A Piece of White Silk
London Review of Books
Find original article here:
* Murder in the Name of Honour by Rana Husseini
Oneworld, 250 pp, £12.99, May 2009, ISBN 978 1 85168 524 0
* In Honour of Fadime: Murder and Shame by Unni Wikan, translated by Anna Paterson
Chicago, 305 pp, £12.50, June 2008, ISBN 978 0 226 89686 1
* Honour Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed by Ayse Onal
Saqi, 256 pp, £12.99, May 2008, ISBN 978 0 86356 617 2
The term ‘honour killing’ entered the British legal system in 2003, when Abdullah Yones pleaded guilty to killing his 16-year-old daughter Heshu. Accounts of the case vary but certain facts are clear. The family had fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991 – in London the father worked as a volunteer for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. At the William Morris Academy in Hammersmith, where she was a pupil, Heshu repeatedly expressed her fear of a forced marriage, but teachers ignored her. When her parents discovered her relationship with a Christian Lebanese boy, she ran away from home – her teachers, concerned that he was having an adverse effect on her schoolwork, had told her family about him. Taken to Kurdistan to marry her cousin (one account says Pakistan), and forced to undergo a virginity test, Heshu was threatened with a gun by her father but saved, on this occasion, by her mother and brother. After the family’s return to England, her brother discovered letters in which she repeated her desire to escape. She was locked in her room and stabbed to death by her father, who then tried to kill himself by jumping from the balcony after slitting his own throat.
According to Rana Husseini in Murder in the Name of Honour, in interviews before the trial, Abdullah first denied having anything to do with his daughter’s murder, then claimed she had committed suicide and that he had tried to kill himself out of grief. His £125,000 bail was raised by the local community. Threats were made against those planning to give evidence against him. In court, Abdullah pleaded guilty and asked for the death sentence, but was given life. Unni Wikan, too, tells this story, in her case-study of Fadime Sahindal, a Swedish-Kurdish woman killed at the age of 25 by her father in 2002. ‘Heshu’s case shows the terrible price the community exacts of a man who feels bound to kill his daughter,’ she writes. Wikan is an anthropologist who has made it her brief to extend the boundaries of cross-cultural understanding. ‘There have been times when I faltered,’ she writes in the opening pages, ‘because I came to feel too much sympathy for people I didn’t want to sympathise with.’
If Heshu Yones’s case makes history as the first legally recognised ‘honour killing’ in Britain, it is also remarkable for the testimony left by Heshu herself. ‘Hey, for an older man you have a good strong punch and kick,’ she writes in a farewell note to her father before trying to leave home. ‘I hope you enjoyed testing your strength on me; it was fun being on the receiving end. Well done.’ The fact that Abdullah had often beaten his daughter was somehow never picked up at her school. But Heshu’s tone is also resigned, self-blaming and philosophical, the voice, we might be tempted to say, of a ‘modern’ child: ‘It is evident that I shouldn’t be a part of you. I take all the blame openly – I’m not the child you wanted or expected me to be. disappointments are born of expectations. Maybe you expected a different me and I expected a different you.’ The letter could – almost – be a letter from any teenage daughter to her father: ‘life, being how it is, isn’t necessarily how it is. it is just simply how you choose to see it.’ But if her father had been able to agree on this principle, which gives equal validity to different ways of seeing the world, he would not have had – or rather would not have felt that he had – to kill her.
It is significant that this story begins when Abdullah receives an anonymous letter at his place of work accusing his daughter of behaving like a prostitute. The slur against a daughter’s, mother’s, sister’s honour most frequently begins with rumour and gossip, words that home in unfailingly on their target, but which also seem to come from nowhere. In Crimes of the Community: Honour-Based Violence in the UK, the 2008 report of the Centre for Social Cohesion (an independent think-tank set up by Civitas in 2007), James Brandon and Salam Hafez show that honour is damaged less ‘by a person’s action than by knowledge of that action becoming public knowledge’. ‘Knowledge’ is not quite right, however, since the damage is effective, they recognise, even if the stories are untrue. It is when a woman’s ‘perceived failings’ (my italics) become known to the wider community that she is condemned out of court. Honour-based violence then becomes at once a perverse tribute to the social power of fantasy and a brutal attempt to put an end to the unstoppable circulation of words. ‘Honour,’ argues Sana Bukhari, an outreach worker at the Sheffield women’s refuge Ashiana, ‘is about stopping people talking.’ Or, in the words of Mohamed Baleela, a project worker for the Domestic Violence Intervention Project in West London, ‘whispers will go around.’
Killing does not stop people talking, however, even when its aim is to wipe the existence of the one killed from everyone’s minds. In many of the cases reported from across the world, the killer is honoured for his act, celebrated in prison and given special status (honour is then both cause and effect of the crime). But a ‘dishonoured’ woman carries an aura, and the hateful, sordid fascination which she excites can also rub off on her killer when she dies. In Honour Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed, Ayse Onal interviews Nevzat, a man in prison in Turkey for killing his wife and daughter when the wife told him the daughter was pregnant. ‘It was obvious to Nevzat,’ Onal says, ‘that nothing, not even the sacrifice [sic] he had made, could halt the rumours.’ He had killed his wife and daughter to stop the talk behind his back, ‘but now that talk had reached epidemic proportions.’ Like his daughter, Nevzat has become gossip’s prey. You cannot, not even by killing, stamp out words.
Language is not only powerful, it is also a constant source of fear. Not just for the potential victim, but also for the whole community, which seems to be permanently braced against the chance that words will turn ugly and stain a family’s reputation for ever. ‘When two people stop to talk on the street,’ the narrator of Nadeem Aslam’s 2004 novel Maps for Lost Lovers observes, ‘their tongues are like the two halves of a scissor coming together, cutting reputations and good names to shreds.’ The book tells the story of an honour killing in a Pakistani community in an unidentified northern English town. Allegations, hints, slights and innuendo mean that every gathering in the neighbourhood, in another of his evocative images, is full of ‘broken glass’. There is no safety in numbers. Rather it is as if social being, or togetherness, at the very moment it affirms itself by public display, is silently tearing itself apart from the inside. In this light, a woman’s virtue, on which so much is staked, becomes the guardian of a social cohesion that is being eaten away by the mechanisms of talk and rumour which are being used to police her.
