In Turkey, 'Honor Killing' Follows Families to Cities
Women Are Victims Of Village Tradition

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 8, 2001; Page A01

ISTANBUL -- By Sait Kina's way of thinking, his 13-year-old daughter brought nothing but dishonor to his family: She talked to boys on the street, she ran away from home, she was the subject of neighborhood gossip.

Two months ago, when she tried to run away yet again, Kina grabbed a kitchen knife and an ax and stabbed and beat the girl until she lay dead in the blood-smeared bathroom of the family's Istanbul apartment.

He then commanded one of his daughters-in-law to clean up the mess. When his two sons came home from work 14 hours later, he ordered them to dispose of the 5-foot-3 corpse, which had been wrapped in a carpet and a blanket. The girl's head had been so mutilated, police said, it was held together by a knotted cloth.

"I fulfilled my duty," Kina told police after he was arrested, according to investigators' reports presented in the court case against the father and his two sons. "We killed her for going out with boys."

Dilber Kina's death was an "honor killing," a practice steeped in village traditions that is occurring with increasing frequency in cities across Turkey and other developing countries where massive migrations to urban areas have left families struggling to reconcile modern lifestyles and liberties with generations-old rural customs.

As members of Turkey's younger generation, especially girls, become better educated and more exposed to the world through television and city life, they are increasingly rebelling against parents who cling to traditions that prohibit socializing with the opposite sex, choosing a husband or visiting freely with friends outside the home.

The mounting social pressures on both generations have led to an alarming increase in murders, beatings and other violence within families, as well as suicides among urban and rural girls and women, according to police, women's organizations and social researchers.

"Honor crimes are happening all over Turkey," said Pinar Ilkkaracan, director of a human rights group in Istanbul that campaigns for changes in Turkish laws that discriminate against women. "Honor killings are the tip of the iceberg. What is under the surface is terrifying."

Researchers estimate at least 200 girls and women are murdered each year by their families in Turkey; the real numbers, they say, may be far greater. Women's organizations say their estimates -- and their conclusion that honor crimes are on the rise -- are based on reports from local organizations and activists scattered across the country and from local newspapers that document cases investigated by police. Accurate statistics do not exist because police records do not break down homicides into specific types, and honor crimes often go unreported.

The United Nations reported that as many as 5,000 women and girls worldwide were killed last year by family members, "many of them for the 'dishonor' of having been raped."

While many of the countries experiencing the surge in honor crimes are predominantly Muslim, such as Turkey, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt and Jordan, incidents are also increasing in nations as disparate as Brazil, Italy, Uganda and Britain, the United Nations found.

In Turkey, honor crimes have become part of a national debate over women's rights. Perpetrators of such crimes are legally permitted shorter prison terms than those who commit similar crimes for other reasons. Sentences for rape are eased if the victim is not a virgin. And a man, as head of a household, can determine whether his wife can hold a job.

Under pressure from women's rights groups and the European Union, which is considering Turkey's bid for membership, the legislature is expected to vote in the coming months on significant changes to the country's civil code. Lawmakers are also facing growing calls from women's groups to amend criminal statutes that give judges leeway to consider local custom and tradition as factors in levying penalties for a variety of crimes. But efforts to amend even the most outdated laws have become mired in the politics of competing factions torn, like many families, between preserving tradition and fostering greater equality between men and women in Turkish society.

Turkey is one of the world's most rapidly urbanizing countries, having shifted in less than half a century from a country where 75 percent of the population lived in rural areas to one in which the same proportion lives in cities.

"People put their traditions in their luggage, along with their pillows and sheets," said Mehmet Farac, who wrote a book on honor crimes in Turkey and has conducted some of the most definitive research on the subject. "Therefore they cannot break their ties with their society and traditions. Sometimes a girl wearing jeans or lipstick, combing her hair, or the way she looks in a mirror can make the family uncomfortable."

Dilber Kina was 5 when her family left its farm in Siirt, a village in the southeast, and moved to Istanbul eight years ago. The men found work driving taxis to support an extended family with 15 members crammed into one small first-floor apartment.

The more Dilber tried to escape the noisy, crowded living conditions and her domineering father, the angrier he became. "He was going crazy," said Birgul Kina, Dilber's sister-in-law, who mopped the blood off the bathroom floor, fixtures and walls. "She was always running away from the house."

