Ayse Onal shines light on Turkish 'honor' killings
Journalist Ayse Onal's work, which got her blacklisted, has ranged from Kurdish separatism to Turkish Hizballah. Her recent book and documentary about "honor" killings taps into regrets of men who carry out these killings.
ISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)--For years, coverage of so-called honor killings in Turkey took the perpetrator's side, describing them as heroes and their victims--typically young women accused of harming their family's social standing by committing adultery or engaging in premarital sex--as deserving of their bloody fate.
Women's groups, by contrast, demonized the perpetrators and worked to empower women by educating them about their legal rights and encouraging economic independence.
Journalist Ayse Onal, 54, found both approaches to the homicides--in which family members kill the woman to restore their "honor"--deficient. She adopted a new approach: critical attention and an open ear for the killers.
"I felt for them," Onal said in an interview in a hotel lobby in Istanbul in April. "Nobody ever asked them about their thoughts. In my opinion, they don't want to kill."
By her side was her son Mehmet, a law student who serves as her English translator. She constantly jokes that "he is my slave."
Since her latest book, "Honour Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed," was released late last year, her slave has been in a good mood. He gets to tag along to the myriad conferences and book launches to which Onal is invited, in places like Hong Kong, Beirut and Oslo. The book is a collection of ten stories, based on interviews with the killers conducted in prisons across Turkey.
Although there are no reliable statistics, Onal estimates that at least one woman or girl is killed each day in Turkey in the name of "honor," and Bianet, a news Web site, found a similar rate of one reported assault or crime per day over a two-week period.
A Closer Look
The book has its roots in a TV report made by Onal and her close friend Mehmet Altan, a professor of economics and one of Turkey's most prominent journalists. In 2004, they applied to the Ministry of Justice for permits to visit the prisons where they knew "honor" killers were confined. A year later they were granted access to 10 prisons selected by the government, where they conducted filmed interviews with over four dozen men. Although they were allowed to bring in cameras, they weren't allowed other equipment, and much of the footage they took was too dimly-lit to use.
The men were scattered in prisons all over the country. Onal insisted on this geographic distribution to disabuse her viewers of the notion that "honor" killings only happen in Kurdish communities, which are localized in the south and east of the country.
The "honor" killers' ages ranged from 18 to 35, but most were in their early 20s. Families often assign the youngest member to carry out the killing on the assumption that a juvenile will get a reduced sentence.
In November 2005, the "honor" killings interviews were aired in two parts during Onal and Altan's program "Z Report," broadcast on the privately-owned national cable channel Star TV. Each episode drew large audiences and, according to Onal, set records for viewership. It was the first time the killers spoke--and people listened.
One man, Murat, killed his mother Hanim, who had been having an affair with her step-cousin Halil. The whole bazaar, where Murat ran a stall belonging to his uncle, was abuzz with the gossip. His uncle insisted that Murat must kill Hanim, otherwise he said, "I won't be able to show my face in the market." But it was not until Sevda, the woman Murat loved, turned him down that he realized how much it meant. Her family would never give her to him, because she told him, "My mother said your mother is a bad woman."
He stayed awake all night, pacing the streets, and returned at dawn. He picked up a gun that his sleeping father, a security guard, had left beside the bed. A few minutes later, he killed his mother with three bullets.
"No one else could have done this project," Altan said. "Both because of the quality of Onal's work, and her commitment to it. She showed us a side of Turkey we don't often see: painful stories about community pressure."
After the program aired, Onal says, she began to hear the women's side too. Phone calls poured in from women scared of being killed by their family, and Onal received them at home, offering help where she could. Grateful to finally have a sympathetic ear, men called as well.
"They would tell me 'I don't want to kill my sister,'" Onal said.
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ISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)--In interviewing imprisoned men who have killed daughters, sisters and mothers to clear their family reputations in "honor killings," Ayse Onal often found an unexpected vulnerability, while in other men she saw a disturbing disconnect between the murderer and his emotions.
But what they all had in common, she discovered in the 2004 interviews, was a sense of having been duped by their community into their actions.
In many cases, the murdered victim's autopsy showed she was still a virgin, dispelling the rumors about her "honor" that had caused the crime in the first place. After the killing, rather than being celebrated as a hero, the murderer was often shunned by his family and community.
After Onal made a TV documentary based on these interviews with the prominent Turkish journalist Mehmet Altan, her late friend Mai Ghoussoub, the founder of Saqi publishing house, encouraged her to turn the material into a book. Since the book, "Honour Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed," came out late last year, it has been translated into 19 languages and published in countries ranging from Japan to Norway.