‘The gurdwara [Sikh temple] was – to me still is – the local gossip shop,’ Jasvinder Sanghera writes in Shame, her memoir published in 2007. Sanghera, who fled her home in Derby to escape an arranged marriage, is the cofounder of Karma Nirvana, a Derby-based community support project for South Asian women affected by domestic violence (unusually, hers is a story of triumph against the odds). When Jasvinder runs off with her lower-caste boyfriend, her mother can no longer ‘hold her head up’ in the gurdwara. Hearsay becomes a matter of life and death. Sanghera’s sister Robina prefers to die by setting herself on fire rather than leave her abusive husband, because of what it would do to their parents: ‘If I left Baldev now,’ she explained, ‘the shame would kill them.’ People who had cut her mother for years after Jasvinder left had just started talking to her again. Such exclusion is a form of social death. The mother’s deepest craving is to be reinitiated into the form of speech that cast her out, made her an outlaw, in the first place.
One of the most disturbing aspects of these stories is the involvement of mothers in policing their daughters, and even on occasion in killing them. Purna Sen, the head of human rights at the Commonwealth Secretariat, sees the involvement of women as one of the distinctive features of honour crimes. Tina Isa, the daughter of a Palestinian father and Brazilian mother, was killed in 1989 in St Louis: her mother was recorded telling her daughter to die, over and over again, as she lay on the floor having been stabbed six times (the house was bugged because the FBI had the father under surveillance as a suspected terrorist). ‘Rape her tonight,’ a mother in Maps for Lost Lovers, tells her son-in-law on his wedding night, knowing that her daughter is repelled by this man whom she’s been forced to marry. Sanghera’s story is not one of honour killing, but when she phones her mother pleading to be allowed home – her book opens with this scene – her mother tells her she is as good as dead in her eyes. ‘Why,’ she asks, ‘did Mum maintain that unhappiness was just a normal part of married life? Why did she not protect her daughters?’ In Maps for Lost Lovers, Mah-Jabin, the daughter of Kaukab, the central woman character, returns home to escape an abusive marriage in Pakistan: ‘What hurts me,’ she says to her mother in a scene of violent confrontation, ‘is that you could have given me that freedom instead of delivering me into the same kind of life that you were delivered into.’ ‘I did not have the freedom to give you that freedom,’ Kaukab replies, ‘don’t you see?’
Fadime Sahindal’s mother, Elif, testified in court on behalf of her husband (for Wikan, Elif’s betrayal of her daughter is one of the hardest things to penetrate). We could contrast this with the case of Tulay Goren, in the news this autumn, who disappeared in 1999 at the age of 15, presumed murdered by her father for her relationship with an older man from a different Muslim sect (her uncles are also charged with conspiracy to murder). Her body has never been found. The mother has broken a ten-year silence to speak out against her husband at the trial, although we do not yet know, and might never fully know, her role in the story.
It is central to the case of Fadime Sahindal, as told by Wikan, that she became a celebrity. Fadime had fallen in love with a Swedish-Iranian, Patrik Lindesjo. Her family were Kurds from south-eastern Turkey who had lived in Sweden for 20 years. One day, Fadime was spotted in the street with Patrik by her father, Rahmi. Although Rahmi later claimed that the families had agreed to the marriage and that the only issue was who should pay for the wedding, Fadime recognised this moment as a point of no return: ‘He would’ve broken my neck if he had got hold of me … I know I’ve ruined the life of my whole family.’ Not untypically, Fadime identifies at moments like these with the values that will kill her: ‘No one will want to marry the girls in my family – they’re all whores now.’ Fadime was cast out from her family, and left Uppsala for a social work course in northern Sweden (although that in itself was something of a breakthrough for a woman of her social group). In Wikan’s account it was the more or less explicit understanding shared by all the members of the family that Fadime’s exile was the only acceptable alternative to her death.
Fadime is remarkable for the way she went public. She secured convictions against her father and brother for threatening to kill her, and then again against her brother for seriously assaulting her during a return visit to Uppsala: he was given a five-month prison sentence. These results are notable, not least because, when she first went to the police, they were indifferent to her complaints. This is often the pattern. The most famous example in this country is that of Banaz Mahmod, who was raped, tortured and strangled in 2006 by two members of her extended family – flown in from Kurdistan – while her father watched. After an earlier assault, she had been found covered in blood in the street after breaking a window to escape, but was accused by the police of exaggeration (‘a lying drunk’, in fact, as one report put it: her father had also forced brandy down her throat). In the weeks leading up to her death she went to the police six times. A formal complaint against PC Angela Cornes, who also considered bringing charges of criminal damage against her for the broken window, was dropped for lack of evidence. Cornes was promoted to sergeant last year.
Fadime’s successes in court gave her every reason to believe that her boldness was paying off. A month before her father and brother were due to be sentenced, she appeared with Patrik on television; they talked about their love and the threats against them. Fadime sought publicity in the belief that it would save her life: ‘Perhaps they won’t dare to kill me now that so many people know who I am!’ Two months before her death, in November 2001, she agreed, after first refusing, to address a seminar in the Swedish parliament organised by the Violence Against Women network. In front of an audience of 350, she described her turn to the mass media as her ‘last chance’. She had hoped to create a public debate about the problems of girls from immigrant families. But she also recognised that what she called the ‘media circus’ had got out of control. Fadime had become a ‘national celebrity’. For her sister Nebile, it was this that drove their father to violence, and made him sick (that he was sick would be the grounds for his defence).
Fadime knew that to expose her family publicly, when the original sin was one of dishonour or public humiliation, was massively to compound her offence. She refused the option of having the first hearing against her father and brother behind closed doors. She was courting danger, as she was by violating the unspoken conditions of exile and returning to Uppsala to visit her mother and sisters on the night she died, though none of this remotely excuses her killing. There is also something contradictory in the idea that someone could ‘go for celebrity status in an attempt to protect herself’ (celebrity always contains a potential element of shame). But if this case is so powerful, and more than justifies the meticulous attention Wikan gives to it, it is because Fadime is also driven by another vision of social obligation. She is speaking for the invisible women of her community. In this she is in harmony with Rana Husseini, one of whose main objectives in reporting case after case – also at huge personal risk – is to make sure that every single instance of honour killing becomes news. Each of these three books can be read as a form of devotion (Wikan’s is literally written ‘in honour’ of her subject): they are at once tributes and campaigns. To write about honour killing is in the first instance simply to demand that these crimes be talked about and seen. Viewed in these terms, Fadime’s self-exposure is a kind of sharing and an act of love: ‘I gave voice, and lent face.’
