The Death of a Muslim Woman
SPIEGEL ONLINE - March 2, 2005, 03:47 PM
The Death of a Muslim Woman
"The Whore Lived Like a German"
By Jody K. Biehl in Berlin
In the past four months, six Muslim women living in Berlin have been
brutally murdered by family members. Their crime? Trying to break free
and live Western lifestyles. Within their communities, the killers are
revered as heroes for preserving their family dignity. How can such a
horrific and shockingly archaic practice be flourishing in the heart of
Europe? The deaths have sparked momentary outrage, but will they change
the grim reality for Muslim women?
Hatin Surucu just wanted to live her own life. Instead, she became
Berlin's latest victim of honor killings. Her Turkish Muslim brothers
allegedly gunned her down for adopting Western ways.
The shots came from nowhere and within minutes the young Turkish mother
standing at the Berlin bus stop was dead. A telephone call from a
relative had brought her to this cold, unforgiving place. She thought
she would only be gone for a few minutes and wore a light jacket in the
freezing February wind. She had left her five-year-old son asleep in
his bed. He awoke looking for his mother, who, like many Turkish women
in Germany, harbored a secret life of fear, courage and, ultimately,
grief. Now her little boy has his own tragedy to bear: His mother,
Hatin Surucu, was not the victim of random violence, but likely died at
the hands of her own family in what is known as an "honor killing."
Hatin's crime, it appears, was the desire to lead a normal life in her
family's adopted land. The vivacious 23-year-old beauty, who was raised
in Berlin, divorced the Turkish cousin she was forced to marry at age
16. She also discarded her Islamic head scarf, enrolled in a technical
school where she was training to become an electrician and began dating
German men. For her family, such behavior represented the ultimate
shame -- the embrace of "corrupt" Western ways. Days after the crime,
police arrested her three brothers, ages 25, 24 and 18. The youngest of
the three allegedly bragged to his girlfriend about the Feb. 7 killing.
At her funeral, Hakin's Turkish-Kurdish parents draped their only
daughter's casket in verses from the Koran and buried her according to
Muslim tradition. Absent of course, were the brothers, who were in jail.
The crime might be easier to digest if it had been an archaic anomaly,
but five other Muslim women have been murdered in Berlin during the
past four months by their husbands or partners for besmirching the
family's Muslim honor. Two of them were stabbed to death in front of
their young children, one was shot, one strangled and a fifth drowned.
It seems hard to fathom, but in the middle of democratic Western Europe
-- in Germany, a nation where pacifism is almost a universal mantra --
murderous macho patriotism not only exists but also appears to be
thriving. It may even be Germany's liberalism -- and its post World War
II fear of criticizing minority cultures -- that has encouraged
ultra-religious families to settle here.
The problem is that much of this insular and ultra-religious world is
out of public view, often hidden in inner-city apartments where the
most influential links to the outside world are satellite dishes that
receive Turkish and Arabic television and the local mosque. Tens of
thousands of Turkish women live behind these walls of silence, in homes
run by husbands many met on their wedding day and ruled by the
ever-present verses of the Koran. In these families, loyalty and honor
are elevated virtues and women are treated little better than slaves,
unseen by society and often unnoticed or ignored by their German
neighbors. To get what they want, these women have to run. They have to
change their names, their passports, even their hair color and break
with the families they often love, but simply can no longer obey.
Turkish women who have fled their husbands and violent marriages and
live in a shelter take a stroll in Munich's Olympic Park. The women,
activists say, live in constant fear that their husbands or families
will find them and abuse or kill them.
Precise statistics on how many women die every year in such honor
killings are hard to come by, as many crimes are never reported, said
Myria Boehmecke of the Tuebingen-based women's group Terre des Femmes
which, among other things, tries to protect Muslim girls and women from
oppressive families. The Turkish women's organization Papatya has
documented 40 instances of honor killings in Germany since 1996.
