After Her Sister’s Murder, This UK Child Marriage Survivor Is Fighting to Change the Law
Global Citizen talks to Payzee Mahmod — the activist and survivor fighting to ban child marriage.
Editor's note: This post contains graphic language and details of violence and self-harm.
From childhood to marriage, sisters Payzee and Banaz Mahmod would do household chores together while singing along to Mariah Carey.
Prior moving to Britain, both were forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM). Then as teenagers in south London, the pair were coerced into child marriages with much older men. Payzee was 16; Banaz was 17 — and while Payzee became pregnant soon afterwards, Banaz was desperately attempting to escape a violently abusive husband.
Banaz sought help from the police and her parents, but received none. She left her marriage, and made friends with another Iraqi Kurd called Rahmat Sulemani. While Payzee got an abortion, Banaz and Sulemani fell in love. But in 2006, Banaz went missing.
Banaz was just 20 years old when her body was found in Birmingham. She had been the victim of a so-called “honour killing” after supposedly bringing shame on her family. Her father and uncle were among those sentenced to life imprisonment for her murder the following year.
Payzee is 32 now. Still in London, she works in the fashion industry. She’s travelled the world; delivered a powerful TEDx Talk at the start of 2020 unpacking her personal story; and new episodes of her Chat With Payzee podcast drop onSpotify every month.
After years of trauma, Payzee has turned her life around. She’s now spearheading a national campaign to change the law in Britain to get child marriage banned once and for all.
Right now, children aged 16 and 17 can legally wed in England and Wales with parental consent — a loophole that is still putting children at risk, just as it did for Payzee and Banaz.
She’s fighting the campaign as an ambassador for Iranian & Kurdish Women's Rights (IKWRO), joined by a diverse coalition of more than 25 organisations including fellow Girls Not Brides UK co-chairs, FORWARD, the Independent Yemen Group, and Karma Nirvana. It’s been backed by Pauline Latham MP and won cross-party and cross-house support.
SO MANY INCREDIBLE WOMEN WHO HAVE SHAPED WHO I AM & WHO I AM BECOMING. ❤️— Payzee (@PayzeeMalika) March 8, 2020
I dedicate this day to my sister, Banaz. A remarkable woman who taught me love, strength & kindness with no bounds.
I am, because of you. You live in my every moment & are changing the world for girls ❤️ pic.twitter.com/Al05gLw6ma
Payzee’s petition with anti-slavery organisation Freedom United has earned over 107,000 signatures. Before the coronavirus outbreak took over government priorities, she had an appointment in the calendar to present the petition to Boris Johson.
One post from her Instagram on Sept. 17 2019 reads: “I feel like I’m becoming the version of myself I’ve been dreaming of my whole life.”
Here, Payzee speaks to Global Citizen about her memories of Banaz, a lifelong journey towards self-kindness, and what she wishes she could say to her childhood self.
What was your relationship like with your sister?
My sister and I were very close, the closest.
Banaz was just 15 months older than me, she was always there for me no matter what situation I found myself in. She would joke and say I acted like I was older, but that was because I was bossy and outspoken, while she would be very sweet, compromising, and always wanted to put a smile on people’s faces.
She was so kind, that’s the one thing I can’t ever forget. She was the sweetest person. You couldn’t have met her and not remembered her forever, she had an effect on people, everyone always took a liking to her.
When we attended the same college all my friends immediately loved her, she would come into my class, and wait for me, and my teacher was more than happy to have her, she was just a blessing to be around.
She liked dressing up, she loved wearing Kurdish clothes, she was a big fan of Mariah Carey, and we would clean the house together while singing at the top of our voices.
Can you talk me through what happened with Banaz — from her visits to the police station to the prosecution against your father?
It has now been 14 years since Banaz’s death, and every day I ask myself “how did this happen?”
When my sister found herself in the situation when she felt unsafe, she did the right thing. She went to the police more than five times. That tells me one thing: no matter how much my sister sought safety from the one place that should have provided it, she was not going to get it.
