"Honor Killing": Culture, Politics and Theory

Article excerpt

On January 22, 2002, Rahmi Sahindal, a Kurdish immigrant from Turkey, killed his daughter Fadime, in Uppsala, Sweden. (For further discussion of this case, see Mojab and Hassanpour (2002a and 2002b.) Fadime, a student in a Swedish university, was visiting her sister when her father shot her dead. The murderer confessed to the crime, telling police that her daughter had shamed the family. Fadime had "shamed" her father and brother by rejecting an arranged marriage and choosing her own partner. She had also dishonored the family in 1998 in a highly publicized court case against her father and brother who had threatened to kill her.

Following the 1998 case, the father received a suspended sentence, while the then 17 year old brother was sentenced to a year's probation. In spite of court injunctions, Fadime had to hide from the male members of the family; however, she did not remain silent. She campaigned against this form of patriarchal violence known as "honor killing." Killing for reasons of "honor" is of ancient origins, but has occurred more frequently in recent years in the Middle East and in parts of Kurdistan devastated by war. Violence against women for reasons of "honor" also happens among refugee and immigrant communities in Western countries. It is by no means a uniquely Kurdish phenomenon; it has been practiced in both the West and the East.

The short and tragic life of Fadime has turned into a site of struggle over patriarchal violence and beyond it. In Sweden and elsewhere, there was extensive protest against "honor killing" in general and Fadime's killing in particular. The problem and the debate over it are, however, far from resolved. Public policy in Sweden, often lenient on such "culturally" motivated crimes, has come under a new round of criticism. In civil society, racists used the occasion to denounce immigrants and pressure the government to change immigration policy. On the Kurdish side, widespread condemnation of the murder occurred, although it has not obscured the tendency among nationalists to downplay such crimes, which are thought to bring shame to the Kurdish nation. The media and academia are also involved, the former in a rather intensive way, and the latter in a subtle manner.

Honor Killing: Culture, Politics and Theory

This new case of honor killing has brought up old questions such as "Is honor killing part of Kurdish culture?" Or, "Is it a religious, Islamic, phenomenon?" There are many political and theoretical underpinnings to these questions. While I argue that violence against women should not be reduced to a question of culture, I also believe "honor killing" is definitely part and parcel of the culture of Kurdistan, and other societies in which it is practiced. However, reducing this crime to culture, may readily lead to racist interpretations and appropriations.

Kurdish culture, like other Western and non-Western cultures, is not a homogeneous or monolithic entity. Kurdish gender culture, like its Western counterparts, consists of at least two conflictual components. One component is patriarchy and misogynism, readily present in folklore, language, literature, jokes, manners and, in a word, the "lived experience" of individuals. In its violent forms, this culture is inscribed in the blood of Fadime and countless women who have lost their lives in obscurity. The other component of Kurdish culture is generally not known, affirmed, valorized, confirmed, or promoted: this is the culture of struggle for gender equality. This culture emerged in the Kurdish press of the early 20th century (Klein 2001). It was inspired by the liberal feminist and women's movements of the late 19th and early 20th century Europe. By the mid-20th century, the greatest Kurdish poet of the modern period, Abdullah Goran (1904-1962), strongly condemned honor killing in one of his poems, Berde-nusek (A Tomb-Stone) (text in Mojab, forthcoming). Since the 1990s, there has been considerable struggle against honor killing in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the 1988 genocide known as Anfal and two Gulf Wars (1980-1988 and 1991) have destroyed the social fabric of society, and unleashed waves of patriarchal violence. …