Death Before Dishonor

By Hilary Hesse

Honor Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed
By Ayse Onal
Published by SAQI Books 2008

Honor killing taxes even the most open minds and silences the staunchest advocates of cultural relativism. In its most common form, a woman is slaughtered by a male relative upon suspicion of having committed a sexual indiscretion with a man to whom she is not married. Murdering her makes the statement that the family neither knew about nor condoned her behavior and has definitively resolved the problem. Only through this permanent disassociation can a family salvage its good name.

A tribal custom that predates Islam, honor killing is most often committed among Muslims. The majority of these murders are carried out by poor, rural, traditional peoples of the developing world, but a startling number of incidents also occur in cities and among immigrants to Western countries. 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, but the actual number may be considerably higher.

In “Honor Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed,” acclaimed Turkish columnist and television journalist Ayse Onal investigates honor crimes in her own country, many of which are committed by Kurds. With nine of its ten chapters named after female victims, the book is a compassionate sociological study of the complicated honor system. What distinguishes Onal’s book from other similarly themed texts is that each tragedy is partly explained from the killer’s perspective, which deters readers from making facile judgments.

Murat, who murdered his mother, says, “You too die with the person you kill.” Thus, the attacks have not one victim, but two: honor killing is also a crime against the self. The true culprit, then, is the system, and instead of despising these men, we cry for them.

“Honor Killing” presents a variety of situations: some women die virgins, others die pregnant; some perish at the hands of their fathers, while others take their own lives. Most of the men say they felt checkmated—left with no option but to kill those they loved. Having murdered his sister, Mehmet says, “She’s your blood. BUT, if push comes to shove, you kill her, my friend.” Battal similarly comments, “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 primal, almost animal, defense pervades the book, as if families are fighting off attack from within.

Since Onal met only one of the ten women whose lives she describes, she was forced to reconstruct the stories of the deceased by interviewing people who had known them. Thus, many of the thoughts and feelings she attributes to the victims have been extrapolated. Still, the book is so well researched and tastefully executed that it remains as credible as it is fascinating. And as Onal unpacks the issue, soul-searching readers may even find themselves making comparisons between the honor system and the social logic that governs their own lives.

So what is honor? At one point Onal asks a group of villagers for a definition. Disgusted by a question with so obvious an answer, they walk away without responding. Indeed, one of the book’s main points is that honor is such a core cultural philosophy that deconstructing it becomes nearly impossible for those ensnared in its logic. But honor appears to be the sum total of a family’s social currency, of which women are the guardians. The system revolves around group consciousness, and individuals win honor only through fastidious adherence to the roles that the community has laid out for them. Honor is not a petty example of machismo (though it springs from patriarchy), but a total belief system that accords people their place in the world. Honor killing will be with us for some time.      

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)

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