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.
IBTIMES: Can you estimate how many honor killings occur each year in Turkey? Is this figure declining, given the increased attention to the problem?
DURBAS: Due to the lack of reliable data and precise statistics, it is difficult to estimate the prevalence of honor crimes in Turkey. This is because violence against women and honor crimes are seen as a “private matter” and most honor-related killings go unreported or are usually recorded as an “accident” or “suicide.”
However, according to a study done by the General Directorate of National Security, between 2000 and 2005, 1,091 honor crimes were committed in Turkey.
But rural areas were not covered by this study and some cities such as Trabzon [a city in northern Turkey] have no record of honor crimes.
According to the recent government figures (February 2011) the murders of women in Turkey have increased fourteen-fold in seven years -- from 66 in 2002, to 953 in the first seven months of 2009.
Again, it has been reported in the media that “in the past seven months, one [human] rights organization has compiled more than 264 cases -- nearly one per day -- reported in the press, in which a woman was killed by a family member, husband, ex-husband, or partner”.
The Human Rights Association (IHD) stated that in 2010, 46 women were killed by men for reasons of "honor". This report said that at least 281 women and children reverted to the judiciary and the courts on grounds of sexual harassment and 182 women and children were raped.
Also, in Turkey there has been an increase in suicides among women and girls as families force them to kill themselves in order for the perpetrators to escape punishment, like going to prison.. It would not be surprising that women committed suicide to escape the abuse at the hands of their families and the state.
IBTIMES: Is it fair to say that the majority of honor killings in Turkey occur in the rural southeast, where Kurds dominate?
DURBAS: No, through the interviews I have conducted and the court cases I collected during my field-work, I can confirm that honor crimes occur across all regions in Turkey.
Honor crimes are not unique to the Kurdish communities. Linking honor crimes to Kurdish culture leads to the stigmatization of entire Kurdish communities and it “ethnicizes” honor crimes.
Such stigmatization disregards the fact that honor crimes take place in all regions, across all ethnic groups, social classes, professions and among all age groups in Turkey.
It is important to note that honor crimes are a particular manifestation of universal patriarchal violence against women and are used as a means of controlling women's lives and thereby maintaining male control over women.
IBTIMES: Do Turkish penal laws specifically refer to honor killings? If so, what is the punishment prescribed?
DURBAS: The new Turkish Penal Code was accepted in 2004 by Parliament to incorporate two provisions. Article 29 was called the Unjust Provocation Article (it is now called the Unjust Acts Article), which states that sentence reductions for unjust provocation do not apply to honor crimes.
However, it also states that this may not be the case in all honor killings, making it possible for granting room to “legitimize” honor crimes.
Secondly, Article 82, which deals with aggravating circumstances for homicide, now cover “killings in the name of custom” only. The provision's applicability is restricted by the use of the word “custom” instead of “honor,” as different types of honor crimes are not covered, leaving honor as a mitigating factor. This limits the scope of the crime and fails to include different kinds of honor killings.
Article 82 also allows for the “unjust act” provocation defense to be used in a case where a “killing in the name of custom” has occurred.
Moreover, Article 82 still allows for sentence reductions in customary killings as judges often require evidence of a family council. However, family council is not a necessary condition for such crimes and this practice of the judges makes it very difficult to prove in an honor crime case.
This limits the extent of the crime and fails to include different sorts of honor killings which are widespread throughout the country.
To summarize, the new Turkish Penal Code still allows leniency for the perpetrators of honor crimes. The prosecutions of honor crimes are suspended; and women's rights are denied. [The victims are often blamed for the crime and the judiciary, society, perpetrators and families “approve” of the crime.]
IBTIMES: What steps, if any, has Turkey's government taken to stamp out honor killing?
DURBAS: Certain reforms in the new Turkish Civil Code (2001) and Penal Code (2004) were met with conservative resistance from the Turkish parliament and some members of the government.
Before the Penal Code reforms were established, a working group was set up to work on the Reform of the Penal Code from a gender perspective with the participation of representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and bar associations, as well as academics from various regions of Turkey.
As Pinar Ilkkaracan of Women for Women′s Human Rights (WWHR)/New Ways [a Turkish women's and human rights NGO] who led the campaign explained: “after analyzing both the Turkish Penal Code in effect and the 2000 Penal Code Draft Law, the group concluded that both the law in effect and the draft law embodied the same discriminatory, patriarchal outlook and contained numerous provisions legitimizing the violation of women's human rights”.
However, when the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AK party) won the 2002 general election and came to power, it was obvious that the new government was not interested in working together with the working group and they ignored the draft of the law prepared prior to the election and formed their own commission to produce their own proposals.
All articles regarding women were taken verbatim from the old Turkish Penal Code into the government's proposed law excluding women from the Penal Code.
Then, the working group decided to launch a massive national campaign by including more than 120 NGOs from all around the country that supported its demands.
WWHR/New Ways has coordinated the Campaign for the Reform of the Penal Code from a Gender Perspective, which has resulted in over 35 amendments towards the safeguarding of women's sexual and bodily rights.
In May 2011, the Turkish Foreign Ministry signed an international treaty designed to prevent and combat violence against women, including honor crimes, during a meeting of the Council of Europe Ministers. As member states of the council ratify the treaty, they become obliged to take legislative or other measures to ensure that acts such as domestic violence, violence in public places, sexual harassment, forced marriage, honor crimes, rape and genital mutilation are criminalized.
Despite these major achievements, honor killing is still absent from the law. The denial of legal rights to women is still a major problem.
In the new Penal Code the clause on honor killings should explicitly refer to 'honor,' but honor is still absent and it refers to 'custom' only.
IBTIMES: Has Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the honor killing issue? If so, what are his views on it?
DURBAS: For his AK party, honor crimes are related to particular ethnic groups and regions in Turkey.
According to Erdogan, men and women are not equal. A couple of years ago, in fact, at conference in Istanbul he stated that he "did not believe" in gender equality. In September 2004, he proposed to recriminalize adultery and he called on Turkish women to have at least three children. For him and his party, women are defined as wives and mothers and their role is to produce healthy generations.
The AK party has been in power since 2002. Since that time, violence against women in Turkey has been on the increase.
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'; 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 – in which children are pressured to marry against their will – 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 Profesor 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 honour 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.
And we need to directly confront patriarchy in all its forms.