According to Wikan, there are two words for honour in Kurdish: sharaf, an Arabic word referring to a man’s sense of honour and self-worth, and namus, which refers to the purity and propriety of women. The distinction between the two is precarious: a man’s sharaf will be irreparably damaged if he fails to control the behaviour of the women in his family. His honour is therefore irretrievably linked to her potential shame. To these two terms, Brandon and Hafez add ird, an Arabic word that indicates the sexual purity with which a woman is born – once damaged it can never be restored. Honour is therefore vested in women but is the property of men. ‘Women cannot own honour,’ the anthropologist Shala Haeri writes with reference to izzat, the Pakistani term for honour. ‘They are honour.’ Honour is basic, like bread; one of Onal’s Turkish interviewees, in prison for killing his sister, says he lives for ‘honour, dignity and for his daily bread’. But it is also elusive and constantly under threat, in the words of Brandon and Hafez, ‘an intangible asset dependent on a community’s perceptions’. The man’s honour depends on the woman, who, by his own account of her sexual nature, necessarily places it at risk. ‘In Arab culture,’ Lama Abu-Odeh writes in a brilliant essay on crimes of honour in the Arab world, ‘a man is that person whose sister’s virginity is a social question for him.’* As she also points out, men make deals with each other not to ‘sneak’ inside the walls built by their friends around their own sisters, but then exploit the camaraderie that follows to ‘sneak’ inside the walls built around the sisters of other men. Women must abstain from premarital sex, ‘and from any act that might lead to sexual activity, and from any act that might lead to an act that might lead to an act that might lead to sexual activity’. Feminism has long pointed out that the idealisation of women’s bodies can be a thinly veiled form of hatred, always ready to trample on the one who falls or fails. In the case of honour, the rift is glaring. We are dealing with a vicious injunction and a Sisyphean task. You will enact honour in every bone of your body and every minute of your life because, as a woman, you are the one who carries the seeds of its destruction.
No matter then that a woman is born pure, she is also judged before she breathes. Mehmet Mirza, another of Onal’s subjects, taught his daughter – whom he would one day kill – that she carried the family honour ‘in her body’, but she ‘had never understood that being a girl was a shameful thing’. How can both things be true? How can you lodge honour in a house of shame? In another of Onal’s cases, the father more simply cuts down a tree on the birth of his daughter; he planted a tree for the birth of each of his eight sons. In the Quran, it is the unbeliever whose face darkens at the birth of a baby girl and who hides away for shame: ‘Should he keep her and suffer contempt or bury her in the dust?’ Today, Onal writes: ‘It seemed to me that in small villages in Turkey, the simple fact of being born a woman was tragic in itself.’
Turkish has a range of terms to describe the risks of honour. Namusa laf gelmek refers to other people’s gossip about one’s namus; namusu kirlenmek to one’s namus being dirtied or stained; and namusunu temizlemek to a man’s obligation to cleanse it. Honour is a quality, or an object that can be stained, muddied, tainted, besmirched. This makes the task of cleansing it a symptom or compulsion, as well as offering a new take on domestic work. ‘Zehra was cleaning,’ Onal writes of a woman who has returned to the family home and who will be later be murdered for leaving her violent marriage. ‘In fact, since the day she arrived, she had been cleaning the already spotless house from top to bottom, as though it were an act of purification to cleanse her of all that she had had to endure.’ The mother of one victim whitewashes the walls of her house after the death to indicate that the family’s honour has been restored. ‘My daughters,’ affirmed a father who died before the crisis that would envelop his family, ‘are sparkling clean’ (his words are reported to Onal by his murderer son).
Virtue must shine. The woman’s duty is to make not just the home but the world ‘sparkling clean’, as if she were already being asked to remove the stain of her own future dishonour. Or as if she were being asked to wash away, before the event, the blood of the crime of which she will one day be the victim. In her address to the parliamentary seminar, Fadime went to great lengths to present the feelings of her family: ‘Behaviour like mine must be punished, and my guilt washed off with blood.’ Nazir Afzal, the lead lawyer on honour-based violence at the Crown Prosecution Service in Britain, said he gave up his belief that things had improved with the new generation when a young man he interviewed compared a man to a bar of gold and a woman to a piece of white silk: ‘If gold gets dirty you can just wipe it clean, but if a piece of silk gets dirty you can never get it clean again – and you might as well just throw it away.’
Obsession, however, always reveals an underside of disquiet. Shala Haeri’s formula – man owns, woman is, honour – resonates strangely with Lacan’s formula for phallic power, ‘she is without it, he is not without it,’ which should be read, counter-intuitively but according to one syntactic option, as indicating that being without it, she exists (‘she is’), while his so-called possession empties his being at the core (‘he is not’). As early as 1980, in The Hidden Face of Eve, Nawal El Saadawi wrote of Arab men (although she was happy to extend her comment to ‘most men’) that they cannot abide an intelligent woman because ‘She knows very well that his masculinity is not real, not an essential truth.’ The honour killer is a stalker marking out his territory and policing a boundary between the sexes on which he cannot rely. The fact that her dishonour rubs off on him makes the distinction somewhat shaky, displaying how closely the man and the woman are enmeshed with each other. He has placed his masculinity in her hands. We could say that he needs her too much. Such dependency thwarts the image of an upright, self-reliant masculinity on which the man’s honour is based. If only unconsciously, the honour killer, even before he acts, has already ceded his victim too much power. ‘Honour,’ Lama Abu-Odeh writes, citing David Gilmore, ‘is not only what women must keep intact to remain alive, but what men should defend fiercely so as not to be reduced to women.’ ‘We are men,’ the killers in Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers say, ‘but she reduced us to eunuch bystanders by not paying attention to our wishes.’ The act of murder restores them, or so they assert, because ‘it was we who made the choice to be murderers.’
Wikan is right that killing one’s daughter for honour has not historically been part of European codes of conduct, but the idea of death as the only way for a woman to redeem her sexual transgression has. In Much Ado about Nothing, Claudio is told by Don John on the eve of his wedding that Hero has been unfaithful to him: ‘It would better fit your honour to change your mind.’ Wrongly accused at the ceremony, Hero faints to the ground, apparently dead. When she revives, her father, Leonato, exclaims:
Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes:
For did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,
Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,
Myself would on the rearward of reproaches Strike at thy life …
Hero is stained, like a piece of white silk:
O, she is fall’n
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again.
