Thursday, July 13, 2006

The virgin suicides of Islamic Turkey

Dan Bilefsky:

For 17-year- old Derya, a waif-like woman, the order to kill herself came from an uncle and was delivered in a text message to her cellphone. "You have blackened our name," it read. "Kill yourself and clean our shame or we will kill you first."

Derya said her crime was to fall for a boy she met at school. She knew the risks: Her aunt had been killed by her grandfather for seeing a boy. But after being cloistered and veiled for most of her life, she said, she felt free for the first time and wanted to express her independence.

When news of the love affair spread to her family, she said, her mother warned her that her father would kill her. But she refused to listen. Then came the threatening text messages, sent by her brothers and uncles, sometimes 15 a day. Derya said they were the equivalent of a death sentence.

Consumed by shame and fearful for her life, she said, she decided to carry out her family's wishes. First, she said, she jumped into the Tigris River, but she survived. Next she tried hanging herself, but an uncle cut her down. Then she slashed her wrists with a kitchen knife.

"My family attacked my personality, and I felt I had committed the biggest sin in the world," she said from a women's shelter where she had traded in her veil for a T-shirt and jeans. She declined to give her last name for fear her family was still hunting her. "I felt I had no right to dishonor my family, that I have no right to be alive. So I decided to respect my family's desire and to die."

They call them the "virgin suicides."

Every few weeks in this Kurdish area of southeast Anatolia, which is poor, rural and deeply influenced by conservative Islam, a young woman tries to take her life. Others have been stoned to death, strangled, shot or buried alive. Their offenses ranged from stealing a glance at a boy to wearing a short skirt, wanting to go to the movies, being raped by a stranger or relative, or having consensual sex.

Hoping to join the European Union, Turkey has tightened the punishments for "honor crimes." But rather than such deaths being stopped, lives are being ended by a different means. Parents are trying to spare their sons from the harsh punishments associated with killing their sisters by pressing the daughters to take their own lives instead.

Women's groups here say the evidence suggests that a growing number of "dishonored" girls are being locked in a room for days with rat poison, a pistol or a rope, and told by their families that the only thing resting between their disgrace and redemption is death.

Batman is a grim and dusty city of 250,000 people where religion is clashing with Turkey's secularism.

The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk featured Batman in his last novel, "Snow," which chronicled a journalist's investigation of a suicide epidemic among teenage girls.

In the past six years, there have been 165 suicides or suicide attempts in Batman, 102 of them by women. As many as 36 women have killed themselves since the start of this year, according to a United Nations official's finding on violence against women. The UN estimates that 5,000 women are killed each year around the world by relatives who accuse them of bringing dishonor on their families; the majority of the killings are in the Middle East.

There have been so many unnatural deaths that the United Nations dispatched a special envoy to the region last month to investigate. After a fact- finding mission, the envoy, Yakin Erturk, concluded that while some suicides were authentic, others appeared to be "honor killings disguised as a suicide or an accident."

No Honor

Honour killings rampant in Pakistan

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