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Death Before Dishonor
By Hilary Hesse
Honor Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed
By Ayse Onal
Published by SAQI Books 2008
One of the world’s more ghastly cultural traditions, honor killing is practiced in many parts of the Middle East and surrounding areas. In its most common incarnation, a woman is murdered by a male relative upon suspicion of having committed a sexual indiscretion with a man to whom she is not married. Her murder is meant to correct the misdeed and restore the family’s “honor.” The practice is particularly opaque for Westerners, who are thrown by the seeming illogic of cleansing immorality by means of even greater immorality. A tribal custom that predates Islam, most of the world’s current cases are perpetrated by and against Muslims. According to a 2007 article in The New York Times Magazine, the United Nations Population Fund estimates that 5,000 such killings occur around the world annually, with an especially high incidence rate in Syria.
In “Honor Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed,” Turkish columnist and television journalist Ayse Onal, acclaimed for her groundbreaking political talk show on Turkey’s Channel 7, narrows the focus to Turks, many of whom are Kurds. Divided into 10 chapters, nine of which are named after deceased women, the book is a compassionate sociological study of the various dimensions and implications of the honor system. What separates it from other similarly themed pieces is that, true to the title, each tragedy is explained in part from the killer’s perspective.
In the second chapter Murat, who murdered his mother, says, “You too die with the person you kill.” In this sense, honor killing is equally a crime against the self. The result is that, far from hating these men, we cry for and with them. In “Honor Killing,” the true culprit is the system itself, to which all fall prey. Onal demonstrates that these attacks have not one victim, but two: the murdered and the murderer.
While the book’s contents are anything but uplifting, Onal has carefully arranged the chapters so as not to overwhelm the reader’s emotions. She has also steered clear of redundancy, making sure that each chapter adds something fresh to our understanding of the issue. “Honor Killing” contains a plethora of scenarios: some women die virgins, while others die while pregnant, some die at the hands of their fathers, while others take their own lives. Most of the men say they felt they were left with no option but to kill those they loved; it is as if they had been socially checkmated. With regards to murdering his sister, Mehmet Sait says, “She’s your blood. BUT, if push comes to shove, you kill her, my friend.” Along the same lines, Battal says, “You either destroy your honor or your sister. If you don’t choose the latter, you can’t walk amongst those around you as a man.” This sense of Darwinian struggle pervades the cases, suggesting that, for those ensnared in the honor system, physical and social survival are on a par with one another.
Because Onal only met one of the 10 females whose lives she describes, she was confined to reconstructing their stories based on interviews with those who knew them. Consequently, many of the thoughts and feelings she ascribes to the women have necessarily been extrapolated based on her own understanding of human behavior. Despite this unavoidable weakness, the book is both a credible study and a fascinating read. The layman stands to gain substantial insight into a complex and painful social problem that may not disappear anytime soon.
So what is honor? At one point Onal asks a group of irate villagers for a definition. Disgusted by a question with so obvious an answer, they walk away without responding. In fact, one of the book’s key points is the extent to which those trapped in the honor system seem to take its existence for granted – almost on faith. The ability to distance oneself and critically examine the concept is simply not there. Honor appears, though, to be the sum total of one’s social currency, and to be closely associated with the control over valuable resources, such as women. Tragically, mankind most often kills over resources.
This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)