United Kingdom: 'Honour' crimes and namus

WLUML Networkers/The Guardian

Today a Kurdish family hit the headlines after the father of a 15-year-old schoolgirl who disappeared without trace 10 years ago was jailed for a minimum of 22 years after being found guilty of murdering her in a so-called "honour killing". Tulay Goren was killed on 7 January 1999 after falling in love with Halil Unal, a fellow Turkish Kurd twice her age, and running away from home to live with him. Her family disapproved because he was a Sunni Muslim while they were Alevis, a different branch of Islam. Police believe Tulay's body was buried temporarily in the back garden of the family home, but her remains have never been recovered. According to media reports, the family, originally from Elbistan, in south-eastern Turkey, adhered to the code of namus, or honour, practised in many rural communities there.

Namus derives from patriarchal systems of values and it is widespread in, but not restricted to, the Muslim world. Namus is a gender-specific category of relations within a family that is described in terms of honour, respectability, and modesty. For a man and his family, namus, among other things, means the sexual integrity of women in the family, with an emphasis on their chastity. For his part, the man has to provide financially for his family and to defend the namus of his house against the threats to members of his extended family from the outer world.

It is telling that, while women ascribing to this moral principle are unable to hold their male relatives accountable to providing for them, women’s lives are entirely governed by this ethical imperative. The namus of a man is determined by the namus of all the women in his family. A man is supposed to control the behaviour of women in his family, and if he loses control of them, his namus is lost in the eyes of the community, and he has to clean his honour. In grave cases this ‘cleansing’ is achieved by murder or forced suicide.

‘As families have moved here 30 years ago from Pakistan and Kurdish countries, and now their children are reaching marriageable age, the number of 'honour killings' is going up because the number of vulnerable women has increased.’ Ann Cryer, the Labour MP for Keighley, voiced to The Telegraph in 2006.  Indeed, the UK is increasingly witnessing such cases as a consequence of women being restricted by patriarchal systems of values in an environment that is on the whole far more empowering.

In fact, while in 2006 only 12 honour killings were thought to happen every year in the UK, in December, 2009 the Metropolitan Police reported that there had been a huge rise in the number of cases. They said 211 incidents had been reported in London – 129 of which were criminal offences – between April and October. The increase in reported cases may partly be due to police being instructed in September, 2009, to assume in more cases that an honour crimes had been committed.

It was only yesterday, a decade after a Tulay Goren was killed by her father, Mehmet Goren, in east London, that the British courts found him guilty. Tulay lived in a family and within a community that insisted on maintaining culture and traditions from their homeland. Yet, Mehmet, the bread-winner, gambled the family’s child benefit and failed to provide for them, whilst controlling them through violence.

When a girl or woman is conflicted by the need to chose between the culture of her new country and the traditions of the old, often finds that diverting from the latter could lead to her murder, something which is especially visible in some immigrant societies. Within the Kurdish community, to which the Goren’s family belongs, several cases have come to light over the last decade.

Heshu Yones, from west London, bled to death after her father cut her throat in 2003. He had been "disgusted and distressed" by her relationship with a Lebanese Christian student. Similarly, a young woman in Bradford was believed to have been kidnapped and murdered by her family after a love song was dedicated to her on a radio station. More recently, in 2006, Banaz Mahmoud was also murdered by an enraged father because she had left her husband and fallen in love with another man.

It is important to understand the role of a diaspora community permeated by patriarchal namus, and a host community unaware the role such a system of values plays in the events leading up to an honour killing. According to Hanim, Tulay’s mother, the refusal of Tulay’s boyfriend to pay a £5,000 dowry to the family and the gossip that ascribed to the 15 year-old a bad reputation, compounded Mehmet’s rage and contributed to his fatal decision. Additionally, being persuaded to go back home by police when Tulay reported her father’s violence and requested to be sent to a children’s home, shows that a lack of understanding on the part of local services can be lethal.

The effort to combat the brutal treatment of women in certain ethnic minorities raises a delicate question: How do authorities crack down on unacceptable practices without offending minority cultures? Feminists say the law often puts culture ahead of the safety of women. Ms. Nammi from the ‘Stop Honour Killings’ international network, says that excessive tolerance for peculiar minority practices is tantamount to putting culture ahead of women's lives.

Encouragingly, police, commenting on this latest case of honour killing in the UK, said they were now better able to recognise "tell-tale signs" connected to honour violence. Jonathan Laidlaw QC, prosecuting, said that the Goren case was a "terrible reminder of what honour-based crime can involve" and a "wake-up call" to the existence of the problem in this country. Nazir Afzal, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said: "It will be about making sure we look for the signs so that we don't miss cases."

By Virginia Lopez Calvo

For further details on Tulay Goren’s case please visit http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/8389053.stm