Songul's Story and Honour Crimes
On 30 October 2006, Songul A., a 22-year-old woman living in the small, Kurdish village of Hacikislak in the Ozalp district of Van, not far from the Iranian border, went with her brother to visit a lawyer. Like hundreds of thousands of other girls across rural Turkey, Songul had not been registered by her family at birth. As far as the Turkish state was concerned, she did not exist. She had never been to school and did not know how to read.
Songul had been raped by Huseyin, a neighbour, while her husband Mehmet was away for seasonal work. Bahattin, a relative of Songul's husband, found out about the rape, and had kept Songul tied up in a barn for two days, torturing her. As is usually the case, the woman was seen as the guilty party for violating her husband's honour, rather than as the victim.
The traditional village mechanism for resolving questions of 'honour' sprang into action. An 8-person council of elders was convened to discuss how to prevent a blood feud between the two aşirets (tribes). In Ozalp, as across the region, tribes form the backbone of the social and political structure at the local level. The main issue at stake was how to restore the 'honour' of Songul's husband Mehmet and his family. The council decided that the appropriate solution was to dissolve Songul's marriage and to oblige the 16-year-old daughter of Huseyin, the rapist, to marry Songul's husband Mehmet, through a religious ceremony, as 'compensation'.
Songul returned to her father's house, in Gunyuzu village. However, with Songul pregnant from the rape and gossip about the incident spreading rapidly, Songul's life was increasingly at risk from her own extended family. That was when her brother decided to take her to Ozalp town to visit a lawyer who was known to their family.
The lawyer took them to the state prosecutor in Ozalp town. Songul told the prosecutor the story of her rape, her unwanted pregnancy and the danger she was in for dishonouring her husband and his family. The prosecutor ordered the gendarmerie to bring Huseyin, the alleged rapist, and Bahattin, the relative who had tortured Songul, in for questioning. Rather than taking her under protection however, he sent Songul back to her father's house, warning the family not to hurt her.
The prosecutor came from Afyon in Western Turkey and had only recently been appointed to Ozalp. According to Songul's lawyer, it is common for state officials appointed from other regions to have little understanding of the local tribal structure and its accompanying traditions. The lawyer told ESI that, if he did not have a strong tribe (asiret) of his own behind him, he would not dare take on a case such as Songul's, which places him under threat from the family of the accused.
Zozan Ozgokce, an activist on women's issues in Van, learned about Songul's situation from the media. She was immediately concerned. In an incident only a month earlier in a different part of the province, a state prosecutor had declined to offer protection to a teenage girl who had given birth out of wedlock. Based on assurances from her family, the prosecutor had returned the girl to her family home. Four days later, she was murdered by her own brother.
Fearing that Songul's life was also in danger, Ozgokce turned to the official institutions in Van. Although it was a Sunday, she called several departments in the security apparatus and the provincial director for social services. They said they could not take action without an order from the prosecutor. She could not reach the prosecutor or the provincial governor. As a last resort, Ozgokce contacted Fatih Cekirge, a journalist who she knew was preparing a documentary about honour killings. He was scheduled to appear live on television that evening, and promised to raise the issue. During the show, Cekirge provocatively called on the governor of Van province to do something, stating: "Let us see if the state really exists!" The response was immediate. The same night, both Songul and the daughter of the rapist were taken into protection by the gendarmerie.
The two women are now in a shelter for abused women in a different province. Criminal cases have been brought against Huseyin (for the original rape), the village elders who forced the rapist's under-aged daughter to marry against her will, and against Songul's former husband.
Songul's dramatic story is not an isolated incident. Across Turkey, police figures for honour killings number 1,091 in total between 2000 and 2005. This reflects only the killings that take place in urban settings, under the jurisdiction of the police. A parliamentary report on honor killings admits in 2005 that "comprehensive and systematic research about violence against women has not been carried out" so far.
The reaction of public institutions to Songul's case illustrates how long it takes for legal and institutional reforms to filter down to the local level. Law 4320 on domestic violence, introduced in 1998, enables prosecutors to seek protection orders for women from abusive or violent husbands, including the provision of shelter for those who cannot remain in their homes. However, as Songul's lawyer told ESI:
"A request for protection is not something that is done here… Even if I lose the case against these men, it is already a victory. Everyone has heard now that the state protects women under these circumstances."
There are few applications from women in rural areas, according to local prosecutors, because transport and communications are so poor. Prosecutors are often reluctant to use their power to intervene, fearing that they may trigger an escalation of violence.