Honor killings refer to the murder of people (primarily women) who have supposedly committed some act deemed to be a violation of honor.
Such acts may include marrying someone regarded as “unsuitable,” sex before marriage, demanding a divorce, a woman (married or unmarried) being raped, or even things as mundane and innocent as calling a radio station to ask for a song to be played on air, a girl seen talking to a boy.
Although honor killings are typically associated with Muslim countries like Turkey, Iraq and especially Pakistan, the practice has nothing to do with Islam. Rather, it is rooted in ancient tribal customs whereby the “honor” of a family or a whole village is represented by the morality, chastity and proper behavior of its women. Any perceived violation of that sense of honor often leads to deadly consequences.
Honor crimes are also widespread among Sikhs and Hindus in India, across North Africa, and have even been reported in Eastern Europe and Brazil. It is also on the increase in Western Europe and North America.
Nonetheless, Turkey is a key focal point in the battle against honor crimes. Straddling Europe and Asia, the vast Turkish nation enjoys a surging economy and is becoming a dominant regional power. As it continues to modernize (and one day hopes to join the European Union), the ancient practice of honor killing remains a blot on its society.
International Business Times spoke with Bingul Durbas, a doctoral researcher in Sociology/Gender Studies at the University of Sussex in England, about honor killings in Turkey.
She has been researching honor crimes in Turkey. She is also affiliated with the Humboldt University zu Berlin in the Diversity and Social Conflict department, working as a PhD researcher for the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development-supported project on honor crimes.
She has also acted as an “honor killing advisor” to Scotland Yard during the high-profile Tulay Goren case in the UK in 2009.
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IBTIMES: Have Kurdish politicians committed themselves to wiping out the practice of honor killing in their regions?
DURBAS: They do not have a policy on honor crimes.
For Kurdish politicians the most important issue is the Kurdish question (i.e., nationalism, culture, language, etc.).
It is within this perspective that Kurdish politicians deal with gender equality.
However, the Kurdish-dominated Democratic Society Party has implemented new policies in some municipalities of southeastern Turkey to prevent violence against women.
For example, if a municipal staff-member mistreats his wife and children, half of his salary will be paid to his wife. Also, if an employee resigned, any pension and payments will be paid to his officially married wife, in case he has polygamous marriage.
IBTIMES: Who, if anyone, in Turkey, “supports” the practice of honor killing?
DURBAS: These dishonourable crimes are widespread in Turkey. Perpetrators of honor crimes are rarely prosecuted. Protective measures are minimal.
Honor crimes are planned and premeditated and tend to be committed demonstratively in public. And the crime is in a collective nature with the perpetrator(s) including fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, sisters and mothers and by the community through gossiping.
The perpetrators are often regarded very highly in prison; their feet are washed by their fellow inmates. Perpetrators are often looked after financially by the victims’ own families.
IBTIMES: Has the European Union demanded the eradication of honor killings as a requirement for Turkey joining the EU?
DURBAS: In order to become a member of the EU, Turkey must comply with the entire body of EU legislation.
The EU deals with honor crimes through the section on Human Rights and the Protection of Minority Rights and it encourages its members to comply with the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental freedoms.
However, it seems that the EU was satisfied with the Turkish state’s approach to address honor crimes even though the women’s movement in Turkey campaigned during the Penal Code reform that the clause should refer to ‘honor’, not to ‘custom’.
I would also like to add that through the expert witness statements I have written and through my networks in Europe, I find that since the modification of the new Turkish Penal Code, a high number of asylum claims for women seeking asylum due to potential honor killings are now refused. This is very worrying as women are being abandoned to violence.
IBTIMES: Are there any male victims of honor killings in Turkey?
DURBAS: Yes, through the court cases I have collected I can confirm that there are male victims of honor killings, too.
As Professor Yakin Erturk, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women and Professor of the Department of Sociology at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara, explains: “These crimes may not be exclusively committed against females, but they are almost exclusively committed to maintain a rigid, heterosexual, patriarchal gender order that [enforce] female subordination to and male compliance with the prevailing norms. The first case occurred in July 2008: Ahmet Yildiz was the first gay honor killing victim.”
