Fear of Honor Killings

GERMANY: Bahar ran away early on a winter morning, one-and-a-half years after her mother was murdered. She helped her younger siblings get ready for school, and then she gave them a goodbye kiss on the forehead. Her uncle and her brothers were still sleeping. Bahar tiptoed out of the apartment in her socks, walked down the stairs and out the door. And then she ran for her life.

Today Bahar is 26 and likes to wear high-heeled shoes. She has chosen a popular café in a small city as a meeting point. She is wearing a modest amount of makeup, and her black hair is pulled back into a bun. She smiles tentatively and introduces herself, using the name in her new passport, which, for her protection, cannot be used in this article.

Bahar’s family came to Germany from Iraq in 1996. They lived in the eastern city of Halle an der Saale for the first two years, in an apartment in a high-rise building with a dingy kitchen. Her father felt that most jobs were beneath him, beat his wife and “put out cigarettes on her skin,” says Bahar. The father would sometimes disappear for months at a time. Bahar suspects that he was involved in criminal activities. “Everything was always peaceful without him. We even had a picnic in the park once,” says Bahar. She took along some of the photos from that day when she ran away, but she can’t bear to look at them, she says.

During those happy times, when she was alone with her six children, Bahar’s mother came to the conclusion that she wanted to separate from her despotic husband. She went to the local town hall with Bahar to get information about German divorce law. When the father found out about it, he took a knife and locked himself in the bedroom with his wife on a summer night in 2003. Bahar holds up her hands to show us two scars: the evidence of her attempt to save her mother.

With the mother dead and the father sentenced to life in prison, an uncle took control of Bahar and her five siblings. He managed to make a caring and thoughtful impression on the youth welfare office, but it was deceptive. He used to turn up the music before he began beating the children. Bahar used makeup to hide the bruises. “I wasn’t allowed to read books, and I couldn’t even go out on the balcony anymore,” she says. “Just cook, do the laundry and clean.”

Bahar endured her life as a virtual slave for a year and a half. “Then I knew that I would either kill myself or leave.”

Living in Fear

Germany in the 21st century, almost 60 years after the first guest workers arrived, is a country in which hundreds of female immigrants like Bahar live in hiding from their families. They have left everything behind: their home, their friends and their relatives. They refuse to abandon hope and allow themselves to be broken by the incompatibility of their own wishes with the expectations of their family and social environment. They don’t want to conform to the traditional values of the regions where their families come from. Instead, they want to live like women in Western societies: free, independent and emancipated.

Every year Papatya, a Berlin aid organization, takes in 60 girls and young women who have run away from their families because of cultural conflict, and who had faced the prospect of abduction, forced marriage or even death. The Rose Shelter in Stuttgart receives 80 applications a year from women who have suffered in these ways. The youth help organization Yasemin documents about 400 consultation visits, while the website Sibel receives more than 300 calls for help each year. The organization Peri e.V. claims to have helped about 50 girls and women run away from their families since 2008.

The list of the female immigrants’ countries of origin is long. It includes Turkey, Kosovo, Albania, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and India. A few months ago, a man from Sri Lanka poured boiling water over his daughter in a town in Germany. She had refused to accept a forced marriage.

Bahar fled to a women’s shelter, but she was still afraid. “I saw my uncle on every street corner,” she says. If someone on the bus seemed suspicious to her, she would get off at the next stop, holding a can of pepper spray in her hand. Bahar has moved to four different places since she ran away, and today she lives in a small city. She finished high school and entered a vocational training program, and she is currently in the process of getting her driver’s license.

But despite her new freedoms, Bahar is still being held prisoner by her family. She has to lie to people, even those close to her, including friends, neighbors and coworkers. Anyone who learns about her past and her real name could pose a threat to her. Bahar doesn’t allow anyone into her “fortress,” as she calls her apartment — not even her German boyfriend.