More, in Hero’s own eyes, if the charge is true, it would justify her death: ‘Refuse me, hate me, torture me to death!’ ‘If they speak but truth of her,’ Leonato responds, ‘These hands shall tear her.’ It is enough to convince the Friar and Benedick, also present at the scene, that there must be some dreadful mistake. But neither one of them challenges the basic assumption: that a violent, tortuous death at the hands of a father would be the just reward for a daughter’s sexual offence.
It is crucial, therefore, that we do not fall into the trap of seeing honour killing, for all its horrific nature, or rather because of it, as the expression of an alien culture, religion or tradition that has no resonance in the West. For that reason, both Wikan and Husseini cast their net wide, drawing examples from the United Kingdom, Jordan, Sweden, the United States, Pakistan. It is no less crucial to insist that honour killing cannot be equated with Islam. Both Wikan and Husseini work hard to break this equation. Wikan includes Christian examples and draws on her experience of honour cultures which do not oppress women from her fieldwork in Oman, ‘a Muslim society in which to be honourable means to honour others’. Husseini draws on her own struggle to change the Jordanian law on crimes of honour; the narrative of that struggle is central to her book. The founding petition of the Jordanian National Committee to Eliminate So-Called Honour Crimes calls on the authorities to protect ‘victims of traditions and social norms that have no basis in Islam, the Jordanian Constitution or basic human rights’. Such crimes, it continues, violate Islamic religion, which requires four witnesses to testify to any act of adultery and assigns to the state or ruler the only power to inflict punishment on the guilty. When the Netherlands circulated a draft resolution on crimes of honour at the UN in 2000, the Islamic Group submitted a letter to the secretary general, appending this statement: ‘Member States of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, like other States Members of the UN, in keeping with their obligations under the universally accepted instruments on human rights, have all committed themselves to opposing any form of arbitrary or extrajudicial killing of any human being, particularly women, in the name of passion, honour or race.’ They were responding at least in part to Shelley Saywell’s 1999 documentary, Crimes of Honour, which was screened internationally as well as at the UN, and which opened with the image of a mosque and the sound of a call to prayer.
In fact, whether Fadime Sahindal was a Muslim at all became the subject of fierce dispute. The Islamic Council in Norway pronounced that she was not. But others saw her family, although not active worshippers, as part of an immigrant Muslim community whose identity relied on religious precepts even if these were not strictly observed. You are born and remain a Muslim throughout your life unless you declare your desire to leave Islam. For those adhering to this view, Fadime’s funeral in the cathedral in Uppsala, a media event attended by Crown Princess Victoria, the archbishop, two government ministers and numerous other dignitaries, was an affront (even if, out of respect for Islam, the canon made no reference to the Trinity in her address). There is a tightrope to walk here. The Islamic Council was most likely repudiating Fadime, rather than intervening to protect her family from racial hatred in response to her death; but the tacit condemnation, if that is what it was, should not be taken to mean that Islam condones her killing – or, according to one common but mistaken argument, requires it. Honour killing is not a religious act and no justification for it can be found in the Quran. In the Quran, life is sacred and can be taken only in pursuit of justice. Slave girls must not be forced into prostitution ‘when they themselves wish to remain honourable’; if they are, they will be forgiven by God (compare this with the cases reported in these books of women who are killed for having been raped, often by a family member). Men and women are punished equally for adultery.
The point is not to suggest that the Quran is a progressive text for women. It famously assigns men to ‘a degree’ above women (how far that degree extends is a matter of debate). It exhorts the husband to beat a disobedient wife. Spiritual equality between men and women is not matched by equality in regard to marriage, child custody or divorce. But nowhere in the Quran is it suggested that women who are raped, have sex outside marriage, choose their husband against the wishes of their father, or do none of these things but are simply talked about as if they do, should be killed. ‘I know that killing my sister is against Islam and it angered God,’ says Sarhan, a Jordanian interviewed by Husseini. ‘But I had to do what I had to do and I will answer to God when the time comes.’
Feminist commentary on the Quran draws the most scrupulous distinctions between Islam as ethical principle and Islam as a set of diktats based on an increasingly oppressive interpretation of law. Honour killing is not an Islamic practice, but violence against women can be sanctioned by a literal reading, many would say misreading, of sharia law. For Leila Ahmed, it is institutional and legal Islam, determined by the politically dominant class, that has acted consistently against women. Ghada Karmi reads the Quran itself as two texts: one regulatory, which arises out of the conditions of the time, and the other universal, spiritual and philosophical, a guide to the inner life which by definition cannot be grounded in law. In both cases a wedge is driven between Islam as practice and as word. ‘A reading by a less androcentric and misogynist society,’ Ahmed writes, ‘one that gave greater ear to the ethical voice of the Quran, could have resulted in – could someday result in – the elaboration of laws that dealt equitably with women.’ Before Islam, it is often argued, women were freer – the Prophet’s first wife was an independently wealthy older woman. According to al-Bukhari, the Hadith compiler, earlier marriage customs included a woman being invited by her husband to cohabit with another man in order to secure a child, and women having several sexual partners, the paternity of any child being decided by a gathering of these men on the basis of which one the child most resembled. Institutional Islam can be fairly charged with sanctioning the loss of those freedoms and playing its part in their demise, although whether it initiated or legitimised these changes is, according to Karmi, a question with no definitive answer.
But simply by opening the question, widening the gap between potentiality and history, between the inner message of a faith and a religion in the vice of political power, or more simply between a text and its interpretation, you make it impossible to lay the worst – and honour killing has a fair claim to be described as the worst – at Islam’s door. Such forms of questioning, at which of course feminism excels, have always been the strongest riposte to the brute conviction of any power or law. Feminism is never served by seeing any religion or culture, immovably, as a monolith which leaves no one, especially no woman, with any room to breathe. Here the significant opposition is not between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ (which always works to the advantage of the culture making the distinction) but between those who go on reading and those who do not. Assign honour killing to Islam as a type of fait accompli and you strip away the chance of seeing it as a practice, not simply reflective of a social order or belief system that is is coherent, but rather than the sign of one that is torn and unstable, that precisely requires violence to secure itself. Crimes of honour are meant to be a solution: ‘The problem is over now,’ Fadime’s father said after her death. To which one answer is to place such crimes, as Wikan does, under the prism of multiple, shifting, conflicting points of view, to tell the same story over and over again. In her book, everyone’s version, including the father’s, is told in full. Similarly, in Maps for Lost Lovers, the crime is the beginning not the end of the story – a bloody mark on the page around which reader and characters painfully circulate, uncertain of what they see. ‘They’ – the murdered lovers – ‘have become a bloody Rorschach blot: different people see different things in what has happened.’
