Thursday, September 4, 2008

Art and Honor Killings in Turkey

I was walking through Kew Gardens in Queens, New York, on a late July night, and a woman stepped off the sidewalk into the street to avoid me, but though that is still on my mind, it is not my intention to write about persistent white American racism during the age of Barack Obama. Rather I have Turkey on mind—the country, not the bird. I read in an American newspaper about two bombs that exploded in Istanbul, Turkey, on Sunday, July 27, killing more than a dozen people. Days before that I’d read in the British paper The Independent about a young man, Ahmet Yildez, who seems to have been killed in Istanbul earlier in July because of his open homosexuality: what would be considered a hate crime in America is considered an honor killing in Turkey. Why is Turkey on my mind, when I have my own concerns and worries, public, professional, and personal? In June, I attended screenings of Turkish films in Manhattan, “Keep Your Eyes on Turkish Films,” organized by Turkey’s Television and Film Producers Union, or TESÄ°YAP; and I enjoyed several films, including Abdullah Oguz’s Bliss, and Metin Erksan’s Dry Summer. Importantly, Bliss involves a girl who is found unconscious, whom her small village family believes to have dishonored them through some kind of sexual activity; and, a male cousin is asked to bring her to Istanbul and kill her there, in a city in which she has no official papers and is unknown. The film Bliss follows the male cousin’s conflicted attempt to do his family duty, and the consequences; and it is one of the most beautiful and moving films I have seen in a long time. Consequently, Turkey has become part of my awareness and I notice news that involves Turkey. That suggests the power of art—to entertain, to connect people across distances, to raise awareness.

My awareness about honor killings, which usually involve women, has become acute. I understand why honor killings happen: societies have long had the desire to control women’s minds, spirits, and bodies. For centuries, when a woman was seen to do something that was considered shameless or wild, such as being alone or intimate with a man other than a close relative or husband, which is often the charge in honor killings, family and social tradition and power have been considered threatened. In the West, women used to be able to cause scandal in that way, but with the liberalization of values, and the increase in female social power, female autonomy is now an accepted fact. (The freedom that women have is the freedom that men who desire or love other men are attaining.) That is not so in too much of the Middle East, under Islam. Of course, I have no quarrel to pick with Islam, nor with another country’s culture: my concern is with murder. I do not think it is acceptable to kill people—women or men—anywhere because of disapproval of private behavior. It is mind-boggling to me that killing someone could be considered honorable while sex is considered shameful.

Reading past and current articles online on the subject, I see that on June 18, 2006, the Turkish Daily News (“In My Father’s House”) reported, “The United Nations Population Fund has estimated that over 5,000 women are victims of honor killings worldwide every year. The countries where such murders occur range from Brazil, Equator, Egypt, India, Jordan, Morocco, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Uganda to Britain and Sweden. And how many of the victims of honor killings are Turkish citizens? How ready is the Turkish cultural and political elite to wage war against this malady? The death toll from honor killings in Turkey (or among Turkish nationals abroad) is hard to estimate. The common deduction made by experts varies between 30 to 70 women yearly. This number does not include those women who commit suicide under fear of attack from their family members or intense communal pressure. Oftentimes it is the youngest boy in the family who is given the task of executing the ‘ignominious female member’ so he will face less jail time.” (A July 5, 2004 Guardian report had suggested that if purported suicides are included, about 300 women may die due to honor killings in Turkey every year. The internet puts the world and its difficult facts only a few finger moves away.)

More recently, July 13, 2008, the web site called Stop Honour Killings (spelled in the British way) has reported that a new study in southeast Turkey shows that there is no social stigma attached to honor killings; and that in interviews conducted in forty-four prisons, no one convicted in connection with an honor killing offered any regret or remorse. That is terrifying. It is also the kind of thing that more of us should think about, and find ways of addressing; and it can be discussed when countries make alliances with or do business with Turkey. Respect for human rights is an issue in the European Union’s current consideration of Turkey’s admission to that group.

I am troubled by honor killings in Turkey, but, once more, I am glad that art—in this instance, film—has done something that has brought me more than pleasure: it has brought me knowledge and compelled me toward a deeper humanity. (DG, July 2008)