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Varia »

Honour killing – symptom of a more serious disease

dr Joanna Bocheńska

24-04-2009 / JB

Honour killing is nowadays one of the most disputed and difficult problems connected with the situation of many societies, especially in the Middle East and among immigrant communities in Western Europe.From the European point of view there is no doubt that honour killing is a terrible and unacceptable practice, but do we ever try to think why the attitude of people involved in it is so different? Why do they seem to accept the murder of their children and sisters in the name of honour?

Women from VAKAD

Women from VAKAD

And why do European journalists commenting this issue never try to answer these questions, but are eager to stigmatize adherents of a religion and culture so different from their own? Is it so natural and obvious to the Western people that immigrants and especially Muslims are so cruel and stupid to follow some medieval tribal practice even here, in the civilised Europe?

Honour killing is defined as the murder of a family or clan member committed by some other members of this family or clan, when the murderers (and potentially the wider community) believe the victim to have brought dishonour upon the family. “Bringing dishonour” is a dangerously wide term, which can mean not only having sexual contacts before marriage, but sometimes also things like wearing too provocative clothes, talking to strangers on the street or refusing to agree to an arranged marriage. Victims of honour killings are predominantly women but there have also been quite many cases of killing men in communities that practice honour killkings. Bringing dishonour often also means “being raped” when woman is thought guilty, especially if she turns out to be pregnant.

The mission of killing is often thrust upon the youngest mature representative of the clan, who is belived to get the most lenient treatment if a law suit follows. In some countries (e.g. Jordan, Syria) civil codes do not consider honour killing a crime or just prefer not to punish the murderer if the victim was an unfaithful wife or if the murder was an honour killing. On the other hand severe punishment implemented recently in Turkey (life inprisonment) leads to an incrisingly high rate of suicides commited by women under the pressure of their families. Women are told: “if you love your father and family you should kill yourself to cleanse our family’s honour of the shame”, and many young women, especially in the East, do as they are told.

In Turkey honour killing occurs mostly in eastern provinces inhabited by Kurds (North Kurdistan). According to reserch done in Dicle University in Diyarbakir (Turkish Kurdistan) honour killings are also committed by well educated people and the practice enjoys social approval. The research supervised by Mazlum Bağly, Assistant Proffesor at the Dicle University, shows that society gives honour killing executioners silent support. No one from among the interviewed 180 perpetrators of honor killings (research have been done in 44 prisons) regretted their deed. The fact that there were also well educated people among the perpetrators proves it is wrong to believe that this kind of murder is committed only by “benighted people”.

According to Zelal Özgökçe of VAKAD (Van Women Association) the situation is very serious because there are no significant government initiatives to help people overcome the problem. Women who feel endangered have nowhere to escape. Police and soldiers prefer not to intervene in Kurdish family affairs and they often have nothing against this kind of crime being part of the same society of Turkey. Women who decide to report threats to the police or army are considered traitors by their families and need to hide. It is also very difficult to establish if the particular death was caused by honour killing or not. Most of such crimes are recorded as accidents or suicide and till recently Turkish authorieties had not been willing to examine them more thoroughly. Zelal Özgökçe says that there are some signs that should make police more suspicious. For example if a family in which a young woman died recently is not observing the 40 days mourning period, or if her grave in the cementery is situated further away from those of other family members the death should be investigated more thoroughly. Women involved in VAKAD sometimes carry our their own investigation and alarm the police if necesary. From Zelal’s point of view the most important thing to do is to launch a big campaign against honour killing, which would help to reinterpret the unfortunate honour (namus in Turkish) term.
- VAKAD has launched some educational programs but we are a small organisation – says Zelal, – and actions against honour killing should get governmental support, more publicity and be widespread.