If the charge against religion is relatively easy to answer, the charge against culture is far more complex, and in a sense this is the issue on which our understanding of crimes of honour must turn. Abdullah Yones did not make a plea of honour, even if the case was classified by the Metropolitan Police as an honour crime. Nor was honour put forward in the defence of Fadime’s father, Rahmi. Rahmi preferred to plead sickness – that is, before he changed his plea and denied the killing altogether by claiming on appeal that it had been carried out by an unidentified man from the woods who forced him to take the blame (the appeal, not surprisingly, failed and he was sentenced to life). He prefers, in other words, to impugn his own mental health, even if he blames his illness on his daughter’s conduct, rather than appeal to what has come to be known as the ‘cultural defence’: a plea for mitigation based on the defendant’s cultural codes. In Florida in 1974, a Greek immigrant was acquitted for the murder of his daughter’s rapist partly on the grounds that no Greek father would be expected to wait for the police. In Los Angeles in 1985, a Japanese-American woman who tried to kill herself and her daughters by wading into the ocean on hearing of her husband’s infidelity was spared the death penalty (oyako-shingu, or parent-child suicide, is illegal in Japan but recognised as a response to an unacceptable social predicament). The cultural defence challenges the idea of ‘objective reasonable behaviour’, a concept that is usually adhered to in US law but is freighted with cultural baggage. ‘Judges and juries,’ Alison Dundes Renteln writes in The Cultural Defence (2004), ‘are asked to weigh a person’s actions in the light of what … an “objective” person would do under similar circumstances … There is no such person.’
Kurds living in Norway, where cultural defence has more purchase than in Sweden, tended to be unhappy with the trial of Rahmi Sahindal, seeing it as a serious failure of the Swedish legal system not to have raised in court the concepts of namus and sharif. To have done so, the argument runs, would have protected the Kurdish ethnic minority. It would have ushered difference into the courtroom, challenging the universality and neutrality of Swedish law. It would also probably have reduced Rahmi’s sentence. The cultural defence is based on a type of utopian fantasy or wish: that the worldview of the minority community, against the drift of the dominant society all around it, take precedence in law.
But if the cultural defence works, or is intended to work, in the interests of minority communities, it can also backfire, to the detriment of the defendant and his world. Rahmi’s lawyer made his decision not to raise the issue partly on the basis that to introduce ‘honour’ would have given his client a motive (even though he at first pleaded guilty). But it is also the case that a plea based on culture can be experienced by the minority on whose behalf it is mounted as a humiliation, by seeming to endorse a hostile view of the group as irredeemably, not to say violently, different. When Judge Denison reduced Abdullah Yones’s sentence from the recommended 20 years to 14 on the grounds of ‘irreconcilable cultural differences’, it was hardly a neutral decision. ‘The risk,’ Wikan writes, ‘is that a whole culture or community is branded as having a tradition of “honour” that can lead to murder.’ It is only a short step from here to branding the whole community a bunch of criminals. For the same reason, Fadime’s sisters and mother worried that too much emphasis on the family’s rejection of her Swedish boyfriend (in fact he was Swedish-Iranian) would confirm the impression that Kurds were hostile to Swedes. They were right to be worried. The family was the subject of a media witch-hunt which spilled over to the whole Kurdish community in Sweden. ‘Kurdish Woman Murdered’ was the broadsheet headline after Fadime’s death. The headline ‘Swedish Woman Murdered’ – which was not going to happen – would have turned the problem into one implicating all Swedes.
The cultural defence might therefore seem to be on the side of the wretched of the earth, but on closer inspection this turns out to be something of an illusion. A woman is murdered. Her killer is partly exonerated on grounds of honour. This is the legal reality which Husseini has played such a key role in struggling to change in Jordan, and which holds across much of the Arab world (it is also the central target of Abu-Odeh’s essay). In whose interest is such a verdict? There is always a risk that the plea for culture will blind itself to the hierarchy of power, most often gendered, within it. Wikan is familiar with this argument since she mounted it in Generous Betrayal: Politics of Culture in the New Europe (2002), when a report she had been commissioned to write on children and youth in immigrant communities was watered down by the Norwegian authorities, unwilling to confront ‘the power of men to define the good of women and children’. Often these are men who have ascended to positions of authority way beyond that enjoyed in their countries of origin. Part of the problem in the UK is that the British government and the police rely on such intermediaries, often the most conservative men in their community, who then become tools in managing minority communities on behalf of the state.
In Tayside, one community leader, Mohammed Arshad, a Pakistani, a founder member of the Tayside Racial Equality Commission and chairman of the local Islamic Council and mosque, initiated an attempted honour killing against his daughter’s husband for marrying her without his permission. In its appeal for his seven-year sentence to be reduced to community service, the Tayside Islamic and Cultural Education Society described him as ‘a very highly respected and honoured member’ of the community.
The community leader consulted by Robina Sanghera, Jasvinder’s sister, on the day before she killed herself, told her to return to her abusive husband: ‘When a pan of milk is boiling up, it’s a woman’s job to settle it down again’ (Jasvinder was eavesdropping on the conversation at her sister’s request). When Jasvinder decided to have the death investigated, she chose a firm of solicitors from the Yellow Pages that did not have an Asian name. In the Crimes of the Community report, John Paton, the manager of the Lancashire Family Mediation Service, acknowledges that if he sends Asian women to local community workers or agencies, there is every chance it will be reported back to their families. In one case a woman fleeing her home in a taxi was returned by the cab driver and then killed. Gina Khan, a Birmingham woman of Pakistani origin who publicly denounced local Islamists’ teaching on women, was the target of a campaign of intimidation against her and her children (she now lives in hiding in another part of the UK). ‘They are dominant males,’ says the chairperson of a women’s project in Bradford who preferred to remain anonymous, ‘who are trying to bully us.’