“He was surprised that my parents are so tolerant, but that I never visit them. He sensed that I was hiding something,” says Bahar, lowering her head. When she still refused to confide in him, after being together for six months, he ended the relationship.

Family Was Not Very Religious

While Bahar is alone with her secret, Mariam, a 28-year-old woman of Lebanese descent, can share hers with her boyfriend Thomas, 34. Three-and-a-half years ago, they fled from Mariam’s family together, but today they live in constant fear of discovery and the likely consequences. “One of my relatives was shot by her husband, because she had left him,” says Mariam. “My family felt that it was the right thing to do.”

She is a quiet young woman with dark eyes and a smooth complexion, but she has reddish blotches on her neck, probably a sign of her agitation. “If my family finds us, we’re dead,” she says.

Mariam was three years old when her family moved to Germany from Lebanon. She has 11 siblings. The girls’ lives were controlled by rules and prohibitions. She says that her father gambled away her oldest sister in a card game when she was 14 or 15. “In our world, they put a ring on your finger and a chain around your neck, and your future is sealed,” Mariam explains.

It wasn’t because of their religion, Islam, because the family wasn’t very religious. They never prayed, and she wasn’t required to wear a veil.

Mariam’s case shows that the fact that a family doesn’t pray, fast or require its female members to wear a headscarf is no indication of liberality in family matters. Archaic traditions and patriarchal ways of thinking do not grant women free will, explains Jan Kizilhan, 46, a psychology professor and ethnologist in the southwestern German city of Freiburg. According to Kizilhan, extended families who are poorly integrated into German society have a “collective understanding” about what women are permitted to do and what is considered dishonorable behavior. “This understanding structures and regulates communal life.” Kizilhan has served as a court-appointed expert, sometimes in honor killing trials, for the last 15 years.

The behavioral rules he mentions stem from a time when there was no police and no rule of law in many of the immigrants’ regions of origin, so that patriarchs fashioned their own laws in the villages. “In some families, these rules are passed on, without thinking, from generation to generation,” says Kizilhan, “and religion is wrongly used to legitimize them.”

Number of Killings May Be Underestimated

If a woman violates a traditional norm with her behavior, she damages the reputation of the entire family, the ethnologist explains. Reputation is elementary in these societies, in which women are treated as the property of men. People don’t like to do business with a man who doesn’t have his women under control, because he is seen as weak and unreliable.

He can make up for such a flaw by buying his way out of his disgrace, or by chastising the woman in a way that is visible to everyone. “There are clear courses of action” for this manner of reestablishing honor when it has supposedly been violated, Kizilhan explains. In the most extreme cases, they include honor killings, which Kizilhan considers “a social and not a religious phenomenon.”

According to an estimate by the United Nations, at least 5,000 girls and women worldwide are murdered in the name of honor each year. In a study commissioned by Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office, criminologists with the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law identified seven to 10 so-called honor killings in Germany per year. The authors of the study examined 78 cases from 1996 to 2005.

But Kizilhan, who published a book about honor killings in 2006, believes that the number is “undoubtedly higher.” He is very critical of the Max Planck study, saying: “The researchers didn’t examine inexplicable and hidden murders, nor did they look into alleged suicides, accidents and missing person reports.”

The day on which Mariam, the young Lebanese woman, put her life in danger was the day she fell in love with Thomas, her boss at the fast-food restaurant where she worked. He had already noticed how her brothers would bring her to work every day and pick her up at the end of her shift. He sensed that she was suffering at home. At some point he said to her: “When the moment arrives and you want to go, I’ll run away with you.”

The moment arrived in November 2008, after they had been secretly in love for a year. Mariam’s brother had married and, in return, the father of the bride wanted Mariam to marry his son. He had visited the family to select a bride for his son and, after examining her from head to toe, including her behavior and the way she moved, he chose Mariam. But she refused the offer, incurring the wrath of her family.

