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A question of honor?

March 17, 2011

The German government has decided to criminalize forced marriage, but some young women will have to continue running for their lives as their families try to hunt them down. 'Sibel' is one of them.

A young woman with hands reaching towards her during a protest against honor killings
Women who refuse to marry risk retaliation

The German government on Thursday decided to make forcing children to marry against their will a crime punishable by five years in prison, but even this decision is unlikely to help an 18-year-old girl, who asked Deutsche Welle to identify her only as "Sibel."

Sibel is on the run from her family, living in constant fear for her life. She has been forced to sever all ties with her former life, and she knows that her parents are searching for her.

"I have left my home, and in our culture this means I have lost my honor," Sibel told Deutsche Welle, after she'd arranged a meeting on neutral ground for fear of betraying her address. "I could be killed. The people who helped me are also at risk. That's just the way it is in our world: a family can restore its honor by killing the runaway daughter."

Runaway bride

A picture of Hatun Sürücü, holding her baby boy, placed at the site of her murder
Hatun Sürücü's brother killed her in Berlin in 2005 for divorcing her enforced husbandImage: DW-TV

Sibel was just 13 years old when her parents introduced her to the first young man they wanted her to marry. Unlike many young people in this situation she repeatedly refused.

At the age of 17 her father believed she was almost too old to find a husband. He made it abundantly clear that he expected her to wed a cousin from Turkey, someone she had never met.

"He beat me up, in front of everybody. It was to show that he was in charge of my life," Sibel said. "Then, he took me to another room and continued beating me. That was the first time I ran away."

Afraid to fight back

Despite her black eye and broken arm, Sibel went neither to a doctor, nor to the police. In fact, she eventually returned home, hoping that the situation would improve.

A German-born Turk - again, not Sibel - chooses her wedding dress, obscuring her face with a fan
Some wedding plans aren't quite what they seemImage: DW-TV

It didn't. Sibel's father secretly traveled to Turkey, where he started planning her wedding. When Sibel found out, she left home again, and has not returned since. Still unwilling to go to the police, she asked for help from the German government's office for youth welfare.

Despite the assistance she has received, Sibel says her family is seeking her relentlessly, which means she's had to sacrifice contact not only her with family, but with her friends as well.

"[My family] are hunting my friends, they're almost tormenting them. But they have no idea where I am either."

Sibel's parents want her to come home, but she says that's now out of the question. Even under existing law, her father can still be sentenced to prison on charges of coercion.

She fears this course of action would be liable to do more harm than good.

"I could imagine my father taking a gun, holding it to my head and pulling the trigger. Or maybe he'd get someone else to do it. I have elder brothers, and they'd do it if my father asked them to."

'No real choice'

Sibel was accompanied by her social worker, who also did not want her name used. She's worried for Sibel, and says that this young woman is by no means unique. Sometimes, she says, she has to deal with children as young as 13 facing a forced marriage.

"At that age, they're too young to be legally married, even in their home countries," the social worker said. "But the family then just carry out what you might call an 'imam-wedding,' which is not officially registered with the state. But the family considers this religious ceremony the most important ceremony. An imam-wedding is very real to them."

A woman in a headscarf sits in a mosque looking at a German and a Turkish flag, side by side
German and Turkish cultures are merging, but not everyone has noticedImage: picture-alliance/dpa

According to a 2007 survey by the women's rights group Terre des Femmes, 378 girls and women were forced to marry in Berlin, and young Turks living in the German capital today say the tradition is alive and well.

Yasemin, 18, told Deutsche Welle that several of her female friends had been forced to marry against their will.

"They don't like it very much, but in the end they say to themselves: 'I have to. Otherwise, something might happen to me, or to my loved ones.' They haven't really got a choice," Yasemin said.

The issue by no means exclusively affects young women. 15-year-old Özcan said his parents were set to start searching for his bride very soon, though he also said he might refuse if they chose somebody he didn't like.

As a young woman, Sibel's decision to say "no" has cost her everything - her family, her friends, her job, life as she knew it. The new life that she is trying to build from scratch is not just lonely and challenging, but pervaded by constant fear and a very real danger.

Having spoken with us, Sibel walked tentatively off into the street, looking all around her in case someone was watching.

Author: Lisa Steger, Berlin / msh
Editor: Michael Lawton