Buried alive for "talking with boys"
It’s stories like these that take away your faith in humanity. According to the Turkish daily Hurriyet, last week police in the village of Kahta, which is located in the Kurdish region in southeastern Turkey, acted on an anonymous tip about a sixteen year-old girl who had been reported missing forty days earlier. After digging two meters deep under a chicken pen, the officers discovered the girl’s decomposing body in a sitting position with her hands tied behind her back. An autopsy revealed large quantities of dirt in her mouth, throat, lungs, and stomach. The cause of death was identified as suffocation. According to one expert involved in the case, “The autopsy result is blood-curdling. According to our findings, the girl – who had no bruises on her body and no sign of narcotics or poison in her blood – was alive and fully conscious when she was buried.”
The police have detained the girl’s father and grandfather, charging them with an “honor killing.” Her mother was also held briefly but later released. A preliminary investigation has revealed that the family council had decided to kill the girl because “she talked to boys.” Her father confirmed this during questioning. According to newspaper reports, the girl had already complained to the police about beatings she had suffered at the hands of her grandfather two months before her disappearance. It seems that her grandfather also disapproved of her contacts with young men.
So-called “honor killings” are endemic in many parts of the Muslim world, and have even spread into Europe and America due to Muslim migration. It is suspected that honor killings account for a full half of all murders in Turkey. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that approximately 5,000 such acts are committed globally each year, although the actual figure could be much higher.
What exactly is an “honor killing”? This is a particular class of crime that goes beyond ordinary domestic violence, which is already a plague in itself. According to Human Rights Watch,
Honor crimes are acts of violence, usually murder, committed by male family members against female family members, who are held to have brought dishonor upon the family. A woman can be targeted by (individuals within) her family for a variety of reasons, including: refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, being the victim of a sexual assault, seeking a divorce—even from an abusive husband—or (allegedly) committing adultery. The mere perception that a woman has behaved in a way that "dishonors" her family is sufficient to trigger an attack on her life.
Honor killings probably go back to the beginnings of human culture. In many contemporary Muslim societies, a family or clan’s reputation and “honor” is their greatest capital. As revealed by a study undertaken in the Palestinian territories, “if a woman brings shame to the family, her male relatives are bound by duty and culture to kill her. … Women are killed by their fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, cousins, or sons. In communities where the crime is prosecuted, teenage brothers are encouraged to kill their sisters because the consequences will be less severe due to their age. Relatives of the victims, including mothers and sisters, often defend the killings and occasionally help set them up.” In one incident, “an eighteen-year-old Palestinian man stabbed his teenage sister forty times because of a rumor that she was involved in an extramarital affair. The family thanked God for her death. In an adjacent neighborhood, a sixteen-year-old boy killed his divorced mother, stabbing her repeatedly as he chased her into the street. The boy told authorities he was upset because neighbors were gossiping about her allegedly immoral behavior.”
In another case, “A sixteen-year-old Palestinian girl became pregnant after being raped by her younger brother. Once her condition became known, her family encouraged her older brother to kill her to remove the blemish from their honor. Her brothers, the rapist and the murderer, were exonerated. The girl was blamed. ‘She made a mistake,’ said one of her male cousins. ‘She had to pay for it.’”
Kurdish-born Banaz Mahmod (20) was murdered
in London on orders from her father for resisting
a cruel arranged marriage
The perpetrators of honor killings frequently get off lightly and are even celebrated for their crimes upon release from prison – if they ever get sent there in the first place. Palestine, Pakistan, and Syria have shown the most cavalier attitude towards these killings. Turkey has made progress over recent years, frequently sentencing perpetrators to life in prison. It will be interesting to see how the courts decide in this latest case.
Critics are quick to blame Islam for these atrocities, but the jury is still out on whether honor crimes truly are sanctioned by Sharia law. A Turkish expert on honor killings, Dr. Kecia Ali, has prepared a report for The Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, noting that “Some have viewed honor killings as a logical extension of traditional Islamic gender practices, the natural consequence of a system that enforces sex-segregation through veiling and female seclusion and harshly punishes violations of these boundaries. Others have argued that honor killings are the antithesis of Islamic morality. This latter view is essentially correct from the perspective of Qur’an, prophetic traditions (hadith), and Islamic legal thought, as a careful analysis of the relevant texts shows.” She goes on to highlight the double standard involved in honor killings, pointing out that, in traditional Muslim texts, “when it comes to punishment for illicit intercourse men and women are treated exactly alike. In this sense, the traditional framework for dealing with illicit sexual behavior is balanced – unlike in the case of honor killings for actual or suspected sexual misconduct, in which only women are targets.”
This suggests that the practice of honor killings is largely rooted in patriarchal structures and general ignorance, and thus not in religion per se. Could Islam actually provide a way out of this spiral of violence? Ali is skeptical, since elevating religion to an unquestioned authority weakens secular legal structures. Still, if traditional Muslim societies would actually start to pay more attention to their own religious doctrines, and not just to their ancestral practices and misogynistic prejudices, their women might have at least a chance of escaping these acts of daily terrorism.