom honour violence is pretty much unknown, beyond the occasional newspaper headline they may have seen?
I came to it with the idea that that would probably be the audience, and that they'd come to it thinking, "I know these women die and that these guys are horrible people." So immediately you're trying to undercut that expectation. I wanted the father to be almost the softer figure to start with, because you know where this show's going.
But you need to give space for that person to exist as a person before you reach that point. I think the thing with these guys is that they're sort of archetypally recognisable as dads in lots of ways and so if you're going to approach a young audience who know nothing about the crime, then at least you can try and recreate a dynamic between a father and child that's familiar. Something that has a drive behind it that can be familiar, about wanting to control your kids and kids wanting freedom. The hope for the drama was to foreground those as a way to come into talk about things.
By pulling together so many stories, what would you say you've learned about the psychology behind honour-based crimes?
There's a strong theme of men who come to the West experiencing quite drop in status. I think what you do when that happens is you try to create a sort of perfect version of the life you might have had elsewhere, and that in a way becomes stricter. It's just about wanting to have a sense of status and power in a place that you feel doesn't provide it. Most of the people involved in these cases are relatively poor, so if they can't get their status economically, they try to "be a big man" in a community.
What did the charities and survivors generally think of the final product?
They seem quite happy with it. I went to an awards evening at IKWRO, and they said that they hopefully want to go into schools with it. I was like, "Great, if you guys are happy with it, then that's kind of the only audience that really matters."
I think there was one instance where one of the girls whose friends were involved in a case wanted the father figure to be less sympathetic. But I do believe that in most cases, most of these guys do regret what they've done. But they have no means of expressing it, because that would involve letting their guard down. That's the only thing that they found problematic, but I think in order to make that drama accessible to people, you have to find a way into it. So that was mine.
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