Asked why Sait Kina killed his daughter, she replied, "He did it all for his dignity."

Dilber's mother, Maynur, refused to discuss the slaying. "She's gone, she's dead, it's finished," she said, wiping her hands together as though she were brushing off dust.

Frequently, honor killings are conducted in an even more calculated manner, according to women's rights lawyers and police officials. In the feudal, patriarchal society of rural villages, where a woman's honor is a family's only measurable commodity in an impoverished community, male family members gather to vote on the death of women. They also decide who will carry out the killing -- usually someone under the age of 18 who will be treated more leniently under the law.

In Turkey, the killing of a family member draws the most stern penalty allowable: death or life in prison. But if a judge rules there was provocation for the killing -- such as a question of honor -- the penalty can be reduced. If the defendant is a minor and behaves during the trial and detention in jail, the penalty is frequently cut to two years or less.

"No witnesses speak, so the court has to believe what the perpetrator says, and he gets the minimum charge, although it's homicide and it's in cold blood" said Canan Arin, who heads the women's rights center of the Istanbul Bar Association.

Last April, two sisters age 12 and 14 and their 17-year-old cousin were allegedly shot dead by male relatives because they were seen socializing with boys. The extended family had moved to the outskirts of Istanbul from the eastern province of Bitlis five years earlier.

"They were children; they were very young," said Ismail Kaya, a relative not implicated in the killings. "They [the accused] are young too. One of them is only 17. I feel sorry for everyone."

Kaya added, however: "This is our tradition. Tradition has to be followed."

On an autumn day two years ago, in a village in rural eastern Turkey, the grandfather, father and uncle of a 25-year-old woman held a meeting. They were Sunni Muslims and believed the woman had dishonored their family by marrying a man from the rival Alevi Muslim sect against the father's wishes.

The father walked out of the room, called to his 16-year-old son, draped his arm around the boy's shoulders and handed him a rifle, according to the son, who described the events on the condition that his name not be used for fear of revenge by family members.

The teenager, who could barely hold the gun, was stunned. Only after spending nearly four months teaching the youth to hunt and shoot did his father issue the order: "Your sister has done wrong. You have to kill her."

The father continued: "You are young. This is your task. You will only stay in prison a few weeks. We'll buy you more new clothes. Your uncle in Germany will bring you to Germany."

The first time the boy went to the village where his sister lived, he returned home and told his father, "I can't do it. I won't." His father beat him and ordered him back.

A few days later he walked to the village, said hello to his brother-in-law outside the house, went inside, spotted his sister doing housework with her back to him and pulled the trigger.

The youth spent 11 months in prison before a judge released him six months ago, even though a final verdict has not been rendered in his case.

"My crime was ignorance," he said in an anguished voice, adding that he is now hiding from his family. "The criminals in this case were my father and grandfather. They forced me to do it."

The clash between traditional and modern lifestyles also has driven up suicide rates among girls and young women in cities and towns across Turkey, according to police and social workers. Although Turkish authorities keep no such statistics, women's groups and newspapers have reported dozens of suicides in the last year of young women unable to face family pressures.

Esin Sahin was one of them. Four years ago she ran away from her parents' apartment in an immigrant community in the Istanbul hills near the Bosporus Strait to marry the man she loved, a Sunni Muslim. Her father, an Alevi Muslim, was enraged.

"We wanted her to be with someone from our own sect," said Erengul Sahin, 43, her mother. For four years, the mother said, she never visited her daughter. When the daughter began having marital problems, relatives told her she had brought shame on her family once and should not do so again by leaving her husband.

On Dec. 14, 10 days before her 22nd birthday, Esin hanged herself from a gas pipe in her Istanbul apartment.

"If we hadn't been here, this wouldn't have happened," her mother lamented, even though the family had moved out of the village years ago.

But Esin's cousin, Nurcan Fidan, 22, a schoolteacher listening to the mother's account, said it is time her parents' generation changed its attitudes.

"If we stayed in the village, we'd all be farmers or farmers' wives," Fidan said. "We wouldn't grow as a country or as a society. In the world there is good and evil. This is life."

Researcher Yesim Forsyth contributed to this report.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company