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Berlin 'Heroes' challenge sexist notions of honor

In patriarchal societies, traditional notions of honor can conflict with gender equality. A Berlin group is working with men to help change how women are treated - and ultimately avoid tragedies like honor killings.

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In a city as progressive as Berlin, you might think sexual freedom is taken for granted. But for some young Berliners, a simple platonic relationship or a night out at the movies with friends can lead to serious trouble.

Their families have been living in Germany for two, three or even four generations, but these teenagers have to follow a traditional code of honor that imposes tight restrictions on them, especially on girls. In the worst cases, they may even face death threats or even murder by members of their own family for having premarital sex or for trying to escape an arranged marriage.

The thin red line

This traditional definition of honor cannot be found in any religious text. "It's something like an unwritten law," explains Eldem Turan, group leader of the organization Heroes - Against Repression in the Name of Honor. She is regularly in contact with teenagers grappling with their family's definition of morality.

Eldem Turan from the youth group Heroes in Berlin, Copyright: DW

'Honor is like an unwritten law,' says Eldem Turan

"All of them know what the honor of their family is, but nobody can define it. Yet everybody knows where the red line is, when the honor is broken," she adds.

One of the goals of the association Heroes is to fight against the gender inequalities that still exist within families ruled by strong patriarchal structures. According to these principles, boys are allowed to stay out late or go on school trips, while their sisters may not.

Thousands in distress

In extreme cases, girls in distress will turn to women's rights organizations like Terre des Femmes in Berlin. Project coordinator Myria Böhmecke has seen many minors reach out for help from all over Germany. "They'll say, 'My brother got a gun,' or they'll tell us that they are going to fly to Turkey or Pakistan in a week and they believe they'll be forced into an arranged marriage there."

According to the most recent statistics published by the German government, 3,443 people affected directly or indirectly by an arranged marriage consulted for help in Germany in 2008 alone. Seventy percent of them were under the age of 21 and almost a third was underage.

As Böhmecke explains, it is impossible to tell how many others did not dare take action against this form of violence in the name of honor. But there are certainly many more out there.

Defining alternatives

This concept of honor perpetuates itself in part because of the pressure of tightly knit communities. According to Eldem Turan, living in an urban context does not spare these kids from the kind of gossip you would usually find in a village. The distorted interpretation of honor is transmitted not only within the family, but amongst neighbors and friends as well.

Young people participate in the closing ceremony of the Heroes, Copyright: heroes-net.de

During the workshops, youths are challenged to consider their own view of honor

Even though boys are not the primary victims of this type of violence, they carry a heavy weight on their shoulders, too. Not only are they required to take on a specific role in the family, if they dare oppose themselves against these values publicly, their peers might question their masculinity.

This is why the organization Heroes decided to focus on educating young men and provide them a space where they can freely debate these ideas without feeling judged. The idea is that, through the group, they will gain enough self-confidence to start questioning the values and structures they were raised with without feeling like they are abandoning their culture.

Doing the honorable thing

Mert Albayrak, 22, is a member of Heroes. The discussions with the other members of his group helped him determine for himself which cultural aspects of his Kurdish roots he found morally acceptable. "If I go visit my grandparents, I kiss their hands. That's a cultural thing which will never change. But things like telling my sister when she should come home or putting pressure on the women in the family are not normal for me," he says.

After a year of regular meetings, the young men acquire tools to tackle these delicate issues openly. They then go through a special ceremony where politicians, parents, teachers, and friends can see them become official Heroes. This not only officializes their status as a role model in the community, they can also start giving Heroes workshops in schools.

Memorial for the victim of an honor killing in Detmold, Arzu Özmen, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa

'Heroes' aim to prevent the worst case scenario: an honor killing

During their workshops, the Heroes play out short scenes which illustrate typical gender inequalities and the violence that can ensue. The discussions that follow do not aim to provide any direct answers. They just offer teenagers an opportunity to find out that there are alternatives out there.

Heroes wanted

"Heroes become role models who convince other boys that honor is to fight for their sisters' freedom and not to repress them," says Maria Böhmecke from Terre des Femmes, who describes this preventive work done by the young men as "very important and innovative."

The concept is catching on throughout Germany, as many different cities are now forming their new groups of Heroes.

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