Women killed to save male face

Bloody tradition: In southern Turkey, a girl was shot just because a radio station dedicated record to her the radio families kill young girls who `disgrace' the clan
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RABIE OGUR died when her male relatives deliberately drove a tractor over her. It was a killing planned in cold blood. She had dishonoured the family by running away with her lover and when she was dead, the men fired their guns in the air to celebrate.

Sevda Gok was only 17 when she was killed by a 14-year-old cousin. He cut her throat in a crowded shopping square. Her crime was to have gone to a cafe in the suspected hope of meeting men.

Hacer Felhan was shot dead in her own home at the age of 16. Her 13-year- old brother pulled the trigger. She was killed because a song was dedicated to her on the radio. Her family believed the dedication came from a boyfriend.

These are just three of the victims of a bloody tradition that shames Turkey. In south-eastern parts of the country, a woman who has relations with a man outside marriage is considered to have disgraced her family.

In the eyes of the community, it is the woman, not the man, who is to blame. And the only way for the family to redeem its collective honour is to kill her.

When Mehmet Tamer, the teenager who murdered Sevda Gok, was asked whether he regretted killing his cousin he replied "No, I have cleaned my honour. I wanted to be able to hold my head high."

Turkish law condones the so-called "honour killings". The woman's actions are considered a provocation, and murder sentences are shortened. The families make their children into killers because sentences are shorter still for minors. Mehmet Tamer went to prison for just two years and nine months.

"I was so scared when I heard about Sevda Gok," says Ayse Gul, a young woman living in Sanliurfa, the main city of the province where most of the killings take place. It was in a central Sanliurfa square that Sevda Gok was murdered. "I went home and asked my brother if he would ever kill me. But he was against the killings: that made me calmer."

Ms Gul's head is wrapped tightly in the Islamic headscarf you see everywhere on the streets of Sanliurfa.

To the casual visitor, Sanliurfa, once called Edessa, is one of the most romantic cities in Turkey, with its maze of dusty lanes, its ruined castle, and its medieval bazaar where blacksmiths still work by hand. The city is an Islamic pilgrimage site: Turkish Muslims believe that this was the birthplace of the prophet Abraham.

But behind the exotic atmosphere lies one of the most conservative societies in Turkey. In the poor, uneducated communities where the killings take place, unmarried women are hardly ever allowed out of their houses.

Ms Gul and her friends are sitting in the classroom of a state-run school for uneducated women. Here they are under the state's protection. Even so, they will not give their real names.

"If a girl is dishonoured, it's considered the fault of the whole family," explains Ms Gul. "Her brothers can't marry. People say if they can't protect their own sister they won't be able to protect a wife."

She tells of one case where a woman married her boyfriend in secret. The woman's father initially forgave the couple and for this, the extended family disowned him. Eventually, under relentless pressure, the man killed his daughter. When a woman is considered to have disgraced her family in this way, her male relatives are ostracised from local society. They are no longer welcome in the crowded all-male tea-houses that are the centres of social life.

The decision to kill the woman is taken by a macabre council of death. The men of the family meet in the woman's own house. Often, she is in the next room as they sentence her. The family appoints a young male relative to kill her. In the case of Hacer Felhan, her brother went straight into the next room and shot her dead with a hunting rifle.

The mothers often try to save their daughters, and in one documented case a mother was able to prevent a killing. But in another case a mother who refused to tell the men where her daughter was hiding was herself murdered.

Ms Gul says it is not only the men who are responsible for the killings. "Most of the time it's the older women of the neighbourhood who force the men to do the killing," she says. "If something happens to the neighbour's daughter the older women talk. Eventually the men are made to act."

Society unites around the killers. Sevda Gok was murdered in a crowded square full of witnesses. Twenty people were called to give evidence. Only one man admitted he had seen the incident.

Most of Ms Gul's friends are against the killings. But some believe they are justified. "There are some rules," says Merve Taner. "If a woman breaks the rules they're right to kill her."

Ms Taner has had her own experience of the restrictive rules. "I had a boyfriend," she says. "But after 10 days I decided I had to tell my family everything. When I told my mother my whole body was trembling. She refused to accept my boyfriend because he wasn't from Sanliurfa. I had to accept the family's decision."

Women have little power in this society. Polygamy is illegal in Turkey, but in practice it is common in the villages around Sanliurfa. Girls are illegally married as young as 11 and marriages are arranged.

Gonul Aslan ran away with her boyfriend after her family forced her to marry another man. Her husband and family tried to drown her in the river Euphrates. Now Ms Aslan is living in hiding and the Turkish authorities have given her a new identity to protect her from another attack.

Ms Gul and her friends say society is beginning to change. Few of them will be allowed to choose their husbands. But most say they will be given a chance to reject the family's choice.

Not all Sanliurfa women are so lucky. "If my sister dishonoured us I'd kill her," Mohammed Akbas told me as he sat drinking tea with his male friends. He is just 21 years old. "I was at school with a girl who was killed for this. Her father shot her in the head. She was 19."

There were angry clashes when women's rights activists blamed the killings on the South-east's large Kurdish population. But you can hear three languages on the streets of Sanliurfa. The city's population is a mixture of Turks, Kurds and Arabs and honour killings have occurred in all three communities.

Mr Akbas says the killings are a matter of religion, not race. "I want what is written in the Koran," he says. "If we had Islamic sharia law in Turkey, the courts would punish the women. But there is no Islamic court to decide, so the families must do it."

This is the attitude you hear all over the bazaars of Sanliurfa. The social pressure to condone the murders is obvious. When one of Mr Akbas' friends told me he disapproved of the killings, the others turned on him. Quickly, he changed his mind. "I think the same as the others," he said.

The men, young and old, believe the killings are a religious duty. But Mehmet Farac, a local journalist who uncovered the details of many of the killings, says that religion is not the cause. "This is part of the tore, the traditional code of honour people live by in the region," he says. "Not all aspects of tore are bad. We're proud of the tore, but many of us are against these killings."

A few months ago, Turkey's minister for women announced plans to change the law which condones "honour killings". But the scheme faded from view in the build-up to last month's general elections. It remains to be seen whether it will reappear but with a huge backlog of economic legislation waiting for the new parliament, the prospects are not good. For now, it looks as if the killings will continue.

As one Turkish sociologist working in Sanliurfa put it: "All the games here are played out on the bodies of women."