It has yet to find a Turkish publisher, however. Onal said that publishers--despite the record-setting TV viewership of her documentary in 2005--assume that because "this is a very ordinary issue for us," it won't sell.
Sharing Victims' "Diaries"
For the book, Onal returned to the villages and houses where the murders took place, and talked to family members, friends and neighbors in order to reconstruct each tragic event.
She enriches these portraits with the victims' own thoughts, taken from bits and pieces of found writing, what she calls the victims' "diaries."
"I would find the back of a book, or a tissue, where they had written something," she said. Once, in a house in Antep, a family whose daughter had been murdered offered Onal all of her belongings to rummage through. They hadn't been touched since the killing.
"I couldn't believe it," she said. "The girl was dead and they had never even looked at her things."
Onal says it was not because of grief, but rather that "they weren't at all interested in her story."
Need for Cultural Change
Legal measures, such as a 2004 amendment that toughened sentencing for honor crimes, aren't enough, Onal said.
"The ministers have changed the law, but they haven't changed the cultural code," she said.
And attention from the European Union, she said, has only pushed the issue underground.
Whereas police once freely gave out details of "honor" killings to the press, now they are inclined to keep these types of crimes a secret.
Onal hopes instead that what she calls "the two gods of perception," religion and media, will influence Turkey for the better.
"Our religion feeds our cultural values," Onal said. "If Turkey wants to be part of the modern world, it will have to change. We don't have to pretend to be secular, because let's be honest, Turkey is not a secular country. But we can work with religious leaders," she said, to combat "honor" killings.
A more grassroots approach was suggested by one of the men she interviewed, who gave in to community pressure to kill his sister.
"It's easy for women's charities and the EU to say 'stop killing' from afar," he told Onal. "But people will not stop. If you live in our neighborhoods, you would kill. We have to change our neighborhoods, otherwise we will keep on killing."
Murat, convicted of killing his mother, said he himself wanted to go into the neighborhoods--be they rural villages or Istanbul's growing informal housing settlements--where many of these crimes take place and root out their potential by holding workshops with local men. He could tell them his story as an example of the futility of preserving one's family honor.
Onal said the men are regretful and ready to talk to other men. But the Ministry of Justice is "not interested" in these proposals, which she has suggested repeatedly over the past few years.
Jenny White, a professor at Boston University who has written extensively on gender issues in modern Turkey, expects that Onal's ideas may eventually take root, but not overnight. Turkish society, White said in an e-mail interview, still sees women's welfare as a family and community issue that should not be breached by authorities or outsiders.
Cat and Mouse Game
Troubled convicts are nothing new to Onal. She worked as a psychological counselor at a juvenile prison in the early 1980s, but when the government discovered she was "kind of a leftist," as she puts it, they fired her. In 1984, she found work as a political reporter at the prestigious weekly news magazine Nokta. She was one of many women in the newsroom, but, she says, "I was different."
She made her name covering conflicts and topics that many of her colleagues, male and female, shied away from: the Iran-Iraq war, Turkey's deep state apparatus, the Kurdish regions, Turkish-Armenian relations and Turkish Hizballah.
When she suggested in a 1994 article that a referendum, rather than conflict, might be another solution to the issue of Kurdish separatism, the government let it be known that her name was no longer welcome in print. Undeterred, she continued writing under a pseudonym.
"It's a funny game," she said, of the cat and mouse she played with government censors.
Then there was the not-so-funny game, she and her son recall together, of hiding for three months in Cyprus from Turkish Hizballah, which had published a death threat against Onal in its weekly magazine in 1994. Since October of 1994, her name has been professionally blacklisted and she has turned to writing books. In 1996, she was awarded the International Women's Media Foundation award for Courage in Journalism.
She began to focus her attention on "honor" killings in 2004, after encountering a particularly terrible case in which a young pregnant woman and her lover were stoned by their townspeople.
"Who are they (the perpetrators), how do they think, how can I understand their terrible motivations?" she said. "This was when I realized I have to look at the men's side. It was this that brought it to my attention."
Onal is now finishing a book on the deep state apparatus now known as "Ergenekon," based on a barrage of documents related to the current trials of the shadowy ultra-nationalist network. The network has been accused by the Islamist government of plotting to bring down the government and assassinate a number of Turkish intellectuals.
Her son Mehmet, who she jokes is her "slave," will be spending his summer vacation translating it into English.
Anna Louie Sussman is a Beirut-based freelance journalist. She recently completed her master's in human rights at the London School of Economics.