For the feminist critique of multiculturalism, this is an unanswerable complaint (Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? is the title of a 1999 anthology edited by Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard and Martha Nussbaum). ‘I failed her,’ Mona Sahlin, the Swedish minister for integration, said after Fadime’s death, ‘because I was afraid of fanning the flames of racism.’ Southall Black Sisters, the first group to raise the profile of honour-based violence in this country, have long argued that cultural defences are a tool used by men to justify violence against women. For Radhika Coomaraswamy, the former United Nations special rapporteur on such violence, multiculturalism is being used to excuse the violation of women’s rights. Crimes of honour potentially violate the right to life, liberty, bodily integrity, the prohibition against torture or cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment, the prohibition on slavery, the right to freedom from gender-based discrimination and sexual abuse or exploitation, the right to privacy, the duty to modify discriminatory practices against women.
Seen in these terms, culture becomes another word for the unequal distribution of pain – the formulation comes from the Indian anthropologist Veena Das. Nasim Karim, a Norwegian-Pakistani woman who barely escaped a forced marriage with her life, put it even more arrestingly in an address to members of the Norwegian parliament in 1996: ‘When a man is subject to violence, it is called torture, but when a woman is subject to violence, it is called culture.’ The strong version of this argument – voiced for example by the Berlin-based feminist activist Seyran Ates – is that multiculturalism contributes to the slavery of women.
The question then remains whether, as a feminist, you should split open any one culture into its male and female components, tear the cover off the apparent neutrality of multiculturalism, and expose the violent power quotient nestling within it, or instead discard the concept altogether. Logically, at least, it does not seem possible to do both. For Wikan, and she is not alone, honour killing has its own ‘iron logic’, and must be treated as a special case. For Husseini, honour crimes are acts of violence against women that transcend any one culture – ‘control crimes’, in another definition – by being part of a pattern that stretches across the globe. As a term, ‘honour killing’ is a mistake: ‘Crimes of honour are just that: crimes, pure and simple. For me, wherever their roots are supposed to lie, they are nothing to do with tradition, culture or religion. They are all about control – an effective method of regulating the freedom of movement, freedom of expression and sexuality of women.’ To which we should add their economic freedom, given that a mercenary motive is also a frequent factor in these crimes.
In this, the law at least partly bears Husseini out. In English law, the defence of provocation, alleging a sudden or temporary loss of control, bears a strong family resemblance to the defence of honour (both are used in mitigation of sentence for acts of murder). In Jordan, Article 340 of the Penal Code, the target of Husseini’s campaign, allows for exemption or reduction of penalty for any man killing, wounding or injuring any female relative he discovers in a situation of adultery. Article 98 allows for such a reduction if he commits any such crime in a ‘fit of fury’. We are close here to the Western defence of ‘crime of passion’. ‘Is it not an unacceptable paradox,’ asks Ian Leader-Elliott, who teaches law in Adelaide, ‘that the progressive restriction of a husband’s power to exert lawful control over his wife has been accompanied by a progressive enlargement of a partial excuse for killing her?’
Both the critique of multiculturalism and the case that violence against women is a general, even universal phenomenon, have some truth in them. The problem with the first, however, is that it can and will be used, or rather misused, to pander to prejudice against immigrants (in the UK the call to drop the agenda of multiculturalism has hardly been progressive). The problem with the second is that it promotes a vision of men – who are also the targets of honour killing – as the unfailing oppressors of women, for all time and everywhere.
There is, of course, another reason for refusing to accept the term ‘honour killings’. There is no honour involved. ‘No Honour in Murder’ is the slogan of the London-based NGO Kurdish Women Action against Honour Killing; ‘No “honour” in domestic violence, only shame!’ is the slogan of the Southall Black Sisters. Or, in the words of PC Steve Cox, a family liaison officer in Lancashire: ‘Honour is completely the wrong word … What is honourable about this?’ He had just seen a father who had set fire to his whole family pulled from the flames. In saying this, he is tearing the concept up from its roots, planting it in different soil. Why on earth at such a moment would you pause to ask whether you have the right so to displace it?
The significance given to honour crimes in debates about immigrant communities, and the degree to which such debates act against the interests of those communities, cannot, post-9/11, be underestimated. For that reason some suggest, wrongly, that they should not receive undue attention or even be talked about. When Crimes of the Community was published last year, the Daily Telegraph seized on Nazir Afzal’s remark that the location of ‘Islamist groups – or terrorist cells’ and the incidence of honour-based violence in the UK were a more or less exact mirror of each other. ‘We are dealing,’ the Telegraph said, ‘with a threat to security as well as freedoms.’ In a twist, which oddly dispatches or at the very least downplays the threat honour killing poses to women, the perpetrator of the crime becomes an al-Qaida infiltrator, an agent against the state and, by implication, against everyone. The article was a perfect demonstration of the way honour crimes can be put to the service of a post-9/11 agenda targeted against Islam (‘hate the crime, let go of your hatreds’ would be a better rallying cry). But it also revealed that this movement against minorities, which is prevalent across Europe and the US, is grounded in a self-serving vision of what it means to belong to modern time (a point made by Judith Butler in Frames of War). These ‘societies’ [sic], the Telegraph commented, ‘are scarcely recognisable as part of 21st-century Britain.’ ‘We’, it is implied, are the custodians of modernity: everyone else, notably immigrant communities, is trailing behind. According to this way of thinking, honour killing can be taken to reveal that, even if most of their members were born in the UK, such communities are still living in another world.
In February 2005, Hatun Sürücü, a young woman of Turkish background, was murdered in Berlin, allegedly by her brothers. When few from the migrant community showed up at a memorial vigil staged by a lesbian and gay organisation a few weeks after her death, the fact was seized on by the German press as indicating the community’s support for her murder (rejecting honour killing and solidarity with gay rights became somehow equated). This suggests that the human rights agenda in relation to honour killing is more complex than it seems. It is not to exonerate homophobia to suggest, for example, that a minority community’s hesitancy about modern sexual freedoms should not be taken to indicate that, en masse and with no reservations, they support honour crimes. When Hatun’s sister filed for custody of the dead woman’s son, there was an uproar: one senior Christian Social Union politician was reported to have suggested the whole family be deported, even though the court had found that a younger brother was solely responsible for the murder. ‘As the bearer of Turkish culture,’ Katherine Pratt Ewing writes in her study of the case, Stolen Honour (2008), the entire family ‘was to blame’. In this instance, honour killing ceases to be a crime and becomes a stigma (Pratt Ewing’s book is subtitled ‘Stigmatising Muslim Men in Berlin’).