When Mariam told him what had happened, says Thomas, he thought about it for three minutes. First he found a spot for her in a women’s shelter in another city, and then he threw some clothes into a plastic bag and went into hiding at a relative’s house. That same afternoon, Mariam’s and Thomas’s phones rang at almost the same time.

“They told me I was a slut and that they would kill me,” Mariam says quietly as she describes the calls.

The couple was reunited after four weeks. Mariam couldn’t sleep and was constantly panic-stricken. To be closer to her, Thomas moved into a homeless shelter, because he lacked the funds for anything else. His best friend had been beaten up because he couldn’t tell his attackers where Thomas and Mariam were.

The aid organization Terre des Femmes initially provided the couple a room in a safe house. Then a social worker offered them the use of his vacation house in the forest. They lived there for more than a year, their thoughts permeated by Mariam’s family. They were terrified that any contact with other people could lead to their discovery — and of what would happen to them next.

Forbidden Love

That was what happened to Arzu Özmen, an 18-year-old woman from Detmold in northwestern Germany, a few months ago.

The young woman, a member of the Yazidi religious community, was found on the edge of a golf course in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein on Jan. 13. According to the forensic report, she was killed with two shots to the head. Eleven weeks earlier, Özmen’s siblings had abducted her from the apartment of her 23-year-old German boyfriend, Alexander.

Özmen’s story of forbidden love and the unsuccessful attempt to get away is as tragic as it is typical.

Özmen’s attorney still remembers their first encounter very clearly. It was on Sept. 12, 2011. “She came into my office and said: ‘Hello, I would like to change my name.'” She was calm but emphatic, says the lawyer, a specialist in family law who chooses to remain anonymous. “She warned me right away that anyone who advocated on her behalf could expect to receive a visit from her family.” It was clear to the attorney that she would have to take a number of detours to get Özmen a new identity — and erase all traces that could lead to the young woman.

The biggest problem was Özmen’s older sister S., who worked for the Detmold city administration. Her job gave her access to internal information. She could have used the address of the law firm to track down Özmen’s whereabouts. To avoid that, the attorney asked a colleague in Oberhausen, around 100 miles (160 kilometers) away, to request Özmen’s birth certificate in Detmold.

The Oberhausen attorney had hardly submitted the request before S., the sister, contacted his office and suggested that he arrange a meeting with Arzu.

New Identity

Özmen’s attorney found a civil registry office in the Westphalia region that recognized the gravity of the situation. Özmen went to the office and presented the documents that had been sent from Detmold to the law firm in Oberhausen. She also filed a criminal complaint against her family and submitted a statement from her attorney, in which she described how dangerous Özmen’s situation was.

“The girl was a German citizen. She had been naturalized at the age of three,” explains the registrar. “This meant that she could change her name retroactively to conform with German law.” Article 47 of the Introductory Act to the German Civil Code makes this possible.

In her new life, Arzu Özmen wanted to be called Emily, Emily Ostermann. She changed her appearance, cutting her hair and dying it blonde.

To ensure that the Detmold authorities would not be notified, the registrar, at Özmen’s request, added a restriction note to her file. Under German law, this is permissible if the civil registry office is aware of circumstances indicating that the individual in question could be in mortal danger if the information in the file is disclosed. Özmen picked up her new documents a few days before she was abducted.

Özmen was doomed because her desire to see her boyfriend ultimately outweighed her fear. To be with him, she checked out of the women’s shelter on the night of Oct. 31.

Three of her siblings have now been indicted for murder and are awaiting trial. So far, they have not revealed which one of them killed Arzu.

‘Everything Went Down the Tubes’

Sobair O. from Hamburg is serving a life sentence for a so-called honor killing.

He was eight when he came to Germany with his family. His parents’ marriage had been part of a bartering arrangement, says O., who is now 27. When his mother’s brother married a woman, her brother was given O.’s mother in return.

