Fear of Honor Killings, Part 1: Immigrants Flee Families to Find Themselves

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Antje Windmann, April 11, 2012.

Hundreds of young female immigrants are hiding from their families in Germany after fleeing oppression, physical violence and even death threats. Charities and social workers help the women get new identities and build independent lives for themselves, but the risk of revenge from honor-obsessed relatives remains. 

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: … //

… 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.”
(full text part 1).

Part 2: ‘I’ll Run Away with You;

Part 3: The High Cost of a New Identity.

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