Turkish honour killings: A dishonourable practice
By Diyarbakir And Van
Source: The Economist
April 12th 2007
Despite a government crackdown, honor killings persist in Turkey
With his soulful eyes and timid smile, Murat Kara, a 40-year-old stocking seller in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, is an unlikely murderer. Yet 13 years ago he pumped seven bullets into his younger sister. His widowed mother and uncles told him to kill the 17-year-old after she eloped with her boyfriend, staining the family's honour. Mr Kara resisted for three months because “I loved my sister and didn't believe she deserved to die.” But then the neighbours stopped talking to him, the grocer refused to sell him bread, the local imam said he was disobeying Allah, and his mother threatened to curse the milk she had breast-fed him. So he gave in.
The killing of women by male relatives who believe they have dishonoured the family—eg, by getting pregnant outside wedlock or wearing revealing clothes—has haunted Turkey for centuries. Bowing to pressure from the media, feminist groups and the European Union, Turkey's mildly Islamist government has launched an unprecedented campaign against honour killings, disarming even its fiercest critics.
State-employed imams now declare honour killings “sinful” in the Friday sermons they deliver across the country. Tens of thousands of army conscripts and police recruits are taught that violence against women is bad. Brooking the ire of his conservative constituents, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, told a gathering of foreign Muslims that “discrimination against women is worse than racism.” Nor is this mere talk. Turkey's penal code has been tweaked to stiffen penalties not only for those who commit honour killings but also for those who plan them. Had Mr Kara, who got seven years thanks to a judge who deemed he had been unduly provoked, killed his sister today, he would in all probability be serving a life sentence.
The trouble is that, despite the government's efforts, honour-related crimes show little sign of abating. A parliamentary report last August found that 1,091 such crimes had been committed in the past five years—over four a week. Only three of 51 honour killers interviewed for another study said they had any regrets.
In a society where female chastity is venerated and the motto “my horse, my gun and my woman are sacred” is common among men, “this should not come as a surprise,” notes Zozan Ozgokce, a female activist who runs an EU-funded project in Van to counsel abused women. Fatma Sahin, a deputy from Mr Erdogan's AK Party who drafted the parliamentary report, blames the deeply entrenched patriarchal and feudal system in the Kurdish provinces, where many of the murders occur. Rampant poverty and illiteracy have been exacerbated by the forced eviction of millions of Kurdish villagers by the army in its war against PKK rebels in the 1990s.
With refugee families of up to 20 or more crammed into tiny slums, incest and rape have shot up, says Handan Coskun, a social worker in Diyarbakir who is investigating links between female suicides and honour crimes. One survivor said she was ordered to take her own life (and locked in a room with a bottle of bleach) by her father, who sought to disguise his daughter's failed murder as suicide. She managed to escape; less fortunate souls have been found dead with their wrists slit or hanging from a rope.
In Diyarbakir and elsewhere in the south-east, new efforts are being made to protect vulnerable women through emergency hotlines and shelters for abused women. The first government-run refuge opened its doors outside Diyarbakir two years ago. Many of the residents are pregnant teenage rape victims, who risk being killed by relatives who blame them (and not their rapists) for their plight.
Still, male accomplices or perpetrators are often targeted, too. And honour crimes are not a uniquely Kurdish phenomenon, says Leyla Pervizat, an Istanbul-based expert. This is especially true of the fiercely conservative Black Sea region where “after the men are killed, their penises are cut off and stuffed in their mouths,” she adds laconically. What gives her hope is that the number of those willing to tip off the authorities about a planned murder is growing—so more lives are being saved. And many of the whistleblowers are male.