DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) -Fatma’s family wanted her killed because they said she was having an adulterous affair while her husband was away doing his military service.
Returning home, the husband preferred to believe his wife’s protestations of innocence, but the couple faced ostracism from people in their village who also believed the woman had sullied the family’s honor and should pay the ultimate price.
Helped by a women’s support group which feared for Fatma’s (not her real name) life, the couple were resettled with new identities in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s poor, mainly Kurdish southeast where they now live.
Some are less fortunate. Experts say about 70 women fall victim to so-called “honor killings” in Turkey every year, mostly in the southeast. The true figure may be much higher.
“There are no accurate figures for honor killings. Villages often support a decision by family elders to kill a woman. Such killings can be passed off as something else, like suicide,” said Naime Kardas of the Ka-Mer group which helped Fatma.
Women may be killed for adultery or extra-marital pregnancy — often the consequence of rape by a neighbor or family member — for seeking a divorce or even for simply being seen outside unaccompanied by a male relative or with her head uncovered.
There are signs that Turkey’s government, police and non-government organizations are starting to work more effectively to combat this crime, which badly tarnishes the European Union candidate’s image as it struggles to improve its human rights record.
Ka-Mer is helping to set up similar women’s centers in the southeast, complete with telephone hot lines.
Special “intervention” teams grouping women activists and representatives of the police, local government and the mosques are being set up to help save women and, if necessary, to resettle them with new identity papers in other parts of Turkey.
In the conservative southeast where religion remains strong, clerics have told the faithful in Friday sermons that honor killings are not sanctioned by the Koran, Islam’s holy book.
Under Turkey’s new penal code approved last year, those found guilty of honor killings now face life sentences. In the past, judges have often shown leniency toward men who killed wives, daughters or sisters for reasons of “honor.”
A man who killed his wife and a taxi-driver for having an affair a few years ago was jailed for just two years, said Aytekin Sir, an expert on honor killings at Diyarbakir’s Dicle University. Today the man would face 18 years in jail.
Although welcome, tougher laws barely begin to tackle the deep social and cultural roots of honor killings, the expression of a rigidly patriarchal society which sees women as commodities to be used or cast away as men see fit.
“It is so hard to change people’s mentality. It will take many years,” Sir, a psychiatrist, told Reuters.
“We have to try to solve the problem through education, especially of women,” he said.
More than half the women in southeast Turkey are illiterate. Many are Kurds who speak little or no Turkish and are entirely dependent economically on their menfolk.
The tougher penal code may be having unintended results, Sir said, with more women being forced by their families to commit suicide to spare their male relatives a lifetime in jail.
“Women may be forced to eat rat poison. Or they may be locked away in a room and put under heavy emotional pressure to end their lives,” he said.
There are also fears that children are increasingly being used to kill women since they face lighter penalties if caught.
Ka-Mer fears Turkey’s largely male, conservative-minded judiciary may hamper efforts to combat honor killings.
“The law has changed, but you don’t see it yet in the courts when verdicts are handed out. Judges don’t always follow the new laws, they follow their own feelings too,” said Kardas.
Every state body should practise positive discrimination in favor of women, Kardas said, noting that policemen sometimes tell women who suffer abuse just to put up with their lot.
The findings of a survey conducted by Sir in the villages and towns of southeast Turkey last year make for grim reading.
Asked what should happen to a woman guilty of adultery, nearly 40 percent of those polled said she should be killed — by far the most popular punishment recommended, ahead of divorce or such penalties as having her nose cut or hair shaved.
“There was no difference between the answers of the men and the uneducated women in the poll. Only educated women believed the woman should not face punishment,” Sir said.
Experts say honor killings have become a bigger problem in recent years because of large-scale migration to towns and cities, accelerated by fighting between Kurdish rebels and Turkish security forces in the southeast.
“These people brought the mentality of small villages into the big cities,” said Sir.
Ka-Mer remains undaunted by the scale of the task ahead.
All 31 of the women who applied to the center for help in 2005 are still alive. More plays, films and books on the problem are appearing and the Turkish press has stepped up its coverage.
More male relatives and members of the public are helping to put endangered women in touch with Ka-Mer, Kardas said.
“There are signs that the younger generation is different, that they will not kill their daughters for perceived violations of the family ‘honor’,” said Sir.