Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Scots Try to Save Turkish Women

Turkey has a problem. It desperately wants to enter the European Union. Unfortunately, Turkey's Islamic culture presents certain aspects that cause most Europeans to balk at the notion of integrating it into their liberal, Western transnational union. One of these problems is the enthusiasm among many Turks for "honor killings," in which women are murdered, usually by their own family members, for failing to live up to some standard of proper Islamic conduct. In the wake of 9/11 and the recent wave of Islamic violence across Europe (including the murder of Theo van Gogh in Holland), most Europeans do not want Turkey's alien culture added to their Union. In a desperate effort to combat it public relations problem, Turkey has turned to the Glasgow University in Scotland to mitigate the problem.

Human rights activists estimate that hundreds of Turkish women are murdered in honour killings each year. Behaviour regarded as "dishonourable" can include being a rape victim or resisting an arranged marriage. In one recent case, a girl was thrown off a rooftop by her brother for wanting to wear trousers to a family wedding.

The issue is a major concern among European Union members, which are monitoring human rights improvements made by Turkey in its attempt to join the EU by 2015.

Of course, the first suggestion from the Glasgow academics was a publicity campaign, designed to "raise awareness" of the issue.

A public awareness campaign launched last week - the first of its kind in the country - was the result of more than a year of work led by members of the Active Learning Centre, a small non-governmental organisation based at Glasgow University, which teaches activists how to co-operate with local authorities and to lobby on sensitive social issues.

Kate Phillips, a sociologist from the centre, said the campaign, which is being sponsored by the Foreign Office, would draw on British experience of combating violence against women.

"The Turkish police have had a tendency to step back and see honour killing as a cultural matter - or, in some cases, they may even know that one is about to happen in their town but wait until a crime is actually committed before stepping in," she said.

"Nowadays in Britain, issues of violence against women are normally dealt with by an inter-agency approach, involving social work, the police, housing, and local government - and we're trying to show that each can learn lessons from the other." However, there is deep-seated mistrust between the Turkish authorities and NGOs. Ms Phillips said that initial discussions she chaired were very tense, with police representatives standing at the back of the room and women's groups complaining that they felt intimidated. Eventually, they were coaxed into sitting down together.

Unfortunately for the Glasgow team, the cultures of Turkey and Britain are quite radically different, a fact most academics desperately try to avoid acknowledging - lest they have to pass moral judgment on a non-Western culture.

But prosecution is difficult [in Turkey]. Many honour killings are passed off as suicides. Some are never discovered because, in rural areas, many girls are not registered at birth and therefore "don't exist" on paper.

Another problem is entrenched social attitudes. In a recent survey, 37 per cent of men questioned said that they thought a woman who dishonoured her family should be killed.

"This is shameful, and we must assume the responsibility for this shame," said Ismail Baris, head of Turkey's social services.


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