A court in Van has recently sentenced a whole family in a case of honour killing of a 16 years old Naile, condemned in 2006. Life sentences have been given to the victim’s mother, father, two uncles and the brother who become murderer and shot his sister. One of uncles was jailed for 16 years and eight months for failing to report the murder. This case also proved the lack of security mesures that could help to avoid such tragedies. Naile, who had been brought to the hospital with severe headache and turned out to be pregnant, was killed by her family after being released from hospital with her new-born child. Doctors who were alarmed by the family treats and the attempt to give bribe in order to take the girl back home called the police. But after Naile gave birth to a child the prosecutor agreed to send her home after her father had promised that she would not be hurt. However after some time she was killed by her brother and only thanks to the brother’s wife who decided to testify it was posible to accuse not only him but other familly members including Naile’s mother. The doctors and the prosecutor did their best, but still there is no way of effective protecting women in such cases.

In Turkish press we can find quite a number of articles stigmatising this gloomy tradition which is often identified with “Kurdish culture.” Similar articles are written in Europe, but here the cruelty of honour killings is often attributed to Muslims and their culture, or to primitive patriarchal societies of South America. And here comes the right moment to ask why are this awful tribal and medieval customs still alive and believed as justified and correct? I am surprised to discover that the majority of journalists seem not to think about it at all and never pose this question. Murderers do not look like blody beasts from horrors. It is not enough to classify honour killing as “culturally conditioned” or “civilisationally backward” because this terms do not actually mean anything, but serve as useful labels just to push the responsibility to others.

Nuran Yılmaz of Diyarbakir Kurdish Youth Organisation (Kurd Ciwan) protests against calling honour killing a Kurdish tradition:
- Why do you talk only about crimes and identify them as “Kurdish culture”? It has nothing in common with Kurdish culture, in which women were always held in high esteem, and should not suffer or be injured. But Kurdish society is backward, living in getto of Eastern Turkey – a country that does not recognise Kurdish identity. We are second category citizens and accusing us of honour killing and cruelity is just one more way of scapegoating us. Honour killing accurs not only in the Kurdish society but also in other backward societies in which women and children always suffer as its weakest part.
Listening to Nuran’s point of view makes me wonder why some elements of the traditional culture consider women as worthy of esteem and protection, while others justify cruelty against them. Maybe if we can find not only darkness, but also light in “backward cultures” we can also find the efective way to resolve the problem?

There are also two other things worth considering in Nuran’s comment. It seems that honour killing is in Turkey not only a big problem but also a way of pouring dislike and prejudiece onto the Kurdish people, who are often accused of being stupid, backward and unwilling to accept the “great western civilisation from the Turkish hands.” The western part of the country shifts responsibility to eastern part and its backwardness, which is also harmful and unjust. The Kurdish reaction is to “close the gate” and not to recognise honour killing as a problem but just escape it. Isn’t it similar to the reaction of many immigrants in Europe who when adhere this accusation takes it as a next knife plunged by western civilisation into their culture and do not want change anything in their tradition becoming more and more close and ksenofobic?

But the Kurdish “benighted culture” has a lot of light in it. This light was condemned to death by the Turkish nationalist ideology that gave rise to the Turkish Republic in 1923. What we refer to as “human values” is an unqestionable part of the Kurdish oral tradition – stories that by centuries have been told by Kurdish dengbej, or storytellers. Contemporary Kurdish literature and art can be used as a bridge between the past and the future, the East and the West, helping people to resolve new problems in the changing world. Many Kurdish and Turkish writers discuss the problem of honour, showing that the main question is whether honour should be the main value in the hierarchy, or maybe this value is love?
Suleyman Demir, chairman of the Kurdish Writers Association in Sweden, believes that literature and culture can be something that makes the eastern militaristic culture more democratic, mild and humane. The problem is how to make it more accesible to the Kurdish people who for years have suffered forced assimilation and fighting. Maybe honour killing as an unquestionable part of backward culture is also a sign that people do not want to change and become modern in a way that the rest of world requires them to be? Honour and protection of honour becomes the way to protect their own identity even at cost of life of the most beloved? And maybe our Western world sould perceive not only “the medieval darkness” of Eastern newcomers, but should also help them to find the “light”, especially by doing some beautiful, impresive and valuable part of “backward cultures” more visible and audible.

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