Germany: The death of a Muslim woman

Der Spiegel
In the past four months, six Muslim women living in Berlin have been brutally murdered by family members. Their crime? Trying to break free and live Western lifestyles.
Within their communities, the killers are revered as heroes for preserving their family dignity. How can such a horrific and shockingly archaic practice be flourishing in the heart of Europe? The deaths have sparked momentary outrage, but will they change the grim reality for Muslim women?
The shots came from nowhere and within minutes the young Turkish mother standing at the Berlin bus stop was dead. A telephone call from a relative had brought her to this cold, unforgiving place. She thought she would only be gone for a few minutes and wore a light jacket in the freezing February wind. She had left her five-year-old son asleep in his bed. He awoke looking for his mother, who, like many Turkish women in Germany, harbored a secret life of fear, courage and, ultimately, grief. Now her little boy has his own tragedy to bear: His mother, Hatin Surucu, was not the victim of random violence, but likely died at the hands of her own family in what is known as an "honor killing."

Hatin's crime, it appears, was the desire to lead a normal life in her family's adopted land. The vivacious 23-year-old beauty, who was raised in Berlin, divorced the Turkish cousin she was forced to marry at age 16. She also discarded her Islamic head scarf, enrolled in a technical school where she was training to become an electrician and began dating German men. For her family, such behavior represented the ultimate shame -- the embrace of "corrupt" Western ways. Days after the crime, police arrested her three brothers, ages 25, 24 and 18. The youngest of the three allegedly bragged to his girlfriend about the Feb. 7 killing. At her funeral, Hakin's Turkish-Kurdish parents draped their only daughter's casket in verses from the Koran and buried her according to Muslim tradition. Absent of course, were the brothers, who were in jail.

The crime might be easier to digest if it had been an archaic anomaly, but five other Muslim women have been murdered in Berlin during the past four months by their husbands or partners for besmirching the family's Muslim honor. Two of them were stabbed to death in front of their young children, one was shot, one strangled and a fifth drowned. It seems hard to fathom, but in the middle of democratic Western Europe -- in Germany, a nation where pacifism is almost a universal mantra -- murderous macho patriotism not only exists but also appears to be thriving. It may even be Germany's liberalism -- and its post World War II fear of criticizing minority cultures -- that has encouraged ultra-religious families to settle here.

The problem is that much of this insular and ultra-religious world is out of public view, often hidden in inner-city apartments where the most influential links to the outside world are satellite dishes that receive Turkish and Arabic television and the local mosque. Tens of thousands of Turkish women live behind these walls of silence, in homes run by husbands many met on their wedding day and ruled by the ever-present verses of the Koran. In these families, loyalty and honor are elevated virtues and women are treated little better than slaves, unseen by society and often unnoticed or ignored by their German neighbors. To get what they want, these women have to run. They have to change their names, their passports, even their hair color and break with the families they often love, but simply can no longer obey.

Precise statistics on how many women die every year in such honor killings are hard to come by, as many crimes are never reported, said Myria Boehmecke of the Tuebingen-based women's group Terre des Femmes which, among other things, tries to protect Muslim girls and women from oppressive families. The Turkish women's organization Papatya has documented 40 instances of honor killings in Germany since 1996. Examples include a Darmstadt girl whose two brothers pummelled her to death with a hockey stick in April 2004 after they learned she had slept with her boyfriend. In Augsburg in April, a man stabbed his wife and 7-year-old daughter because the wife was having an affair. In December 2003, a Tuebingen father strangled his 16-year-old daughter and threw her body into a lake because she had a boyfriend. Bullets, knives, even axes and gasoline are the weapons of choice. The crime list compiled by Papatya is an exercise in horror. And the sad part, said Boehmecke, is that it is far from complete. "We'll never really know how many victims there are. Too often these crimes go unreported."

In many cases, fathers -- and sometimes even mothers -- single out their youngest son to do the killing, Boehmecke said, "because they know minors will get lighter sentences from German judges." In some cases, these boys are revered by their community and fellow inmates as "honor heroes" -- a dementedly skewed status they carry with them for the rest of their lives. Currently, six boys are serving time in Berlin's juvenile prison for honor killings. "In a way, these boys are victims, too," she said. Sometimes they are forced to kill their favorite sister.

One of the unsettling truths about Hatin's death and the plight of many Muslim women is that it took the comments of three Turkish boys and the outrage of a male school director to get people to notice. When the murder first happened, it sent no shock waves through the mainstream German press. It only became big news when a group of 14-year-old Turkish boys mocked Hatin during a class discussion at a school near the crime scene. One boy said, "She only had herself to blame," while another insisted, "She deserved what she got. The whore lived like a German." The enraged school director not only sent a letter home to parents, but also to teachers across Germany. The letter ignited a media fury. Less known, however, is that the letter also hit a nerve among educators. "Teachers from across the country wrote back saying they had had similar experiences," Boehmecke said. They reported Turkish boys taunting Turkish girls who don't wear headscarves as "German sluts." "That's the part no one has written about. Clearly there is huge potential for similar violence across Germany," Boehmecke said. "Not just in the big cities, but all over. It's a problem many politicians haven't been willing to face."

But that is not entirely true. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the revelation that several of the 9-11 plotters lived hidden lives in the up-scale German city of Hamburg, politicians and everyday Germans have more closely scrutinized the private lives of their friendly Turkish grocers, housecleaners, taxi drivers and even colleagues. At the same time, religious Muslims tightened their ranks, becoming more protective of each other in a world increasingly fearful of and hostile toward Islam.

