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Europe Grapples with "Honor Killings"

DW staff (sp)June 23, 2004

Police officials from EU countries met at Europol headquarters on Tuesday to discuss "honor killings," a disturbing problem on the rise in Europe's mainly Middle Eastern, Arabic and Asian immigrant communities.

Women in the Muslim world are frequent victimsImage: AP

Fadime Sahindal, a 26-year-old Turkish university student with a Swedish boyfriend, was murdered by her father in Sweden in 2002. He insisted she marry a man from Turkey.

In Britain last year, Abdalla Yones, a Kurdish Muslim who stabbed his 16-year-old daughter, Heshu, 11 times and slit her throat after she started a relationship with a Christian boyfriend, was jailed for life.

"Honor killings," as the phenomenon is known, usually involve women being murdered, usually by brothers and fathers, for having sex outside marriage, dating, refusing an arranged marriage, wanting to go to university or even having been raped. The practice is not uncommon in traditional, male-dominated Arab societies.

Fadime's and Heshu's cases and others like them in Europe have prompted calls for urgent action to protect young immigrants who fall out with their families and for police to reinvestigate murders suspected of having been honor killings.

In a further sign that the phenomenon is being considered a serious problem, European police officials met at Europol headquarters in The Hague on Tuesday with women's organizations, social groups and academics to look at ways of tackling the issue and to exchange information and strategies. The aim is to set up a pan-European unit to combat the killings and crack down on related issues such as trafficking in women.

Lack of awareness and statistics

Though experts say that honor killings are on the rise in Europe, the problem is hobbled by a lack of awareness, mainly because the issue remains largely hidden from public view.

In 2000, the United Nations estimated that around 5,000 girls and women in at least 14 countries, among them Pakistan, Jordan and Turkey, were killed yearly because their families felt they brought dishonor on them.

But statistics in Europe are hard to come by given the fact that some honor-related crimes are recorded as simple murders or domestic violence.

"In several European countries, cases similar to Fadime's of murder and violence have become increasingly common or more likely, they have been common for many years but have now started to become visible," said a report by the Swedish women's advocacy group Kvinnoforum, a sponsor of Tuesday's conference.

Mürea Böhmecke of Terres des Femmes in Germany, an organization for the protection of women that is beginning a campaign in November to raise awareness of honor killings, told DW-WORLD, "There are no concrete statistics available, but unofficial estimates are considered to be high. We get calls from women caught in difficult situations almost every two weeks."

Breaking taboos

Experts say the problem is directly linked to the immigrant populations of the European countries.

Thus, according to Böhmecke, most of Germany's honor-related crimes happen within the Turkish population, the largest foreign group. "Many of them have been living here for years, speak perfect German and are well-integrated. But they often call only after the violence has escalated," Böhmecke said.

A spokeswoman for Scotland Yard told AP that many of Britain's cases came from South Asian communities.

Experts agree that spreading awareness of the problem is the key, one which involves breaking taboos, given the fact that many cultures still accept family honor as a legitimate defense for a crime.

Andy Baker, head of homicide investigations for New Scotland Yard, said at Tuesday's conference that honor killings in Europe were a product of diverse cultures and alienation and that people were turning back to ancient traditions.

Sonya Gmehling from the Stuttgart-based association Rosa, which offers in women above the age of 16 fleeing domestic violence and psychological torture anonymous shelter and counseling, told DW-WORLD that the most important thing "is to build up the self-confidence of these battered women who are isolated."

In addition to educating authorities dealing with foreigners and young immigrants on the problem, Gmehling suggested the subject should be dealt with by teachers in schools with high foreign populations.

Raising sensitivity

Böhmecke cited an example of a girl in her mid-20s from Lebanon to reinforce the need to sensitize authorities to the problem.

"The girl was hiding from her family when she approached us," said Böhmecke. "One of her sisters was murdered by her father and brother several years ago in Germany for having had an extramarital affair, and now her second sister was being held by her parents in an unknown place and was to be forcibly married off. She wanted us to find her," said Böhmecke.

"But we couldn't do much except give up a missing ad, and then the police insisted the girl get in touch with them personally," she said. "But of course, she couldn't because she had gone underground and was scared of being discovered."