He dropped out of a training program in retail sales after serving two weeks in a youth detention facility, because he didn’t want to ask his employer to take him back. “I didn’t want to go there and bow my head,” says O. “That’s not what we do.” It’s an attitude that explains much of what happened after that.

On May 15, 2008, O. killed his 16-year-old sister Morsal. He stabbed her more than 20 times with a jackknife, because she wanted to live like a German girl. Morsal bled to death at the scene.

The judge presiding over the case at a Hamburg court called it a “killing out of pure intolerance,” an act motivated by wounded honor. When he delivered the verdict, O.’s family ran riot in the courtroom.

When O., now in prison, talks about Morsal today, his eyes fill with tears. But it’s difficult to tell whether he is weeping for his dead sister or himself.

What happened? He shrugs his shoulders. “When I moved away from home, everything went down the tubes. Suddenly she was hanging out with strange people.”

‘Fix This!’

According to O., the parents took Morsal to an aunt in Afghanistan in March 2007. “They wanted her to learn how a woman should behave,” he says. According to O., Morsal told him that the father had tied a headscarf around her head while they were still on the plane. His mother had allegedly said that the girl would have to marry and have five children before she could come home.

Morsal was kept in Afghanistan for an entire year. “She kept calling me and begging me to come and get her. She was sad that no one could speak German with her,” says O. When he learned that Morsal was to be married off in Afghanistan, he says, he fought for her and convinced his parents to bring her back to Germany. His mother apparently agreed, but told him that it would be his responsibility to ensure “that she doesn’t cause us any more trouble.”

But once she was back in Germany, Morsal returned to living her life the way she preferred. Sometimes she didn’t come home for days, and she stole from him and their parents, O. claims. “My mother used to call me on my mobile phone two or three times a day and scream: Where is Morsal? Fix this! Everyone is talking about us. You’re getting to be just like the Germans.”

O. lowers his voice, almost to a whisper. “We knew that she had a boyfriend. But in our society, a girl just can’t do that.”

‘I Had No Right to Kill Her’

And then there were the gossiping acquaintances, who claimed that Morsal was turning tricks.

Those claims proved to be disastrous — for Morsal, for O. and for the entire family. O. asked a cousin to lure Morsal into meeting him.

They had sat on the curb, as O. recalls, drinking Cokes and smoking cigarettes.

Then, according to O., the cousin asked her: “Is it true that you’re turning tricks?”

“That’s none of your goddamn business,” Morsal supposedly responded.

All he remembers, says O., is that was when he reached into his pocket. He turned himself in to the police the next day.

O. looks at his hands. “Yes, I wanted to protect the family honor at the time,” he says. “Today I know that even if she had been turning tricks, I had no right to kill her.”

In the Morsal case, the court stressed that the parents, who were not charged with a crime, carried “a high moral share of the blame.” Morsal’s father was convicted of mistreatment of a ward and given a suspended sentence.

How does one protect female immigrants from the morals, rules and persecution of their families? Johannes M., a 53-year-old social worker, looks after more than a dozen female immigrants who have fled from their families and are now living under new identities. For his own safety, he doesn’t want his full name to be published.

Some time ago, M. organized an exhibition on the subject of victim protection at a school center in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. “After that, many young women from immigrant families contacted me to tell me that they couldn’t stand it at home anymore.” Whenever this happens, he says, he first tries to assess the level of suffering to which the girls are in fact subjected, and whether an intervention could help or would only exacerbate the situation.

If fleeing is the only option, the social worker figures that it will take three months to iron out all the formalities. “The funding is always the biggest problem,” says M. For instance, he points out, a day in a residential facility costs about €200 ($260). “Almost all protective facilities will only accept someone once the youth welfare or social services department has approved the costs,” says M. For this reason, an intensive investigation by the authorities is often required.

In major cities with large immigrant populations, like Berlin, the youth welfare agencies are now more attuned to the problem than in more rural areas. But even in the German capital, the amount of assistance the girls are likely to receive often depends on whether their caseworkers are knowledgeable about the problem.

