Bullying women into suicide to restore 'honor'

These so-called honor killings are carried out in conservative Muslim enclaves that bind themselves to draconian beliefs, and are committed because of an apparently wayward sister or daughter. In the honor culture of Islam, women are viewed as cultural symbols, and therefore Muslim males have the right (or the duty, as some may see it), to control their actions, since it is believed that the source of all respect stems from women. So maybe the girl dates a Christian, or she openly flirts with another boy (Muslim or otherwise), or adopts a Western way of dressing and behaving--all can be a death sentence for a girl born into an iron-handed Muslim family.

According to the United Nations, about 5,000 honor killings take place each year, most of them in the Middle East.

But they happen in Europe, too. Honor killings have steadily risen across the continent during the last 10 years, according to Europol, as countries in the West absorb Muslim immigrants but fail to adequately assimilate them. Many of these immigrants come from Turkey — not from the secular mainstream, but from remote villages where a more stringent form of Islam is applied. And the weapon of choice used for bloodshed is a gun or knife held in the grip of a brother’s hand, -- often a teenager, so as to lessen the sentence when it is handed down.

Police authorities from across the European Union met recently to discuss the troubling trend, while Denmark became the first country to stiffen the penalty for these murders. It was hailed as a landmark decision, because for the first time in a European court, several family members were tried for an honor killing, not just the triggerman.

In the Danish case, the courts sought justice for the execution-style murder of 18-year-old Ghazala Khan, who only days before the shooting had gotten married (to another Muslim). The family was upset at the speedy marriage, as it apparently violated their religious convictions.

Khan’s brother fired the shots, but the Danes convicted nine members of Khan's family, including her father, who conceived the plot to murder his daughter. In fact, he received a life sentence, the brother received 16 years in jail, and an aunt will spend 14 years in prison for luring the victim to what she thought was a family meeting to reconcile.

Although EU states offer no statistics, Europe's leading weekly newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, estimates 50 women have been "honor killed" in Germany since 2000. Denmark, Sweden, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom are also countries contending with the problem.

Authorities throughout Europe have been reluctant to intervene in the domestic affairs of immigrant Muslim families, but have now begun to re-open unsolved murder cases that took place within Islamic communities during the last decade.

Why honor killings are happening at all in the EU can best be understood by taking a look back. After World War II, Western Europe experienced a flood of Turkish immigrants--most of whom were poor and uneducated--who came to help rebuild its fallen cities. But poor assimilation has left many European Muslims disenfranchised and has led to increasingly radicalized Islamic practices.

This is especially true in Germany, which for 20 years permitted separate schools (taught in native languages) and housing for immigrants when its gastarbeiter (guest worker) program was introduced in the 1960s . The early thought on this was to display tolerance for other cultures and religions. But this setup turns out to have reinforced the closed community, which can shun Western values and make room for extremist imams to take control in the ghettoes.

And although German schools are now integrated, there are still a number of classes at public schools taught in Turkish, and kids go home and tune into Turkish television, further pushing identity with Germany out of reach. This is exacerbated by the state's immigration policy, which does not allow children of gastarbeiters to hold German passports, even if they were born on German soil. They must, instead, remain citizens of their parents' native land.

However, countries in which Muslims have been better integrated have relatively fewer problems with strict sharia [Islamic] law. For instance, in Austria--a country with a high concentration of Muslim immigrants, yet no known honor killings--the Muslims have always been placed together with other Austrians in high quality public housing upon their arrival. Children of immigrants have always been educated in the Austrian schools, where they are taught only in German. And it helps that some of Austria’s Muslims hail from Bosnia, widely considered to be more liberal. This, in turn, can influence the Muslim communities toward Western ways, minimizing the practice of sharia law, so at least there is a partial acquisition of Western values.

But if Europe is to effectively halt the horrors of these murders, Turkey knows it must also step in line. Having always straddled between Europe and the Middle East, its hopes of ever joining the EU grew slightly brighter when it passed a comprehensive human rights package last year. New laws call for harsher prison terms for honor killings, stopping a tradition of lighter sentences when it comes to recovering "family honor."

But alternative ways are being found to restore "honor" that keeps everyone out of jail. Instead of offering up their sons as killers, family members bully the dishonored girls into killing themselves.

The UN reports that 36 women in Turkey have killed themselves for family honor so far this year.

The deaths are called "virgin suicides" and last month the International Herald Tribune reported on a 17-year-old Turkish woman identified only as Derya, who came under pressure from her family for her romantic involvement with a classmate. She received a death threat via text message on her cell phone. "You have blackened our name. Kill yourself and clean our shame or we will kill you first." It was from her uncle.

Derya received several death threats from her brothers and her uncles, up to 15 a day. After repeated attempts to commit suicide, including trying to drown herself in the Tigris River, she fled to the security of a women's shelter.

How many Muslim women and girls in Europe have been forced to claim their own lives is unknown. Nor is it truly known how many have been slain over the years; as Europe has not been counting the casualties that have been mounting while it slept.

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