ISTANBUL // When a Turkish man rescued his daughter after she was abducted by a gang that forced her into prostitution, he was hailed a hero by many in the country. But people in his own home region of south-eastern Anatolia turned against him, because he refused to do what traditional laws of family honour say must be done in a case like this: kill the girl. "My daughter did not go voluntarily," the man, who did not want to be identified in order to protect his 18-year-old daughter, told Turkish newspapers last month. "Why should I kill her?"
The idea that a girl or a woman has to pay with her life if she sullies her family's honour by her conduct is still powerful in some areas of Turkey, especially in the poor Kurdish region in the south-east. In some cases, it is enough if a woman talks to a stranger to seal her fate. Underage boys of the family are often selected to commit so-called honour killings because they can expect lighter prison sentences if convicted.
Almost 300 women have been murdered by family members in Turkey since 2001, according to a new study based on court cases that was published this month. Osman Celbis, a researcher from the Inonu University in the eastern city of Malatya, told the Anatolian news agency that 288 women and 56 men were killed. Male victims of honour crimes are often killed after cases of rape. "It is a problem of mentality," said Remziye Tanrikulu, a lawyer in Diyarbakir, the main city of Turkey's Kurdish area, and an expert on honour killings.
Turkey amended its penal code in 2005 to deter honour killings. Among other changes, parliament cancelled a former provision that allowed courts to reduce significantly jail terms for perpetrators of honour killings on the grounds that they had been "provoked" by the victim's allegedly dishonourable conduct. Still, the killings are continuing, observers said. Both Mr Celbis and Ms Tanrikulu said because of the stricter provisions of the new penal code, women were forced to commit suicide or their murders were dressed up as suicides.
The real figure of female victims of honour killings was much higher than 288, Ms Tanrikulu said. "There are cases presented as suicide and those that are presented as murders with motives outside family honour. You cannot even estimate the real figure." As the man who saved his daughter experienced himself, the murder of a child is sometimes seen as a necessity by society. "Because I did not kill my daughter but did everything I could for her, people around me have turned their backs on me," he told Turkish newspapers.
The girl was kidnapped last year in front of her school in Diyarbakir in south-eastern Turkey by gang members who took her to several Anatolian cities and pressed her into prostitution by beatings, threats and the administration of drugs, news reports said. After more than six months, she managed to escape and call her father's mobile phone from the capital Ankara. He gave her the address of relatives in Ankara, picked her up there and returned to Diyarbakir with his daughter.
Since their return, the family has been repeatedly threatened by gang members who wanted the father to return the girl to them, news reports said. The family moved to another apartment and changed their telephone number. Gang members still came after them. Police have arrested one suspect and are looking for the others, newspapers reported. Alerted by the reports about the case that became public only last month, Nimet Cubukcu, the minister for Women Affairs, publicly applauded the father's attitude and asked social services in Diyarbakir to help the family.
But the minister's statement, while an important step, is unlikely to dent the power that traditional values of family honour have in the region. Also, not all state representatives are as supportive as Ms Cubukcu, Ms Tanrikulu said. "In Turkey, the laws are not the problem, it is the application," she said. "There are still judges who are tolerant [towards honour killings] and act with an attitude of male hegemony."
A recent poll conducted by Mazhar Bagli, of Diyarbakir's Dicle University, showed how deep-rooted the traditional ideas of family honour still are. In the study, which interviewed 190 convicted men in 46 prisons, 47 per cent of perpetrators of honour crimes said they were not sorry for what they did. Confirming that support of families and communities for honour crimes is still strong, 42 per cent of the convicts polled said their families reacted positively to what they did, Mr Bagli told the NTV news channel.
The approval rate in the community outside the immediate family was even higher, at 46 per cent. If a murderer is convicted after an honour crime, he can rely on the rest of his family to look after his children in many cases, the study found. Maybe as a result of the strong social backing, 41 per cent of convicts said they would do the same again if the same situation arose in the future. email@example.com