The Parliamentary Assembly of Europe’s April 2003 Resolution on ‘So-Called “Honour Crimes”’ attributes them to ‘archaic, unjust cultures and traditions’ (amended from simply ‘unjust cultures and traditions’ in the first draft). The resolution, which was refined and strengthened in June this year, is exemplary for the action it calls for against honour-related violence, but the word ‘archaic’ lifts the crime, and entire cultures – ‘archaic, unjust cultures’ – out of the complexities of modern life, indeed out of the heart of Europe, where the rest of the document is very careful to situate them. Writing about forced marriage in the New Statesman last year, Ziauddin Sardar described it as ‘this obnoxious tribal custom’ (he used the word ‘tribal’ seven times in his article). What seems to be unthinkable is the idea that honour crimes – even if, like any form of violence, they boast a long and dishonourable history – might be related to the pressures of the modern world. This is all the more true as the different parts of that world – none essentially any more modern than the rest since, after all, we are all alive at the same time – increasingly, and inseparably, become part of one another.
Out of the five thousand cases of honour killing the UN estimates take place across the world each year, two hundred are thought to take place in Turkey. In the UK the police and the Crown Prosecution Service put the figure at about ten a year. All such figures can be assumed to be gross underestimates. In January 2008, Commander Steve Allen, giving evidence in the House of Commons on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers, put the annual figure of forced marriages and honour killings in the UK at around five hundred (an article in the Independent in the same month put it at 17,000). Over the past 50 years, 75 per cent of the Turkish population has migrated to the cities, where the incidence of the crime is increasing. Honour killing today is therefore a facet of urbanisation or, at the very least, of communities that are not static or frozen in time but on the move. For Nükhet Sirman, a Turkish sociologist, honour in Turkey has become integral to the way the modern state regulates the passage to democracy by striking a pact with men in their households (nationalism, she reminds us, has been a mainly male discourse since its inception in the 1870s). ‘No Muslim country,’ Pankaj Mishra wrote recently, ‘has ever done as much as Turkey to make itself over in the image of a European nation-state.’ ‘To see honour as a traditional concept,’ Sirman writes, ‘is to render invisible the modes through which it still regulates the identity and the life of all women.’
This is to make honour killing a component in the complex political realities of our time. In Iraqi Kurdistan, where both Heshu Yones’s and Fadime Sahindal’s families originally came from, issues of honour have become meshed with the lack of a nation-state and the struggle for self-determination (Heshu’s father had taken part in the Kurdish uprisings of the late 1980s and early 1990s). In a world where legal restraint has mostly been experienced as a foreign imposition, any attempt to curtail honour, Nazand Begikhani writes, is seen as ‘an assault on the nationalist cause’. ‘Her roots,’ Wikan writes of Fadime’s mother when she refuses to talk to the police, ‘are in a place where the state is regarded as an enemy.’
Honour today is therefore involved with the modern world of nations (a pathology of modernity, we could almost say). Migrant communities to the UK bring their histories with them. Migrants often entrench their conservatism, notably towards their daughters, when they arrive on foreign soil, first in response to Western sexual freedoms (the exploitation, commercialisation and display of sex), but also – we can assume – in response to inequality, discrimination and prejudice. The problem therefore belongs here. The hand that kills the daughter in Acton in West London is not the same as the hand that would have done so in Kurdistan. The point is that it wants to be. That is the delusion or, as we might say, the killer. In the passage from there to here, something has been lost and something else, worse even, has been put in its place. Honour killing can be seen, metaphorically speaking, as a doomed attempt to bring the family home – even if in pieces.
‘The white police are interested in us Pakistanis,’ Kaukab says in Maps for Lost Lovers, ‘only when there is a chance to prove that we are savages who slaughter our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.’ Racism in this country is, we could say, the sleeping partner of honour crimes. This is neither to excuse nor to forgive unforgivable violence against women, but to situate it. Friends in Pakistan advise the family involved in the murder not to tell the truth: ‘The West is full of hypocrites, who kill our people with impunity and say it’s all a matter of principle and justice, but when we do the same thing they say our definition of “principle” and “justice” is flawed.’
It may therefore be right to read honour crimes in terms of a pull between the traditional values of a migrant community and life in the metropolis, but this does not have to involve giving the West a monopoly on the forward march of history, or assigning immigrant communities to its backwaters. These are two halves of an equation that doesn’t balance. How, in any case, are you meant to distribute the values on either side of the divide? On the night she died, Fadime’s mother went to meet her daughter, reaching out to her against the edicts of her husband, whom she had previously obeyed. But only prejudice, not to say racism, would read the kindness alone as the sign of her integration into Swedish values. ‘Elif,’ Wikan writes, ‘would probably have done the same in Kurdistan.’
Following the 2001 race riots in northern cities in the UK, the then home secretary, David Blunkett, called for tougher immigration controls. Specifically alluding to ‘backward’ views which perpetrate oppressive practices against women, he attributed the riots to failed integration on the part of young Asian males (he was supporting Labour MPs such as Ann Cryer who had called for more immigration controls as a way of dealing with forced marriages). Immigration control thus becomes a test case for women’s freedom. This is a bit like claiming that the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was waged on behalf of women. An almost surreal example of honour killing doing service for such an agenda is provided by Norma Khouri’s bestselling Forbidden Love (2002), published as the true story of an honour killing in Jordan, whose image of Jordan, Islam and all Arab men as violently oppressive towards women played a key role in swinging Australian opinion towards support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – at one point a character suggests that Arab men are raising their sons to be ‘the next Arab Hitlers’. Husseini spends several pages discrediting Khouri’s book, which was eventually withdrawn from sale by Random House. In the case of Hatun Sürücü in Berlin, the killing contributed to a purging of national memory. A free and civilised Germany, and an idealised German manhood, could walk away from the past: it is the Turks, not the Germans, who are concealing a secret world of horrific crimes. Among other things, this allows Germany to ignore the way it treats its Turkish population. Across Europe today, the far right is using a ‘culture of fear’ – to use the title of Mishra’s recent essay – targeted against Muslims to ‘repackage’ its foundational anti-semitism. In which case we can fairly say that, at a deep level, hatred of Muslims – honour killing in bed with terrorism – has nothing whatsoever to do with culture.
