Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The importance of controlling female sexuality - Honor killing and culture clash in Germany

(Via Mick Hartley, from the website of the International Campaign Against Honour Killings)

This depressing but not very surprising story (below) comes from Germany. To put it in sociological context, it might be illuminating to consider it together with some analogous cultural dynamics in Sweden and France. Back in 2003, I noted in connection with the French situation:
The phenomenon in France described here has some special features (including what appears to be a high prevalence of gang rape), but in many ways it obviously fits a larger pattern. It is well known that one of the characteristic ways that immigrant and other minority groups often try to assert their identity and self-respect is through tightening up control over female sexuality (that is, restraint over the sexuality of "their" women). And one of the ways that their multifarious free-floating resentments find expression is to focus on male resentment of female sexuality. (For a lot of the Muslim communities in western Europe, the upsurge in fundamentalist versions of Islam has helped provide ideological justification for a backlash against female "immorality" and semi-emancipation, homosexuality, etc. But Islam isn't a necessary ingredient.) [....]
As one teenage boy quoted in the story below put it, "honour matters even more than religion." So it would appear.

--Jeff Weintraub
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BBC News (Germany)
Last Updated: Thursday, 28 February 2008, 16:15 GMT
German rescue from honour killing
By Alexa Dvorson

A volunteer rescue organisation in Germany has sheltered more than 100 Muslim women who fear they will be killed if they do not go through with marriages that their families have arranged for them.

I was unlocking my bicycle outside a shopping mall one afternoon when a group of teenage boys asked me in German if I knew how to break-dance.

I thought I was hearing things, so I said, "Excuse me?"

They repeated their question in typical slang, complete with Berlin dialect, saying they would be glad to show off their hip-hop moves, if I shared some steps of my own.

I laughed and replied that, while I do love dancing, my knees are not quite up to the acrobatic task of break-dance.

Once we got talking, though, I was in for a mental head-spin that would defy any choreography.

All but one of the boys - of Turkish, Kurdish and Palestinian origin - were born in Germany.

They wore jeans and T-shirts and their hair glistened with styling gel. One sported a gold earring.

With their playful jostling, they seemed like teenagers in any Western backdrop, except for one thing: they swore they would kill their own sisters if any of them had sex before marriage.

The boys were convinced that that would destroy their families' honour.

By coincidence, I had just attended a summit on the thorny subject of integration, where a female politician of Turkish descent had appealed for state support for a local organisation that rescues young women fleeing forced marriage, or the threat of an honour killing.

'Honour matters more'

When the teenagers agreed to let me record them, I asked if they really meant what they had said about killing their sisters.

They were adamant: "If a girl has sex with a boy without being married, we must kill both of them," said Ali, the teenager with the gold earring.

The contrast was baffling. These teens looked entirely at ease outside a 21st Century shopping mall but their views came straight out of the Middle Ages.

"You say you're Muslims," I reminded them, "and killing is forbidden in the Koran, right? If you love your sister, couldn't you just forgive her?"

"No," one of the boys replied, "because honour matters even more than religion."

The Kurdish teenager explained: "We have no money. We have nothing except our honour. If we lose that, it's the worst thing that can happen to us."

By now they were all talking at once. We might as well have been trying to converse in different languages.

One of the boys softened a bit: "Killing isn't really the answer," he said, "but what else can you do?"

"Lots of things," I ventured, "like talking about what honour really means. Besides, murder is against the law in Germany, remember?"

That is when Ali snapped, "to hell with laws" (only he used much stronger language).

'Mistake'

One Berlin bureaucrat interprets this brand of Muslim machismo as mere provocation.

She sees the need for immigrant youth in Germany to let off steam and assert their identity, however confused it might be.

But after 20 years in the field, she admits a serious mistake.

Her staff focused so much attention on the empowerment of immigrant women and girls that no one bothered to reach out to their brothers, fathers and uncles.

"We forgot the men," she said quietly.

Help group

But no-one has forgotten Hatun Surucu, a single mother who was training to become an electrician after quitting her forced marriage to a cousin in Turkey.

Her lifestyle was deemed dishonourable by her family, and three years ago Hatun's brothers lured her to a bus stop near her Berlin flat and shot her in the head. Distraught, a German friend of hers formed an organisation to help other women avoid the same fate.

Funded by donations and staffed by volunteers, the group - named after Hatun and her son - has a telephone hotline, a website and drivers ready to rescue anyone fleeing a forced marriage, or worse.

The group works swiftly to sidestep Germany's baffling bureaucracy. Some women seeking help from city authorities are asked to provide written proof that their lives are in danger.

Escape route

That was not something 20-year-old Sibel was prepared to do.

Beaten by her father and brothers most of her life, she needed an escape route when they started talking about a "family vacation" in Turkey.

Knowing that meant she would be married off to some older cousin - just like Hatun Surucu was - Sibel fled her home in southern Germany.

The rescue organisation helped her start a new life in Berlin, where she wants to pursue a career in business, something her family would never allow.

She says she got out just in time and added that if she were not a virgin and her family found out, it would be her death sentence.

One Muslim community leader told me that if he could talk to those boys, I met at the shopping mall, he would explain to them in no uncertain terms that killing one's own sister - or anyone for that matter - has nothing to do with being a good Muslim.

Meanwhile, the rescue organisation hotline is answering more and more calls for help.
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From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 28 February, 2008 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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