Honor killings — namus cinayetleri — are amongst the most shocking crimes in Turkey today. When a girl’s behavior has been deemed to besmirch the family’s honor, she may be killed by a male relative.
Often this is not a heat-of-the-moment crime: the family members may gather together to form a family court, pass the death sentence on the young woman and nominate a young male relative to carry out the deed. He faces ostracism from his family unless he follows through.
These horrendous episodes are sadly not few and far between. The inside front page of many national newspapers — page three, the blood and death page — regularly tells the tale of a wife murdered by her husband, a mother killed by her son, a girl whose life is cut short by her older brother or uncle.
For those who come from the parts of the country where honor is a way of life, the code that dictates a life must be taken is not incomprehensible. But for most of the rest of Turkish society, such events are as horrific, and the mindset that leads to this barbarity is just as impenetrable, as it is to European and American observers.
Journalist Ayşe Önal set out to try to understand what led men to kill their own flesh and blood by interviewing men serving a prison sentence for this crime. As a controversial figure — having been variously blacklisted by governments and appearing on death lists — she experienced some difficulty in gaining the necessary permissions. But granted they were, and over the course of several years she interviewed 18 men.
The book “Honour Killing” is their story. But it is as much the story of the ladies whose lives were tragically cut short.
Some may criticize the translation of such a book into English, as it exposes the darker, hidden side of society. But, as Joan Smith points out in her excellent introduction, with the migration of populations, the Iraqi Kurds and Pakistanis have brought this code to Europe with them, just as the migrants from Eastern Turkey brought it to the gecekondus of İstanbul.
The UK was shocked in 2007 when honor killings hit South London and Birmingham. A survey of village women in 1999 showed that 74 percent of them believed their husband would kill them if they had an affair. When such families move, whether it be to big cities in Turkey, or to the UK, Germany or Belgium, they take their honor codes with them. Without an understanding of the ways of the new communities, the police, teachers and social workers — those who have a special role in society to protect the weak and vulnerable — fail to pick up on the tell-tale warning signs.
One victim of an honor killing in the UK had previously gone to the police asking for help as she feared for her life; she had been turned away, dismissed by them as “hysterical, dramatic and calculating.” If the policewoman she spoke to had read Önal’s book, she may have handled differently this situation that seemed so foreign to her.
As an outsider looking in, our first reaction is revulsion. This can be swiftly followed by anger at the restriction of freedoms: many argue that it is not so much a question of “honor” as a question of “control”; or by incredulity at what Smith describes as the “fragility of a masculine identity which depends on other people’s behavior” and on their opinion.
The strength of Önal’s book is that, purely and simply, she tells the stories. There is no detailed sociological or anthropological analysis of the situations. Just the stories of the families concerned, told by the men themselves. Hearing the crimes recounted first-hand is, as Önal says, spine-chilling. It makes your blood run cold. It is just harrowing.
Although it is subtitled “Stories of Men Who Killed,” the heroines of the stories are the victims themselves. The author subtly hints at this by entitling each chapter not after the killer, but after his victim. Önal is careful not to be melodramatic; she does not dwell on the gory details, but, still, this is not a book for the faint-hearted. The stories are heart-breaking and haunting. That they are true is terrifying. The fact that many women and girls, behind closed doors, are living their lives in similar conditions of abuse and fear is almost too much for the reader to bear.
Your heart goes out to successful little Remziye. Beaten because she wants to go to secondary school (her elder brothers did not), she doesn’t want to be married off at a young age to a relative, as was the case with her mother. Her definition of freedom is “not being beaten, and knowing that when you walk past your older brother he won’t beat you.”
There are three main questions that this book answers. Why do they only kill the girls, and not the boys, involved in the relationships? Killing the boys would lead to a blood-feud between families. “If they only kill the girls, it won’t start any new problems between the two families.”
Who are the victims? The message of the prison interviews, over and over again, is that the victims are not just the girl tragically murdered, but the whole family including the perpetrator. Murat, serving time for killing his mother, states that “we are murderers with our bodies, but victims with our souls. … justice punishes our bodies, our crime punishes our souls.” I almost began to understand the “why” with Murat’s story. His hopes and dreams were shattered when he was refused permission to marry the girl he loved because her family knew his mother had been having an affair for many years, and she was beaten badly for wanting to marry the son of a woman deemed profligate.
Other victims are young children who witness their mother’s death at the hand of a relative: “He remembers that the baby, who was not yet able to walk or crawl, was terrified by the gunshot and screamed for all she was worth.” Also, there are family members who do not fully concur with the sentence passed. Ayşe said of a young man who could do nothing to stop his father kill his sister, “Never again would I witness so much grief in any one person.”
As to the question, who are the murderers? according to one prisoner, “the real murderers are the ones who tell our women to modernize and break with our ways.” One is left wondering how much it is the men themselves, and how much society. The gossips in the neighborhood, those who broke windows of a “house of a harlot,” those who applauded the gunshot, an uncle who incites his nephew to murder, a mother who gives her chilling approval with the words “my brave son” — all these played their part. Önal herself says, when interviewing one man, “I felt like an accessory to a crime.”
“Honour Killing” will leave you shocked and disturbed, and longing for a breakthrough in society to bring about change.