In the Name of Honor
Human Rights Dialogue 2.10 (Fall 2003): "Violence Against Women"
November 5, 2003
Read a "A Struggle on Two Fronts," a response to this article by Zehra F. Arat. Use the link in the right sidebar.
“You, women, stand side by side and finish this practice. This is not the first one. It will not be the last one. Allah will not forgive this; neither will the Prophet. Our hearts are aching with sadness.” These words were spoken to me by a graveyard keeper as I was leaving the Diyarbakýr Cemetery for the Destitute and without Family after visiting the burial site of Semse Allak last June. Semse was stoned by male family members in late November of 2002 in Mardin, Turkey. After spending seven months in a coma, she died in June 2003. Her body was buried by a large group of women activists in an unusual religious ceremony. According to the practices of Islam in Turkey, women are not allowed to conduct the religious burial prayer—they may only stand on the sidelines and watch. However, in this case, women performed the service for Semse, a first in our memory.
Semse was a victim of so-called honor killings. Honor killings—one of the most horrendous violations of women’s human rights and a form of extrajudicial execution—target individuals who believe, or are perceived to believe, in values and standards that are at odds with the social norms of their society. Although they are a most severe form of violence, honor killings are not the only type of violence faced by women in Turkey. Women are also subject to abuses such as marital rape, female genital mutilation, nose cutting, bride price, forced marriages, polygamy, and forced virginity testing. To make matters worse, the state fails to recognize its duties and responsibilities in eradicating these forms of violence, and legitimizes them by deeming them “family problems” or “domestic situations.”
Soon after Semse’s burial, our project team of KA-MER, an independent women’s organization in Diyarbakýr, held its first open meeting, inviting representatives from the government, judiciary, media, police force, health groups, the community, and other NGOs to discuss ways of eradicating honor killings. As a women’s rights activist and a feminist researcher, I am working with KA-MER to prevent honor killings in southeastern and eastern Turkey. We take a broad approach by trying to address the problem before the execution occurs, in addition to dealing with killings after they happen. We work both on the community level and with government officials to create awareness and eventually to eradicate this practice.
Unfortunately, Semse was stoned before KA-MER heard about the danger she was in and could intervene. Her case received worldwide public attention, partly because stoning—as opposed to shooting or stabbing—a woman or man in the name of honor is very rare in Turkey. Religious leaders’ attitude toward honor killings is very clear: they denounce the practice. Similarly, activists working on the issue have never cited imams, the Qur’an, or Islam as sources of the problem in Turkey. This point was made clear to me when, during my visit in Urfa, one of the most religious and conservative cities in the country, I challenged the concept of honor killings by arguing that the Qur’an does not permit women to be treated like this. A very religious Muslim tribal leader responded, “This is honor, what has that got to do with the Qur’an? Men’s honor comes before the Book.” Our exchange made me realize that invoking the Qur’an is not a useful way to denounce this violence. Instead, the concepts of masculinity, culture, and tradition, which are rooted in the community, must be studied and utilized to end honor killings.
One of the obstacles that women’s human rights activists face in their work is the fact that Turkey’s judiciary often justifies honor killings on the grounds of tradition, culture, and assault on a family member’s manhood. While the Turkish Penal Code does not have a specific clause relating to the concept of honor, courts often cite honor as a mitigating factor in their judgments, stating that a challenge to honor causes a heavy provocation to the perpetrators of honor killings.
Another obstacle is mainstream human rights activists in Turkey who downplay the significance of the crime. For instance, a well-known human rights activist working against capital punishment once complained to me and other activists that the recent media attention devoted to honor killings was “exaggerating this women thing to the level of a human rights violation and therefore diminishing the power of human rights.” For many such human rights activists, honor killings do not belong on the same level as torture, lack of freedom of expression, or extrajudicial executions.
Violence against women is legitimized by the attitudes of state actors, many mainstream human rights activists, and Turkish society at large because ultimately gender imbalances are the status quo. Challenging the parameters of these power dynamics is complex since they are imbedded in interpersonal relations, family, community, and culture. In short, women lack autonomy—they suffer when they assert their rights as individuals and go against established societal norms. Often women are seen as the battlegrounds for men’s struggles to assert and reclaim their masculinity. Honor killings are seen as the lesser of two evils since, in some instances, they are thought to prevent feuds that could destroy the stability of the whole society. Thus, people in Semse’s village claimed that her death was necessary to prevent endless violent feuding between her family and that of the man who supposedly dishonored her through extramarital sexual relations.
In order to prevent honor killings, it is crucial to redefine the concept of honor within the community. From the moment a woman or girl transgresses a norm—which she could do by losing her virginity or by calling the radio station and asking for a favorite song—until the moment she is murdered in the name of honor, her family and the community she lives in go through a decision-making process in which they make judgments about her moral standing. When her name is out as a transgressor, her male relatives cannot walk in the village with heads high. To reclaim their manhood in the eyes of other men, they cleanse their honor by stabbing or sometimes stoning her.
Because such a concept of honor is so imbedded in Turkish culture, and cultural variables are what we try to understand, use, and hopefully transform when interfering in these cases, we do not use a human rights framework when we intervene preventively at the local level. When talking to families, a cultural discourse proves to be very effective. We believe that male family members are also victims of the concept of masculinity—they suffer throughout the decision-making process. We try to give men what I call cultural and psychological space where their masculinity is not challenged and they do not feel forced to kill in order to cleanse their honor. To do this, and in order to help create space for long-term change, we take advantage of some of the positive aspects of Turkish culture that offer individual men an excuse to avoid violence. These include special occasions and gatherings where nonviolent negotiations are encouraged or where authority figures can act as intermediaries, in which we can make use of traditions of hospitality toward guests or respect for elderly people’s recommendations as tools to prevent these crimes.
However, when we talk with government officials, we use a human rights framework because it is an effective tool for achieving official recognition that honor killings are a form of extrajudicial execution. One of our main goals is to use the UN General Assembly resolution “Working Towards the Elimination of Crimes Committed in the Name of Honor,” of which Turkey is a cosponsor, within national courts to show that honor killings are not isolated incidents and should be recognized as human rights violations. We also refer to the UN Commission on Human Rights resolution on extrajudicial, arbitrary, and summary executions, which Turkey has also signed. We think that using these human rights instruments offers an opportunity for women’s human rights defenders to achieve official, government recognition of this issue as a human rights violation and to put violence against women on the same plane as extrajudicial executions and torture.
Semse’s horrendous death brought people to their feet not only in Turkey but also around the world. In order to eradicate this atrocious crime in Turkey, activists must use all possible advocacy tools—changing society’s discourse by using some of its own terms of reference, reforming the judiciary, and incorporating a gender perspective into the human rights advocacy being conducted in Turkey.