Examples include a Darmstadt girl whose two brothers pummelled her to
death with a hockey stick in April 2004 after they learned she had
slept with her boyfriend. In Augsburg in April, a man stabbed his wife
and 7-year-old daughter because the wife was having an affair. In
December 2003, a Tuebingen father strangled his 16-year-old daughter
and threw her body into a lake because she had a boyfriend. Bullets,
knives, even axes and gasoline are the weapons of choice. The crime
list compiled by Papatya is an exercise in horror. And the sad part,
said Boehmecke, is that it is far from complete. "We'll never really
know how many victims there are. Too often these crimes go unreported."
In many cases, fathers -- and sometimes even mothers -- single out
their youngest son to do the killing, Boehmecke said, "because they
know minors will get lighter sentences from German judges." In some
cases, these boys are revered by their community and fellow inmates as
"honor heroes" -- a dementedly skewed status they carry with them for
the rest of their lives. Currently, six boys are serving time in
Berlin's juvenile prison for honor killings. "In a way, these boys are
victims, too," she said. Sometimes they are forced to kill their
One of the unsettling truths about Hatin's death and the plight of many
Muslim women is that it took the comments of three Turkish boys and the
outrage of a male school director to get people to notice. When the
murder first happened, it sent no shock waves through the mainstream
German press. It only became big news when a group of 14-year-old
Turkish boys mocked Hatin during a class discussion at a school near
the crime scene. One boy said, "She only had herself to blame," while
another insisted, "She deserved what she got. The whore lived like a
German." The enraged school director not only sent a letter home to
parents, but also to teachers across Germany. The letter ignited a
media fury. Less known, however, is that the letter also hit a nerve
among educators. "Teachers from across the country wrote back saying
they had had similar experiences," Boehmecke said. They reported
Turkish boys taunting Turkish girls who don't wear headscarves as
"German sluts." "That's the part no one has written about. Clearly
there is huge potential for similar violence across Germany," Boehmecke
said. "Not just in the big cities, but all over. It's a problem many
politicians haven't been willing to face."
But that is not entirely true. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks
and the revelation that several of the 9-11 plotters lived hidden lives
in the up-scale German city of Hamburg, politicians and everyday
Germans have more closely scrutinized the private lives of their
friendly Turkish grocers, housecleaners, taxi drivers and even
colleagues. At the same time, religious Muslims tightened their ranks,
becoming more protective of each other in a world increasingly fearful
of and hostile toward Islam.
German legislators, for their part, began rethinking the traditional
delicacy with which the nation has handled its immigrants. For decades,
German legislators lived under the shadow of the country's Third Reich
past and the fear of appearing racist if it singled out a particular
community or religion for scrutiny or special treatment.
"People were afraid they would be called Nazis if they dared to bring
up issues of human rights in the Turkish community," said Serap Cileli,
a Turkish author and filmmaker who at 15 was forced into an arranged
When Cileli fell in love with another Turkish man and threatened to
break free, her mother came to Turkey, kidnapped her two children and
took them to Germany. She then gave Cileli an ultimatum: give up the
lover or never see the kids again. At first Cileli chose the kids and a
life in Germany. But unlike many other stories, hers has a happy ending
-- the lover later followed her to Germany and, after an enormous
struggle with her family, the pair married and now live together with
her children. She has written prodigiously about her experiences and
now helps Turkish women escape oppressive families.
For the greater part of a decade, however, Cileli was unable to find a
publisher for her work. "Everything I wrote from 1994 to 1999 was
rejected, even by newspapers," she said. "They told me I was writing
about a minority issue and they were afraid of appearing racist." That
changed following Sept. 11, she said, when suddenly the hidden lives of
Muslims became a hot topic and her writing and views are now widely
published and even translated into her native Turkish.
Last year, a virtual tectonic shift occurred when Germany -- long
considered a Mecca of religious tolerance by Muslims -- took its first
step toward enforced secularism. Five of the nation's 16 states voted
to ban teachers and other public officials from wearing headscarves to
work. In October, after much lobbying, Turkish women's groups scored a
coup when the government passed a law making it illegal for parents to
force their children to marry. Turkey, a secular Muslim state, has long
had such a law.