German legislators, for their part, began rethinking the traditional delicacy with which the nation has handled its immigrants. For decades, German legislators lived under the shadow of the country's Third Reich past and the fear of appearing racist if it singled out a particular community or religion for scrutiny or special treatment.

"People were afraid they would be called Nazis if they dared to bring up issues of human rights in the Turkish community," said Serap Cileli, a Turkish author and filmmaker who at 15 was forced into an arranged marriage.

When Cileli fell in love with another Turkish man and threatened to break free, her mother came to Turkey, kidnapped her two children and took them to Germany. She then gave Cileli an ultimatum: give up the lover or never see the kids again. At first Cileli chose the kids and a life in Germany. But unlike many other stories, hers has a happy ending -- the lover later followed her to Germany and, after an enormous struggle with her family, the pair married and now live together with her children. She has written prodigiously about her experiences and now helps Turkish women escape oppressive families.

For the greater part of a decade, however, Cileli was unable to find a publisher for her work. "Everything I wrote from 1994 to 1999 was rejected, even by newspapers," she said. "They told me I was writing about a minority issue and they were afraid of appearing racist." That changed following Sept. 11, she said, when suddenly the hidden lives of Muslims became a hot topic and her writing and views are now widely published and even translated into her native Turkish.

Last year, a virtual tectonic shift occurred when Germany -- long considered a Mecca of religious tolerance by Muslims -- took its first step toward enforced secularism. Five of the nation's 16 states voted to ban teachers and other public officials from wearing headscarves to work. In October, after much lobbying, Turkish women's groups scored a coup when the government passed a law making it illegal for parents to force their children to marry. Turkey, a secular Muslim state, has long had such a law.

The November murder in neighboring Holland of filmmaker Theo van Gogh -- who was shot and stabbed to death by an Islamic extremist angry over his depiction of the violence inflicted on Muslim women in forced marriages -- galvanized the Netherlands and sent shock waves across Europe. As a result, Germans, too, began to take a second look at the 3.2 million immigrants -- 2.5 million of whom are Turkish -- living among them and to talk about the serious flaws of the nation's 1960's immigration policies. The program brought thousands of Turkish workers to Germany, but provided no real means of integrating the Muslim Turks or helping them understand Western concepts like individualism, human rights and equality. Now, Cileli said, perhaps, honor killings and other horrors experienced by Muslim women will finally be given the scrutiny they have long deserved.

Frightened for their lives

The new laws are a vital step toward empowerment, said Cileli, but unfortunately, the corpses of disobedient women offer a more compelling reason for many young women to stay put. Plus, she said, laws don't take into account the psychological terror under which the women live. "These girls are frightened for their lives," she said. "If they do manage to get away, it would be an illusion to say the girls would run to the police." Besides, laws only cover civil marriages -- not religious ones. In many cases, families force their young daughters into Muslim weddings at very young ages (sometimes as early as 12 years old) and then only unite the couple civilly when the girls turn 18.

Though subtle, evidence of the seclusion in which religious Muslim women live in Germany abounds. Turkish tea rooms are often packed with men, while women are often at home caring for children. They rarely can be seen on the streets alone after dark. At a memorial vigil held a few weeks after Hatin's death, a mere 120 people showed up. Almost none were Turkish. In fact, most were from a lesbian and gay organization that -- outraged by the crime -- organized the make-shift ceremony.

The ceremony underscored another disturbing reality: It is often not the Muslim community that first expresses outrage over how its women live, but those on the outside. "It's often very frustrating for us that more doesn't come from within," Boehmecke said. "We've been trying to bring attention to the plight of women for years, but with little success." Cileli sees it in harsher terms. "It not only took the death of a white man" for people to prick up their ears, she said, but of a "white European" man (van Gogh). "A European was killed because he defended us -- and the world press stood up to listen. But how many women died before him?"

A statistical black hole

Astonishingly, the first extensive data the German government collected about the lives of Turkish women was published last summer, as part of a study done by the Ministry for Family Affairs. The study showed that 49 percent of Turkish women said they had experienced physical or sexual violence in their marriage. One fourth of those married to Turkish husbands said they met their grooms on their wedding day. Half said they were pressured to marry partners selected by relatives and 17 percent felt forced into such partnerships.

So far, the Turkish community has been sluggish in its response to such data and even to the question of honor killings. But last week -- about three weeks after Hatin's death and under heavy pressure from activists -- the Turkish Association of Berlin and Brandenburg held a round table discussion about the plight of Muslim women. At the talks, the group issued a 10-point plan calling for a "zero tolerance" stance on violence against women and encouraged other Turkish and Islamic organizations to "actively recognize" and address the problem.

Will it help? Because the group is secular, it will likely have little sway with deeply religious Turks. "The truth is, we can't reach those who aren't interested," the group's spokesman, Cumali Kangal, conceded.

The response among Germany's devout Muslims is equally tough to gauge as there is no single organization the community looks to for leadership. Instead, the community is divided into about three dozen groups, each with its own leadership. Ali Kizilkaya, the chairman of the Council of Islam, one of the largest umbrella organizations, has decried Hatin's murder as "an abuse and affront to the Muslim religion." He insists Islam does not condone honor killings.

But try telling that, said Boehmecke, to the hoards of young boys who taunt Turkish girls in schools and their families who tacitly encourage such behavior. Educators at the grassroots say their numbers are rising, she says. Indeed, the German weekly Die Zeit reports that the percent of schoolgirls wearing headscarves in the Berlin district where Hatin was killed has gone from virtually none to about 40 percent in the past three years. Which one of today's smiling schoolgirls, Boehmecke wonders, will be next year's victim of honor?

By Jody K. Biehl and originally published on 2 May 2005.