Much is at the discretion of the agencies. If a woman seeking protection isn’t a German citizen yet, she can obtain a new identity relatively easily in the course of naturalization. However, the German states do not document how many new identities are issued nationwide each year.

Once all the red tape has been taken care of, social worker Johannes M. sets up an escape date. On the appointed day, he sits in his car, with the engine running, and waits for the endangered woman to come running out. He often drives hundreds of kilometers to bring his charges to relative safety. He knows that her family, the men in particular, will doggedly search for the woman. To discover the renegade’s whereabouts, people are threatened and bribed, and sometimes members of the extended family even distribute wanted posters nationwide.

Learning Life Skills

Eva K. experiences the extremes that the families will go to in their quests on an almost daily basis. As the director of the Papatya aid organization at the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf youth welfare office, she once witnessed how three men suddenly stormed into the office, grabbed a young Lebanese woman and took her with them. “No one dared to stop them. We spent half a year searching for her. She never resurfaced.”

Living with a new identity, without family and friends, is a cruel burden. “They’re all very compliant girls who try to please everyone,” says K. “They’re often distraught over the fact that they, of all people, can’t stand this life.” They are also tormented by the realization that their parents’ sense of honor is greater than the love for their daughters. One in two of the women was threatened with forced marriage, says K., while one in five had told her about honor killings among their relatives.

Many of the escapees struggle with their new freedom. “After all, they were brought up in systems that deliberately kept them dependent,” says K. After spending some time at Papatya, they often move into managed group homes or women’s residential facilities first. “Many have to learn important life skills, such as dealing with money,” says the social worker.

The degree of oppression in which the girls or women lived before they escaped depends on two factors: how poorly the family was integrated into Western culture, and how many brothers kept watch over them. In many cases, K. explains, the male siblings’ role is to guarantee “that their sisters don’t do anything that could harm the family honor.”

Pressure on the Men

In his research, Jan Kizilhan, the Freiburg-based psychologist, has observed a tremendous “social pressure on the fathers and the sons.” For a study titled “Socialization and Beliefs in So-called Honor Killings,” he interviewed 21 men of Turkish descent who had been arrested for honor killings in Germany. Kizilhan’s conclusion is that very few of these men exhibit the typical traits of a killer or a violent criminal. Most of them, he says, came under pressure from fathers, mothers or the community. Men with little education who were victims of violence themselves are especially likely to be potential killers, says Kizilhan. And if fanaticism is also a factor in the social environment, the threat of honor killings is particularly high, according to Kizilhan.

In 1994, Germany’s Federal Court of Justice ruled that honor killings were to be classified as murders for “base motives.” According to the court, German legal and moral concepts are to be applied, and not those of an ethnic group that does not recognize German norms.

The study by the Max Planck Institute for the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation demonstrates that a large number of judges do not agree with the 1994 Federal Court of Justice decision. According to the study, honor as a motive is considered a mitigating circumstance in 25 percent of cases. In about 40 percent of the cases examined, the court did not even address the question of whether honor constituted a base motive.

Gunter Widmaier, a criminal attorney in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe, where the Federal Court of Justice is located, sees this behavior as evidence of trepidation on the part of some judges “to call a spade a spade, because they want to avoid appeals.” The unsatisfactory result, says Widmaier, is that the reality behind many crimes is not recognized, and as a result it is underestimated how widespread certain social phenomena are.

The End of Misplaced Tolerance?

This makes a verdict that was pronounced by the district court in the western German town of Kleve in December 2009, in the case of the murder of Gülsüm S., all the more remarkable. The 20-year-old woman of Kurdish descent had been beaten to death with branches by her triplet brother. Her face was so badly damaged that she was almost unidentifiable. The court reached a unique verdict: It convicted both Gülsüm’s brother and her father of murder, even though the father had not been directly involved in the crime.