The November murder in neighboring Holland of filmmaker Theo van Gogh
-- who was shot and stabbed to death by an Islamic extremist angry over
his depiction of the violence inflicted on Muslim women in forced
marriages -- galvanized the Netherlands and sent shock waves across
Europe. As a result, Germans, too, began to take a second look at the
3.2 million immigrants -- 2.5 million of whom are Turkish -- living
among them and to talk about the serious flaws of the nation's 1960's
immigration policies. The program brought thousands of Turkish workers
to Germany, but provided no real means of integrating the Muslim Turks
or helping them understand Western concepts like individualism, human
rights and equality. Now, Cileli said, perhaps, honor killings and
other horrors experienced by Muslim women will finally be given the
scrutiny they have long deserved.
Frightened for their lives
Muslim women often live insular lives focused on family and religion.
How they live at home often clashes greatly with the society they are
The new laws are a vital step toward empowerment, said Cileli, but
unfortunately, the corpses of disobedient women offer a more compelling
reason for many young women to stay put. Plus, she said, laws don't
take into account the psychological terror under which the women live.
"These girls are frightened for their lives," she said. "If they do
manage to get away, it would be an illusion to say the girls would run
to the police." Besides, laws only cover civil marriages -- not
religious ones. In many cases, families force their young daughters
into Muslim weddings at very young ages (sometimes as early as 12 years
old) and then only unite the couple civilly when the girls turn 18.
Though subtle, evidence of the seclusion in which religious Muslim
women live in Germany abounds. Turkish tea rooms are often packed with
men, while women are often at home caring for children. They rarely can
be seen on the streets alone after dark. At a memorial vigil held a few
weeks after Hatin's death, a mere 120 people showed up. Almost none
were Turkish. In fact, most were from a lesbian and gay organization
that -- outraged by the crime -- organized the make-shift ceremony.
The ceremony underscored another disturbing reality: It is often not
the Muslim community that first expresses outrage over how its women
live, but those on the outside. "It's often very frustrating for us
that more doesn't come from within," Boehmecke said. "We've been trying
to bring attention to the plight of women for years, but with little
success." Cileli sees it in harsher terms. "It not only took the death
of a white man" for people to prick up their ears, she said, but of a
"white European" man (van Gogh). "A European was killed because he
defended us -- and the world press stood up to listen. But how many
women died before him?"
A statistical black hole
A memorial to Hatin, showing her holding her son when he was a baby.
That was before she discarded her headscarf and insisted on living as
Astonishingly, the first extensive data the German government collected
about the lives of Turkish women was published last summer, as part of
a study done by the Ministry for Family Affairs. The study showed that
49 percent of Turkish women said they had experienced physical or
sexual violence in their marriage. One fourth of those married to
Turkish husbands said they met their grooms on their wedding day. Half
said they were pressured to marry partners selected by relatives and 17
percent felt forced into such partnerships.
So far, the Turkish community has been sluggish in its response to such
data and even to the question of honor killings. But last week -- about
three weeks after Hatin's death and under heavy pressure from activists
-- the Turkish Association of Berlin and Brandenburg held a round table
discussion about the plight of Muslim women. At the talks, the group
issued a 10-point plan calling for a "zero tolerance" stance on
violence against women and encouraged other Turkish and Islamic
organizations to "actively recognize" and address the problem.
Will it help? Because the group is secular, it will likely have little
sway with deeply religious Turks. "The truth is, we can't reach those
who aren't interested," the group's spokesman, Cumali Kangal, conceded.
The response among Germany's devout Muslims is equally tough to gauge
as there is no single organization the community looks to for
leadership. Instead, the community is divided into about three dozen
groups, each with its own leadership. Ali Kizilkaya, the chairman of
the Council of Islam, one of the largest umbrella organizations, has
decried Hatin's murder as "an abuse and affront to the Muslim
religion." He insists Islam does not condone honor killings.
But try telling that, said Boehmecke, to the hoards of young boys who
taunt Turkish girls in schools and their families who tacitly encourage
such behavior. Educators at the grassroots say their numbers are
rising, she says. Indeed, the German weekly Die Zeit reports that the
percent of schoolgirls wearing headscarves in the Berlin district where
Hatin was killed has gone from virtually none to about 40 percent in
the past three years. Which one of today's smiling schoolgirls,
Boehmecke wonders, will be next year's victim of honor?