World: Europe Grapples with Honor Killings of Women
Thursday, March 10, 2005 2:55 PM

It's an alarmingly familiar story, particularly in places where cultural traditions are strict toward women. A young woman starts dating a boy and her parents disapprove. Or she refuses an arranged marriage. Or perhaps she asks for a divorce. Relatives accuse her of bringing shame on the family. Honor must be restored, and the woman is murdered. They're called "honor killings," and they happen all over the world -- from Brazil and Bangladesh to Egypt, Pakistan, and Uganda. Europe, too, is increasingly grappling with the problem.

Prague, 8 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Hatun Surucu grew up in Germany, but when she was 15, she was sent back to her native Turkey to marry a cousin.

Two years later, she returned to Germany, divorced her husband, and began dating other men.

Last month, Surucu was waiting for a bus in Berlin when she was shot in the head. The three main suspects are her brothers. "The public was shocked," Rahel Volz of Terre des Femmes, a German women's rights group. "But it was not the first time there was a case like this. But the most shocking was the reaction of some schoolboys who told their teachers that they agreed with the brothers who [allegedly] killed Surucu."

Surucu was the fifth Turkish woman to be murdered in Berlin in recent months with the alleged involvement of family members.

The killings have stirred debate about the integration of immigrants into German society. And they've prompted anger, too.

Hundreds of people marched through the city on 5 March to condemn the killings.

Critics say authorities have largely ignored the problem for fear of being perceived as culturally insensitive to Germany's immigrants.

They want more protection for women at risk. And they say tolerance of cultural difference should have its limits.

"The people began to understand that this is not just a problem of one person," Volz said. "It's a more general problem of the migrant community."

Sweden is facing a similar problem.

The catalyst there was the killing three years ago of Fadime Sahindal. The Kurdish teenager was shot by her father, apparently because she was having a relationship with a Swedish man.

Arezo Mohamadi works for a Stockholm group set up in memory of Sahindal. "Before Fadime's case, people knew there was a problem but no one knew it was so serious and it can take lives," Mohamadi said. "After Fadime's case, people knew that this problem is here. This girl could be my classmate, my workmate. It had a big effect, it raised awareness and the bigger effect is that it woke up the authorities too, so they had to do something and react and take the question seriously."

That response included more money for secure housing for girls at risk.

In December, the government hosted what was billed as the biggest-ever international conference on honor-related violence.

Britain, too, is taking action, also after a string of high-profile honor killings.

Police in London set up a special taskforce to combat the violence.

And they are now re-examining some 100 deaths and disappearances they suspect could be honor killings.

Most of the cases are of women from Britain's Asian communities.

Worldwide, the UN estimates there are some 5,000 such killings every year -- usually among cultures whose traditions are very strict toward women, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, or parts of the Middle East. But women's groups are quick to stress that the problem also exists in places like Ecuador, India, and Uganda.

All the recent outcry is designed to combat such killings in Europe. But it carries a risk too -- of reinforcing prejudices against immigrants, and against Islam.

Thuraya Sobohrang is deputy minister for Women's Affairs in Afghanistan. She was one of the speakers at the December conference in Sweden. "This problem is not -- it's a misunderstanding [about] Islam," Sobohrang said. "[Nowhere] in the Koran, [or in the sayings of the prophet] Mohammed [does it] say you can kill your daughter when she doesn't want a marriage with a 70- or 50-year-old man. It all belongs to our society."

In other words -- it's not religion that's the problem. Honor violence might be rooted in tribal traditions or rigid cultural norms -- whether in Afghanistan, or Berlin's Turkish community.

Published in: Kathleen Moore, World: Europe Grapples with Honor Killings of Women, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 8 March 2005.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.