Does the Kleve verdict mark the end of years of misplaced tolerance on the part of the German judiciary? Psychology professor Kizilhan hopes that the ruling will at least send a message because, in his view, it is clear that more acts of violence will be committed in the name of honor in Germany “in the next 10 to 15 years.” “We are dealing with a battle of the immigrant generations that remains invisible to outsiders,” says Kizilhan. The second and third generations, he explains, are still using the old values to remain in control. “At the same time, more and more female family members are rebelling against this.”

Kizilhan is pinning his hopes on prevention. He believes that the police should keep a close eye on families with a history of violence and oppression. “If the officers make it clear to the patriarch that they’re watching him, he’ll shy away from beating his daughter or wife, not to mention killing them.”

Other experts want to see the structures changed. One such measure would be to make kindergarten attendance mandatory for immigrants, so that their sons and daughters are familiarized with the liberal ways of the West at an early age. Another would be for municipalities to employ more immigrants, who could then improve cultural competency in local administrations.

Bilkay Öney, the integration minister in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, would also like to help women who were brought from other countries to Germany for forced marriages. These women, says Öney, a member of the center-left Social Democrats who is herself of Turkish descent, should be granted a separate legal status after less than the current three-year waiting period. Otherwise, she explains, they have no way of freeing themselves from a violent situation. “If the family believes that they have stained its honor by separating from their husbands, often they are no longer able to return.”

The most appropriate solution, says Yasemin Karakaoglu, a professor of intercultural education at the University of Bremen, would be dual citizenship. “It doesn’t just promote integration,” she argues. “It would also have a positive impact on aid and support programs for girls and women. After an abduction, for example, it would create the legal basis to be able to bring the victims back to Germany.”

The advantages of dual citizenship are evident in Britain, where women can turn to a “Forced Marriage Unit” for help. It is made up of employees of the Foreign Office and Home Office, as well as social organizations. If a young woman with a UK passport is abducted to another country, the unit notifies the British embassy in that country. It then searches for the missing woman and, with the help of security personnel, ensures that she is returned to the UK.

Confident Enough to Go Out Alone

Mariam and Thomas often talk about which of the two gave up more for the other one. They were married last week and want to start their own family.

Mariam talks about the “real home” that they now have, a two-room apartment somewhere in Germany. The furniture is from an estate sale, they’ve painted the walls in warm colors, and there is a common name on the doorbell. Even Thomas’s parents don’t know where their son is.

Mariam is now confident enough to go to the bakery alone. “Being able to move about freely is the greatest luxury for me,” she says. She is now completing a business management training program.

She was only forced to confront her family one more time. On the advice of her attorney, she filed a complaint against her sister after the sister had threatened her on the phone. Because the court did not wish to jeopardize her safety, Mariam took part in the proceedings via videoconference. Her anxious face could be seen on three screens in the courtroom, in a scene reminiscent of a Mafia trial.

But she had merely been dispensing sisterly advice, the outraged defendant claimed, while her husband ridiculed the proceedings from one of the visitors’ benches.

‘I Feel Hate’

When the court questioned Mariam’s older sisters, they testified that they were married to cousins. “It’s normal for us,” they said. They painted a picture of a loving, “perfect” family, one in which every family member could do as he or she pleased.

“Why then should your sister go to such great lengths, if she had nothing to fear?” asked the judge. The family members had no response, and for the first time there was silence in the courtroom.

The court’s ruling lit a beacon of hope for Mariam. Her sister was convicted of coercion and sentenced to six months in prison, suspended to two years on probation. “Should anything happen to my client now, the circumstances will be more obvious. It was an important step,” Mariam’s attorney said in a statement in the courtroom.

Sometimes tears come to Mariam’s eyes when she thinks about her little sister. She regrets having left her alone. And when she thinks about her parents? Mariam reflects for a moment. “I feel hate,” she says. “And longing.”

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan