Hopefully, as crime fiction authors, we write books that entertain, sometimes they may even enthral. But another side to our work, not always, but on occasion is to highlight issues that affect a wider society than just our investigators, our victims and their families. In January 2011 my latest book A Noble Killing will hit the shops. It is a Çetin İkmen mystery and involves murder, deceit and is full of incident and drama. It is also about, so-called, honour killing.
Honour killing is a pernicious practice whereby girls and women are killed because they have been deemed to have dishonoured their families in some way. This may be by getting pregnant out of wedlock, it may be because the girl in question refuses to marry a man her family have chosen for her, it may also be just simply because someone has spread a malicious rumour about her. It can take many forms. Sometimes the family of the girl decide as a group that she has dishonoured them and they all take a hand in her death. In other cases one person, sometimes a very young person who, if arrested by the police will attract a shorter prison sentence than an adult, is detailed off to kill the girl. On other occasions the girl is encouraged to kill herself. What all of these instances do have in common however, is that they are almost exclusively instituted by men. I’m sorry to say this men, but even in the twenty first century some of you still see some of us as little more than possessions. And that doesn’t just apply in Turkey, that applies everywhere.
When I was a teenager I remember reading, and being greatly affected by, a play called The House of Bernada Alba by the great Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca. It is about a widow called Bernada Alba and her daughters who live a life of respectable seclusion in early twentieth century Spain. Because they live without a man, in order to be deemed respectable by their neighbours, the women must live in virtual purdah, never leaving the house and relying on their servants to do everything ‘outside’ for them. But one of the girls falls for a man she occasionally sees from her window and when he stops to talk to her, tongues begin to wag. From that moment on the entire household is bent upon an unstoppable course towards tragedy, something completely defined by the society and social mores of that time and that place.
In recent years, honour killing has been almost inextricably linked certainly in the western imagination with Islam. Some people actually believe that Islam allows this sort of thing. But it doesn’t. I don’t know of any religion that actually states that you can kill women who you think have ‘dishonoured’ you in some way. It is no more real in Islam than it is in Buddhism, Judaism or the Christianity that was so much a part of the life of Bernada Alba. Honour killing is about men and about power and it is also about how that translates into a social pressure.
When a girl or a woman ‘dishonours’ her family, the people around the family, their wider relations, friends and acquaintances can close ranks to exclude her and the rest of the family until the ‘problem’ is ‘sorted out’. Sometimes people who have a ‘bad’ girl in their midst are shunned by those around them, sometimes people won’t serve them in shops, do business with them or consider their other children as serious prospects for marriage. Dishonour can wreck an entire family and so when the senior men of the family eventually meet to decide about what might be done to put things right, the sacrifice of one to save the many is often deemed simply the logical thing to do.
Boys who ‘dishonour’ their families by putting themselves about a bit may been frowned upon in some societies, but they are not generally killed for it. Sometimes they are even applauded. No, I’m afraid that honour killing is something that comes about because most societies are still, at bottom, patriarchal. Some of the most sophisticated people in the world have and are ‘trophy wives’. It’s viewed as OK and on one level it is – people can and should be able to marry whomsoever they wish irrespective of age, status, etc., etc., etc. But on the level of woman as pretty possession, it is not OK. Human beings are individuals and no one should be able to ‘possess’ anyone else. Unfortunately thousands of years of patriarchy, usually sanctioned by states and clergy (as opposed to actual religious teaching) mitigate, even now against this. And so women, even in ‘advanced’ western societies can still be viewed with suspicion and can easily become victims of rumour, supposition and plain, outright, spite. At school we all learned that the best way of destroying your enemy was to spread malicious lies about him or her, didn’t we? It’s a long way from playground malice to honour killing but the witch trials of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were sometimes instigated by children – and of course rivals, people jealous of the ‘witch’ and men who secretly desired the ‘witch’ too.
Unfortunately murder is still, sometimes, a feminist issue even in the twenty first century. I just hope I’ve done my job properly and written about my take on it in a way that will make people think. Sadly, for the moment, women like those in my book are still out there and still frightened.