A Struggle on Two Fronts

Human Rights Dialogue 2.10 (Fall 2003): "Violence Against Women"

Zehra F. Arat responds to Leylâ Pervizat's article "In the Name of Honor." (Use the link in the right sidebar to read "In the Name of Honor.")

Leylâ Pervizat aptly describes honor killings as a custom with no religious foundations. This ancient Mediterranean practice is wrongly associated with Islam, and consequently its persistence in a secular state like Turkey is deemed puzzling. Since the cases in Turkey are concentrated in the less-developed southeastern region, the media and urban elite consider them a symptom of residual traditionalism that resists the state’s modernization efforts.

Pervasive patriarchal norms and values lie at the core of this issue. Regardless of their constitutional equality and legal position as equal citizens, culturally women are treated as dependents of, or “minors” under the custody and protection of, men. Thus, violations of women’s rights by men who are responsible for them and care for them are not seen as violations or are not treated seriously.

As extrajudicial executions, honor killings undermine the rule of law, both by privatizing its legislating and enforcement and by employing a subjective, arbitrary definition of “the crime” committed by women. Thus, they constitute offenses against the state, yet the state is mute on this matter. In fact, the reduced sentences often given to perpetrators of honor killings implicitly condone the act rather than serve as deterrents.

The state also upholds the same values about the importance of “preserving honor” by introducing separate legal categories for assaults. The Turkish Penal Code defines crimes that involve sexual violence against women as “felonies against public decency and family order,” while other forms of assault against the person are placed under “felonies against individuals.” Within this “family-oriented” framework of the law, a rapist would be pardoned if he agreed to marry his victim. Moreover, females’ virginity and the honor of married women are upheld as public values and concerns in both the penal code and the Law on Police Duty and Authority, in which minimum and maximum sentences for sexual assaults vary according to the marital status and virginity of the victim, and the police are charged with protecting honor and chastity against “public morality and rules of modesty.” (Having such a duty, however, does not prevent the police from abusing their power by sexually assaulting women in custody or threatening them with rape during interrogation sessions. At the same time, the obsession with honor and the classification of women according to their marital or virginity status allow the police to subject women in custody to the forced “virginity tests.”)

Honor killings are an effort to control women’s sexual behavior and restrict their sexual freedom. However, the control stemming from the desire to prevent women’s immodest behavior that could bring “shame” to the family, of which killing is the most extreme example, manifests itself in many additional ways: many girls and women are subjected to confinement, intimidation, and physical abuse that force them to live in perpetual terror. Such restrictions violate a whole set of women’s rights in addition to the right to life, ranging from freedom of movement to freedom from torture and the right to health.

CEDAW, ratified by Turkey in 1985, obliges states to take the necessary measures to abolish customs and practices that discriminate against women. However, the Turkish state not only fails to take measures against the custom and practice of honor killings but reinforces the same cultural norms of honor and decency that support such killings through its own legal and administrative apparatus.

Pervizat brings to our attention the unfortunate fact that some human rights activists, too, tend to ignore honor killings, or even treat the attention directed to them as a distraction from what is considered to be more serious human rights issues, such as capital punishment. Ironically, not seeing honor killings as capital punishment stems from defining human rights narrowly as individual rights against the state and addressing human rights violations only if the perpetrator is a state official. This classical liberal understanding of human rights has been criticized by feminists for undermining women’s rights, which are most likely to be violated by private citizens within the “private” domain, as well as by some human rights advocates for dismissing the interdependency of human rights.

The task ahead of women’s rights advocates, in Turkey and elsewhere, seems to require a two-part struggle: first, to force the state to amend its laws and take measures to change discriminatory cultural traits, as it is obliged to do as a party to the international human rights treaties; and second, to expand human rights education and engage human rights activists in a dialogue about the interdependency and indivisibility of human rights and the counterproductive outcomes of “selective” endorsement of human rights.

Recently, efforts by feminists and human rights activists, along with the European Union’s membership criteria, forced Turkey to undertake legislative reforms that address some gender discrepancies. Pursuing multiple strategies with different audiences (for example, using human rights law with state officials and a different approach with families of potential victims), KA-MER, too, seems to have achieved some results. Undeniably, fighting against discriminatory cultural norms and practices by invoking other, more egalitarian cultural traits from the same culture would be the most effective way of achieving a human rights–oriented culture. Doing so, however, calls for the utmost care, especially when hierarchical relationships are involved, because the traditional authority revived and reinforced to help women today may once again be the source of their renewed repression tomorrow.

Read More: Human Rights, Human Rights, Islam and the West, Women's Rights, Turkey

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