Needless to say, for those who have been at the forefront of campaigning to raise the profile of honour crime, none of this has been the aim. ‘The state was now using the demand for women’s rights in minority communities,’ Hannana Siddiqui writes with reference to Blunkett, ‘to impose immigration controls and justify a racist agenda.’ We can expect this to continue. In a speech in February 2008 to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, David Cameron praised the commission’s chair, Trevor Phillips, for his critique of multiculturalism and concluded that Britain should become ‘a cold place’ for those refusing to integrate. ‘Integration’ is not, of course, an innocent term. It can be, in Wikan’s terms, ‘misleading, bewildering, deceiving’. What does it mean, for instance, when Philip Balmforth, Bradford police force’s vulnerable persons’ officer for Asian women, talks of the ‘completely different type of Asian person’ he encounters in London as the way forward: ‘I see them causing little if any problems to anybody in the establishment.’ Should that be our criterion for a better, more integrated world?
It is not always easy to avoid these vocabularies. Crimes of the Community is the most informative source I have read on honour-based violence in the UK. Nonetheless, its title – ‘crimes of the community’ – could be read as implying, against the evidence of the document itself, that the community, rather than consisting of individuals, some condoning, others hating these hideous acts carried out in their name, harbours such crimes in its very nature.
The question remains how to write about honour killing, and what form, or style, is best suited to the task. Towards the end of Maps for Lost Lovers, we discover that one of the two brother killers, Chotta, had found his lover, Kiran, in bed with another man on the night that he murdered his sister and her lover for living openly with each other. Kiran, who had never married, had spent most of her life mourning a lost love she had been prevented as a young woman from marrying by his family because she was a Sikh. It is this man, returned to England to seek her out after an absence of decades, whom she has taken into her bed on the night of the killing. ‘He saw us and went away shouting abuse, pulling off and shattering all those mirrors I have hanging in the staircase. A thousand broken mirrors: there was an eternity’s worth of bad luck in his wake.’ Kiran has no doubt that it is this rage that Chotta then unleashes on his sister.
It is because of its peculiar density and quality that Maps for Lost Lovers can burrow beneath an honour killing and draw up, in the minutest, lyrical detail, the undercurrents of a whole life. It can be unshakeable in its judgments – of the killing, of the values that sanction and require it, of the injustices of this Muslim community towards its women and of British life towards Muslims – while also opening out each narrated life into a web of endless complexity, which defies just about every generalisation about this community, its members’ lives and thoughts (how much discussion of honour killing is actually interested in either of these?). A spinster turns out to have not one but two lovers. A killer in the name of honour is raving not against an ‘impure’ sister but against another woman at the heart of the storm that is his own sexual life. In Aslam’s writing, all the available clichés fade as if they had been placed under hot glass.
Onal’s book, which is subtitled ‘Stories of Men Who Killed’, also takes the not inconsiderable risk of asking us to enter into a killer’s mind (like Freud’s case-studies, her chapters are like short stories or romances and ‘lack the serious stamp of science’). In one particularly powerful story a young boy, Murat, sits in prison explaining that he was his mother’s only son and her favourite child. The mother was seduced as a young girl by her step-cousin and then becomes the same cousin’s willing lover after years of a forced, loveless marriage to another man. The son turns mute and depressed when he discovers them together and overhears his mother using to her lover the same terms of endearment he thought she used only for him: ‘My lion, my hero, my ram.’ But he kills her, at the prompting of his uncle, only when he realises that her affair, which he thought was his secret alone, is the talk of the whole community.
In her drive to convey the build-up to these killings, Onal at times claims a not wholly plausible omniscience (as in the breathless narrative of a young girl’s rape at a bus station, when nobody who knew her could have been there). Nonetheless, like Maps for Lost Lovers, each of her interviews shows that any one honour killing arises out of a history, and that we can begin to understand it only if that history – however confusing, indeed because so confusing – is told. For more than one of the killers, the act is a matter of the deepest regret, even as they are lauded and told to be proud. These young men, often chosen to enact the crime on the grounds that their youth will lead to a reduced sentence, mostly find themselves rejected and isolated by their families once in prison. ‘You too die with the person you kill,’ Murat says. ‘She is sure to appear before your eyes every time you lie in your bed’ (given his story, a remark of stunning ambiguity). ‘When you consider it logically, there’s always an alternative.’
Every killer, whatever the pressure of family or community, has a choice. In a way, this makes it worse. The knowledge comes too late. But it also prises open a mental space between the murderer and his act, a sliver of freedom for future generations. ‘Nobody,’ Sarhan says in his interview with Husseini, ‘really wants to kill his own sister.’
Is this, finally, a tale of progress? Yes and no. The fact that these three books have been written should be taken as a sign. Both Onal and Husseini have risked their lives through their work as campaigning journalists on honour-based violence – Onal also for implicating the Turkish government in the assassination in 2007 of the journalist Hrant Dink and three Christian missionaries/publishers (in 1994 she was shot and badly wounded after linking the government with organised crime). In 2004, at the prompting of the European Council, Turkey introduced mandatory life sentences for those who carry out honour killings. But this is only part of the story. A new Women’s Protection Bill has brought rape under the Pakistan Penal Code, which is based in civil rather than sharia law, but according to the Asian Human Rights Commission there has been no reduction in the number of incidents of violence against women since the bill became law in 2006 (Tariq Ali’s account in this paper last year of the honour killing of a distant cousin is a case in point). Husseini has not succeeded in overturning Article 340 of the Jordanian Penal Code, although her campaign has played a major role in destroying public indifference towards honour crimes. In England, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act, which allows victims of forced marriages to pursue perpetrators through the civil courts, came into force in November 2008 (although you might argue that most are unlikely to be in a position to take legal action). Everything I have read indicates, however, that while the struggle to change the law remains crucial, and must be supported at every turn, it can do only so much. The problem goes deeper, into the darkest sexual recesses of the mind where – historical evidence suggests – neither love nor reason has ever found it easy to follow.
By the time I had finished reading these ghastly stories, it was the sisters who for me stood out as the heroines. Not the ones who are lamented too late, but those who survive and go on telling the story. For Wikan, Songül Sahindal is the bravest of them all, taking to the witness stand against the advice of her whole family, who were happy to dismiss her and her evidence as insane – ‘a madwoman’s tale’. Bekhal Mahmod, whose sister Banaz was killed in 2006, was the key prosecution witness at the trial of her father and uncle and the first woman in the UK ever to testify at an honour killing trial. Undercover and in hiding ever since, she continues to speak out on behalf of her dead sister (you can see one of the interviews on YouTube). These sisters’ futures will probably not be public knowledge, although Wikan is optimistic about Songül. But trying to follow them, or perhaps just remembering the difficulty of the lives they are now likely to be living, might be one way to keep the issue at the forefront of our minds, and to hold on to what happens next.