My sister went missing in January 2006 — that is when the police decided to look into what my sister had been reporting all those months ago. When my sister was found three months later, that is when the action started. My sister did not have to lose her life.
From the day my sister went missing to the day she was found; from the trials to the sentencing — it all seems like a blur. It felt like time had stood still. But at the same time the clock was ticking and everyday this terrible situation was getting worse and worse.
No one wants to attend a trial for their loved one’s death, let alone their father being prosecuted for it. The only word I can use about how that feels is heartbreaking.
Why do you think the police didn’t respond quickly enough?
They didn’t believe my sister. They didn’t take what she was saying seriously — even with proof.
They failed to see a young woman scared for her life — it was just another report to them. From the footage I have seen, the officer is joking about electricity. This is at the end of one of Banaz’s interview tapes: she has gone to tell the police she is scared her life will be taken, and she is ushered out with light hearted jokes. That tells you everything.
I know that training and awareness on honour-based abuse was also lacking. The police still don’t have mandatory training.
In your TEDx Talk, you spoke about your own experiences with female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage. How did your experiences differ from your sisters’?
Only me and Banaz had a child marriage, so I am glad my other sisters did not experience this type of abuse. I know first hand how much this has affected me. I lived with Banaz while she was married and witnessed the abuse she suffered.
However all of my sisters — except my youngest — have had to undergo FGM, which is a devastating fact. I have spoken to my sisters about our experience of this and its lifelong effects, not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically too.
‘I wasn’t being consulted, I was being told this is going to happen’— BBC Radio 5 Live (@bbc5live) March 10, 2020
Campaigner against child marriage Payzee Mahmod, tells @TherealNihal how her family arranged her marriage when she was just 16.
🎧 Listen from 1pm on @BBCSounds to Payzee’s story - https://t.co/4SnxX44AQspic.twitter.com/9LF4UAaNeV
How far do you think your story is mirrored in the stories of other women around the UK who have found themselves trapped in a child marriage?
Unfortunately my story is not that uncommon.
It’s a sad reality that child marriage is very much present in the UK. I am privileged to have a voice and speak out against it, but I know that many girls and women cannot, and often do not see it as abuse for a long time. I have gone through that journey myself: it took me many years to recognise that I was coerced.
I was just a child. That’s something we must be very mindful of: that victims going through child marriage need a lot of support to recognise it — then get out and be safe.
You didn’t comment on the case at the time — then last year, you decided to speak out. What motivated you to go public?
I was 17 when I lost my sister. My whole world was turned upside down.
Every day I hoped no one would experience what I did. I was just a child trying to navigate life, but all of a sudden this tragic event happened. It broke me, I didn’t understand any of it, I couldn’t make sense of why my sister had just lost her life, why anyone would do such a thing.
After many years I felt like it was time to help others. I knew I had to do something. I speak out because my sister didn’t have a voice and I want to honour her in everything I do.
You closed your TEDx talk by saying you're showing up now for your 16-year-old self. If you could say one thing to her — what would it be?
I am learning to be kind to myself and to remember that I never chose my child marriage.
I simply wanted to complete my childhood and focus on my education and future — so I feel it is very important to connect to my 16-year-old self and remind her ‘this was not your fault.’
If I could say anything to my 16-year-old self I would say: “you deserve to be safe and happy. When you don’t feel those feelings — don’t give up. They will come to find you.”
What does the future hold for you and your activism?
The future has no limits.
For me, activism is my life now. I want to change things for future generations, and I know I will — I just have to keep going and keep up these conversations. I want to fight for children to be safe, to have choice, and ultimately to be children.
"I fight inequality by campaigning to end child marriage and raising awareness of its life-long harm. I encourage women to add their voice by signing my petition to make child marriage a crime in England and Wales."— Global Citizen UK (@GlblCtznUK) March 6, 2020
— @PayzeeMalika#InternationalWomenDay2020 (9/9) pic.twitter.com/Gu6vrI1Pck
This interview has been lightly edited.