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Taking the 'honor' out of killing women

Turkey, under pressure from feminists and the European Union, works at a level unheard of in the Islamic world to end the ritualistic violence.

January 09, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY — 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.

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