IBTIMES: There have been incidents of honor killings in Germany, which has a large Turkish immigrant population. What is the penalty upon conviction there?
DURBAS: According to a recent news report, a German court gave a Kurdish man a life sentence for the honor killing of his daughter Gulsum Semin in January 2010.
The news report goes on to state that: “The state court at Kleve [in northern Germany] sentenced Gulsum’s brother, 20, to nine and a half years in youth prison, just short of the maximum youth sentence of 10 years. He and the victim were two out of three triplets. He had confessed to the killing after he was arrested. His helper, 37, was jailed for seven and a half years.”
“Judges said they were convinced the only motive to murder Gulsum had been that she was no longer a virgin and had secretly undergone an abortion.”
However, according to a recent study that I have been working on as a researcher, titled ‘Religion, Culture and the Politicization of Honor-Related Violence: A Critical Analysis of Media and Policy Debates in Western Europe and North America’ (Korteweg, Yurdakul 2010); German discourse in media and parliamentary debates stigmatizes Islam and “backward” immigrant communities as being responsible for honor crimes.
This is the current trend in immigrant-receiving countries in Europe and North America and it is extremely dangerous.
In Germany, honor killing is often discussed in connection with forced marriage. Recently, Germany criminalized force marriages and it is now a crime punishable by five years in prison. However, policy development on honor killings remains limited.
IBTIMES: I understand abortion is legal in Turkey. If an unmarried woman becomes pregnant, can she take that route to avoid being killed?
DURBAS: This is yet another face of the discrimination against women in Turkey.
According to the law, women in Turkey are legally entitled to have an abortion until the tenth week. If the woman is married, consent of the husband is required. But the law and regulations are not implemented.
I must stress again that the non-application of the laws and women’s lack of access to health care and legal measures are major problems in Turkey.
First of all, there are no safe and legal abortion services available especially in rural health centers. And some of these facilities refuse to carry out legal abortions unless the patient presents a marriage certificate.
Secondly and more importantly, in Turkey, honor is applied to control women and women’s sexuality and virginity: thus, if an unmarried or divorced woman gets pregnant (sex outside marriage, including rape) or if she is not virgin before or at the time of her marriage (which are unacceptable), the woman might be killed to prevent her from shaming her family in order to “cleanse” their honor.
A woman might also be forced to go through a virginity examination to find out whether she is virgin or not if she is suspected of immoral behavior.
The practice of virginity examinations are widespread and performed by the family and state institutions such as the police and judges to determine whether or not the woman or girl in question is indeed a virgin.
IBTIMES: When Kemal Ataturk sought to “modernize” Turkey, did he address the subject of honor killing?
DURBAS: As Professor Deniz Kandiyoti [School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London] puts it: “Turkish women are emancipated but unliberated.”
According to the Kemalists, modernization was equal to “Westernization.” Thus, representing the “ideal Turkish woman” as modern and secular was a significant component of Turkey’s modernization project and nation-building process.
The “ideal woman” image has been used as an instrument to move the society to the level of Western societies. These reforms were aimed to make women a better wife and mother and instead of liberating them, these reforms required women to remain asexual and chaste beings in public. Women were presented as the honorable representatives of the state. More importantly, the modernizing policies did not aim to tackle the patriarchy and its role in perpetuating and maintaining violence against women and honor crimes.
Secondly, the Kemalist modernization project was mainly centered on the urban areas and failed to reach rural areas.
IBTIMES: Do you think we will see fewer honor killings going forward as Turkey’s economy keeps improving and the country becomes a regional power?
DURBAS: In order to eliminate violence against women in general and so called honor crimes in particular we first need to recognize the issue and frame honour crimes as a particular manifestation of an universal patriarchal gender regime without “essentializing” the culture and “stigmatizing” any specific ethnic group, adopting from Professor Barbara Einhorn of the University of Sussex without creating insiders and outsiders.
And we need to directly confront patriarchy in all its forms.