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A question of honor?

Martin Koch / bkJanuary 30, 2013

Between 12 and 15 so-called "honor killings" are reported annually in Germany, but the real figure is thought to be much higher. What role does religion play? And how can such murders be prevented?

A person looks at candles on the sidewalk in memorial for Arzu Ö obn 16.01.2012 in Detmold-Remmighausen Photo: Oliver Krato dpa/lnw +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Fendi Ö. is sitting in the dock at a court in Detmold, western Germany. The 53-year-old has been charged with ordering his five adult children to murder his daughter. The four sons and one daughter were sentenced to prison terms last year for the murder of their sister Arzu Ö. Now the court is to determine what role the father played in the crime. A guilty verdict could lead to a life sentence.

The man was against his 18-year-old daughter having a German boyfriend. Family members, of Kurdish origin, counted themselves as members of the Yazidi religious community and said Arzu should only have a relationship with another Yazidi. She was killed in November 2011 after she refused to give up her boyfriend.

Arzu Ö's brother in court in Detmold. Photo: Bernd Thissen dpa/lnw +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Arzu Ö's brothers and sister were convicted last yearImage: picture-alliance/dpa

No religious motives

Many media reports relate so-called "honor killings" to Islam, because the victims and perpetrators often come from countries where that is the main religion. But Islamic studies professor Milad Karimi of Münster University said he is certain that the strongly patriarchal societies in the country of origin are more to blame for the phenomenon of men murdering their own relatives to protect the family name.

Patriarchy exists in Italy and Spain just as much as it does in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Turkey, he told DW. "Islam has nothing to do with it, because the theology of Islam is about preserving life," he said. "Life is sacred. God is life. The Koran is a book about life."

Düsseldorf-based lawyer Gülsen Celebi has often represented Muslim women who have been victims of violence or abuse. She said she finds that many of them are virtually cut off from social life, live almost exclusively in traditional structures that they don't dare break out of.

"You have to show the women how we can help them," she told DW. "And you have to understand their family structures in order to help them."

It is important, she said, to enter communities like the Yazidi one and try to point out alternatives to the traditional patriarchal structures.

She said she considers the father of Arzu Ö. as an example of failed integration. He represents one of many people who were brought to this country as guest workers decades ago in the expectation that they would return to their home countries, but then didn't leave because they had started families in Germany.

"This man lives here with his old structures, because no one offered him any new structures," said Celebi. "And then he notices that his daughter wants to live by the new structures around her, which he knows nothing about. And you always fear what you don't know."

Düsseldorf-based lawyer Gülşen Çelebi. Copyright: imago/Sabine Gudath
Celebi's says education is the most important thingImage: imago stock&people

A long path

The experts agreed that the only path to change is through the younger generation. In Berlin, Duisburg, and a few other cities there are projects that have successfully appealed to boys with Muslim backgrounds and moved them to abandon their traditional, misogynistic prejudices. The new generation of Islamic theologists also has the potential to break up old structures, added Karimi.

"You know, it's so great," he said. "On Monday my students came to me and said, 'I spoke to my parents at the weekend. They're completely confused, they don't understand me - and then we discussed things all night!' That's great - it's as if we're reaching the parents," Karimi said.

But Çelebi believes it will be a long time before some parents stop disowning their children or trying to kill them because of their western lifestyles. Perhaps in 30 years or so, she hopes, society will no longer have to face the problem of "honor killings."

Until then, she advises all young women who are suffering under archaic familial structures to seek help as soon as possible. "Go to the youth welfare office straight away, maybe even find a lawyer," she said. "Whatever you do, don't try to solve the problem on your own."