Taking the ‘honor’ out of killing women

Times Staff Writer

Desperately unhappy, 21-year-old Sahe Fidan left the husband she despised and sought refuge in her parents’ home. They refused to take her in. A married woman can leave her husband only in a coffin, they told her.

Fidan returned to the husband, and she left him in a coffin. A few weeks ago, she was found hanged in the bathroom, her infant son strapped to her back with a sheet.

Her corpse was discovered when the baby, unharmed, began to cry. Fidan had committed suicide.


Or had she?

After her death in a village in southeastern Turkey, another version circulated. Some activists and officials suspect that Fidan may have joined the ranks of Turkish women forced to kill themselves, or whose slayings are disguised to look self-inflicted.

The killing of women and girls by male relatives who think the females have brought shame to the family’s honor is an atrocity that has plagued Turkey and other Islamic countries for generations. Thousands of women have died, been attacked or compelled to commit suicide in so-called honor killings.

In Turkey, the government has finally taken action. Under pressure from an invigorated women’s movement and eager to win approval from the European Union, the government has launched a major campaign against honor killings, at a level and with a breadth virtually unheard of in the Islamic world.

Turkish imams have joined pop music stars and soccer celebrities to produce TV spots and billboard ads condemning all forms of violence against women. Broaching a topic that remains largely taboo in many conservative societies, the nation’s top Islamic authority has declared honor killing a sin.

Late last year, jail sentences for men and boys who commit the crime were stiffened, and new provisions in the penal code make it harder for a court to reduce sentences. (As recently as 10 months ago, in a typical case, the life sentence of a young man who had killed his sister was substantially reduced because the judges decided he had been “provoked.” He had buried her up to her neck in rocks after she was impregnated in a rape.)

In cities and towns with the highest honor killing rates, officials working with advocacy groups are holding town hall meetings and setting up rescue teams and hotlines for endangered women and girls.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the head of a conservative, Islamist-rooted party, went before a gathering of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in November to argue for better treatment of women and to condemn honor killings as a scourge that must be eradicated from Islamic societies.

“We can say these murders are isolated incidents, yet we cannot turn a blind eye to such inhuman acts that are largely the product of ignorance,” he said. “Discrimination against women is worse than racism. We must reject the treatment of women as second-class beings.”

The challenge is enormous: fighting archaic customs based not so much on religion as on deep-seated tradition and feudal clan systems.

Many of the experts, social workers and officials involved speak of a new era of openness and willingness to confront the problem, but they caution that it will be a long time before attitudes are changed. There is no indication that the number of killings or forced suicides has dropped, though advocates say they feel they now have a better arsenal.

“On paper, we seem to have achieved a lot,” Fatma Sahin, a lawmaker with the ruling party who oversaw the drafting of a 300-page report on honor killings, said in an interview in Ankara, the capital. “But when we go out into the field, we recognize that a lot more needs to be done.”

A significant segment of the Turkish population defines all-important honor in terms of the chastity and obedience of each female member of a family. As “owners” of women, men must defend honor by safeguarding their bodies and sexuality.

In a United Nations poll conducted last year, 17% of Turkish men said they approved of honor killing. Many more approved of lesser punishments, one of the most common being the slicing off of a woman’s nose.

Such attitudes persist in many segments of the Turkish population, especially in the Kurdish southeast. But local activism in behalf of women is also flourishing.

“This is a part of the country where it is not accepted that women work or travel, where they are not valued as individuals,” said Canan Hancer Basturk, deputy governor of Diyarbakir. “But girls see the other side, modern Turkey, on TV or in the media, and with the rise in literacy, people’s expectations are rising.

“So they want to break out of their shells, and that’s where the clash comes between girls and their families, and for some boys too,” she said. “ ‘Honor’ is another way of clinging to values and resisting change.”

Alarmed by the soaring number of women seeking help, the Diyarbakir government opened the region’s first proper shelter for abused women in 2005.

Behind a metal gate on the forlorn northern outskirts of the city, the low-slung complex houses about 50 women. Its location is discreet and, theoretically at least, kept secret out of fear of attack by angry relatives. (The Times was given access on the condition that the women’s names not be published.)

One resident was a tall, fair 16-year-old who said her father had ordered her to kill herself.

He had arranged for her marriage to a man she wanted nothing to do with, and she went along at first, long enough to become pregnant. Then she left her husband, hoping to join her true love. But he had married someone else. She returned to her parents’ home.

Incensed, her father labeled her damaged goods and gave her a single option: suicide.

She fled to the police and was placed in the shelter, where she gave birth.

Many residents of the shelter were young, in their teens or early 20s, and had been raped; several were toting babies, the product of the rapes. A woman who is raped is often blamed for the crime and risks punishment, even death, at the hands of her relatives. Sometimes she is given the “option” of marrying her rapist, on the theory that no one else will want her and that the marriage wipes away the shame.

Only one of the rape victims interviewed said she thought she could go home again. “My parents know it wasn’t my fault,” she said. The woman was at the shelter under court order because the rapist was loose and considered a threat.

Sacide Akkaya, an official with KA-MER, the leading women’s organization in southeastern Turkey, has seen a progression in the women she works with, from a resignation to violence as a part of their hard lives to a timid but growing willingness to challenge the status quo. It enables social workers to save more people, she said.

“I wouldn’t say the volume of incidents has been reduced, but it is less secret now,” Akkaya said. “The relatives of the women are often the ones who will tip off authorities, or maybe the neighbors will call. Even the men are starting to get it -- many of the tipsters are men. That’s what gives us so much hope.”

Among the hundreds of honor killings in Turkey, it is impossible to quantify the forced suicides. A special U.N. rapporteur, Yakin Erturk, was dispatched to the country’s south last year to investigate a rash of suicides. She concluded that some probably had been “instigated” and cited a host of contributing factors: forced and early marriages, denial of reproductive rights, poverty, migration and displacement, among others.

Victims say they’ve been ordered by relatives to kill themselves, locked in rooms with a gun or rope, watched over while they were expected to slit their wrists. The infraction can be as slight as a desire to work or the wearing of jeans, the sentence often decided in a family council.

Handan Coskun, a former journalist, started a women’s center in Diyarbakir in response to suicides she began investigating several years ago, when the rate in southeastern Turkey was two to three times the national rate. There were dozens of cases, many not related to honor issues. One consistency was that far more females committed or attempted suicide than males, which is the opposite of the worldwide pattern.

Women typically feel isolation or alienation more acutely than men, Coskun said, especially if the family has been transplanted from its rural village to a city. Tens of thousands of families, primarily Kurds, were forced to move into southeastern cities during the Turkish army’s fight against Kurdish guerrillas in the 1980s and ‘90s.

At not quite 5 feet tall, Coskun has had to shout down angry fathers as she rescued women and girls, or gone toe-to-toe with 17 armed clansmen who invaded her office looking for their female relative. She believes she and her team have prevented 17 killings in the last year.

“When we intervene with a family that seems likely to kill a daughter, we have to be very tough to show the same toughness that the family shows,” she said.

Turkey’s failure to improve the status of women has long been one of the impediments to its integration into Europe. Outsiders are watching to see whether the latest steps will bring real change.

“There is no evidence yet that we are changing the mentality,” said Meltem Agduk, a Turkish expert on honor killings who works with the U.N. “The important thing is that people are not so quiet about the issue. And because of that, change will be more rapid than it has in the past.”


Special correspondent Amberin Zaman contributed to this report.