European Muslims adjust to crackdown on family murders
Imagine that a teenage boy walks up behind his sister, points a loaded gun at her head and pulls the trigger. This “honor killing” is carried out in conservative Muslim enclaves that are bound to draconian beliefs. Sometimes, the woman’s “offense” is dating the wrong person or behaving in too Western a way. Killing her is seen as a way to restore a family’s honor.
According to the United Nations, about 5,000 honor killings take place each year, most of them in the Middle East.
But they happen in Europe, too. Honor killings have steadily risen across the continent during the last 10 years, according to Europol, as countries absorb Muslim immigrants but fail to adequately assimilate them. Many of these immigrants come from Turkey — not from the secular mainstream but from remote villages where a more stringent form of Islam is observed. Police authorities from across the European Union met recently to discuss the troubling trend, as Denmark became the first country to stiffen the penalty for these murders. It was hailed as a landmark decision because for the first time in a European court, several family members were tried for an honor killing, not just the triggerman.
In the Danish case, the courts sought justice for the execution-style murder of 18-year-old Ghazala Khan, who only days before the shooting had gotten married to another Muslim. The family was upset at the speedy marriage.
Khan’s brother fired the shots, but the Danes convicted nine members of Khan’s family, including her father, who conceived the plot to murder his daughter. He received a life sentence, the brother 16 years, and an aunt will spend 14 years in prison.
Although European countries offer no statistics, Europe’s leading weekly newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, estimates 50 women have been victims of honor killings in Germany since 2000. Denmark, Sweden, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom also contend with the problem.
Authorities have been reluctant to intervene in the domestic affairs of immigrant Muslim families but have now begun to reopen unsolved murder cases that took place within Islamic communities during the last decade.
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Countries in which Muslims have been better integrated have had relatively fewer problems with strict Islamic law. For instance, in Austria — a country with a high concentration of Muslim immigrants yet no known honor killings — Muslims have always been placed upon their arrival with other Austrians in high-quality public housing. Children of immigrants have always been educated in the Austrian schools, where they are taught only in German. And it helps that some of Austria’s Muslims hail from Bosnia, widely considered to be more liberal in its religious practices.
Turkey knows it must also step in line. Having always straddled between Europe and the Middle East, its hopes of ever joining the EU grew slightly brighter when it passed a comprehensive human rights package last year. New laws call for harsher prison terms for honor killings, stopping a tradition of lighter sentences when it comes to recovering “family honor.”
But alternative ways are being found to restore “honor” that keeps everyone out of jail. Instead of offering up their sons as killers, family members bully the dishonored girls into killing themselves.
The U.N. reports that 36 women in Turkey have killed themselves for family honor so far this year. The deaths are called “virgin suicides.”
Last month the International Herald Tribune reported on a 17-year-old Turkish woman identified only as Derya, who came under pressure from her family for her romantic involvement with a classmate. Her uncle sent her a death threat via text message on her cell phone. “You have blackened our name. Kill yourself and clean our shame or we will kill you first.”
Derya received up to 15 death threats a day from her brothers and her uncles. After repeated attempts to commit suicide, including trying to drown herself in the Tigris River, she fled to the security of a women’s shelter.
How many Muslim women and girls in Europe have been forced to claim their own lives is unknown. Nor is it known precisely how many have been slain over the years because until now Europe hasn’t been paying much attention to the casualties.
Patti McCracken is a freelance writer based in Austria.
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