Exploring the psychology behind honor killings

August 21, 2011, Sunday/ 13:06:00

Without fail, every Westerner I have met who has visited Turkey exclaims to me, “Turks are so friendly and hospitable!”

Partly the surprise in their voices can be put down to the preconception many people have before coming that the locals will either be fierce, scimitar-wielding and mustachioed, or that they will be the kind of raw material from which al-Qaeda recruits. But in large part their observation is due to the fact that Turks are just extremely warm and open to visitors.

Wander off the beaten track, and you are sure to be invited in for, at the very least, a cup of tea in a beautiful tulip glass accompanied by a plate with both a savory and a sweet morsel. You could quite easily find yourself having a full meal, or even joining the guests at a wedding or a circumcision party. Of course, at this special time of year in Ramadan, sharing food with others is even more important, and the presence of visitors makes the iftar meal that breaks the fast more blessed.

Walking my dogs along the sea in Tekirdağ last week I got into conversation with a lady who has a “yabancı gelin” -- a foreign daughter-in-law. She wanted to ask me why, when the girl visited her husband’s family for the first time last week, she was so amazed that they kept hugging and kissing her? The girl she said that she felt so loved and accepted and implied that she did not have such a close relationship with her own mother. The Turkish lady I had just met wanted to know if could that really be the case abroad.

Against this backdrop of loving, warm, strong and supportive families the issue of honor killings seems even more dark and sinister. How can a culture of hospitality to visitors and strong family ties also give rise to a situation where some girls and women are murdered by those closest to them? European society is shocked by the rare instances of an immigrant girl in Europe killed by her uncle, brother or father because she is deemed to have brought disgrace on the family by her behavior.

But Turkish society is equally shocked by such cases, which are just as illegal here as they are in Europe. Many, many Turkish citizens are speaking out against violence against women. This very newspaper deserves praise for its reporting of cases of domestic violence. Rather than sweeping the issue under the carpet, or luridly sensationalizing the details of each case, I see Today’s Zaman reporters presenting the hard facts, and discussing what needs to be done to put a halt to this disturbing side of Turkish life.

It was only a matter of time before Barbara Nadel turned to this tragic subject in her series of crime thrillers set in İstanbul. In previous books, Inspectors İkmen and Süleyman have grappled with the modern blights of terrorism, drug-running and illegal immigrants. In “A Noble Killing” they come face to face with the issue of families resorting to murder to clean up their “honor.”

Nadel never disappoints, but this book is a masterpiece for how it deals with the issue. Some factual books on honor killings can be almost too harrowing to read to the end. Knowing that although such events do occur in real life, the story of the investigation of poor Gözde’s death in a suspicious fire is fiction, makes it more bearable. When the tension and emotion of the story become almost too intense to stand, Nadel can lighten the mood and provide a little relief with a description of a nargile café, some conversation between two police officers, or an excursion into their off-duty activities.

From the prelude, which hooks you and draws you in, to the climax when the perpetrators are arrested, this is 400 pages of pure captivation. In the strange set of values the book explores, honor killings are dressed up as suicide: In the very first chapter we are catapulted into this dark world, with its code of honor straight from the village, where “men make the decisions and women suffer the consequences.”

Millions of decent, caring Turks, hearing about a case of honor killing will struggle with the question “Why?.” How can families live in such a way that they feel the only course of action is take the life of one of their loved ones? As a trained psychologist, and one who has addressed the dark depths of human behavior working with prisoners in the UK, Nadel tries to explain.

İkmen is first alerted to something suspicious when the family “sat like a row of stones” when the fire chief tells them what has happened to Gözde. With the identity of the perpetrator still unknown to us, we witness him or her reflecting on “the utter rightness and necessity of the act.” Then Nadel deftly switches the spotlight throughout the novel from character to character in order to help us learn the motivation for an act we struggle to comprehend.

When exploring these extreme corners of the human psyche, Nadel is an expert guide. She illuminates the fact that at the root of honor killings is an almost primeval desire to save face. “Honor was about so much more than just purity. It was about a family not being able to look their neighbors in the face if their daughter was perceived to be bad in some way.”

She also points the accusing finger deftly and subtly back at society. A person’s overwhelming instincts to need acceptance and to be a part of a group are torn to shreds by society’s reaction to a whiff of impropriety: “The old and bitter would gossip. The holier-than-thou would sniff.”

Standing up against such travesties in real life we find not only feminists, but many thousands of decent, caring men as well as women, who wish to see an end to such horrible crimes which affront our sense of family. Nadel captures this as we see the reaction of many characters involved as law officers, witnesses or suspects in the investigation.

Female police sergeant Ayşe Farsakoğlu sums up the reaction of many women: “If this is an honor killing we must make an example of the perpetrators.” But we cannot help being touched too by the seeming silent acceptance of Gözde’s mother, who has been cowed into submission by years of domination by her husband.

Arto Sarkissian, the medical examiner who carries out the post-mortem, is shocked by the potential within his sex for extreme reaction when they lose face: “What ghastly control freaks we are.” And we are pleased to see the clarity of the thinking of the brother of one of the investigating officers. Although İsmail is a religious man, who could never condone young girls freely having boyfriends, he is horrified at the way the family takes action once Gözde transgresses their standards.

Perhaps the most shocking realization is that, for some girls, the perceived crime is actually not that great a transgression. “Maybe the girl had been seen out with an unrelated man, or perhaps slightly risqué text messages had been exchanged with a boy down the street.”

But then İkmen and Süleyman are faced with an even darker possibility. What if this tradition has now been modernized? Instead of doing the deed themselves, what if the family hired a contract killer in the big city to do their dirty work for them? When İsmail falls on hard times and needs cash, and a young girl named Sabiha has a guilty secret called Sami, a trap is sprung, and we watch with bated breath.

Honor and shame, reactions to codes of morality, issues of female safety, just punishments for male perpetrators, and the importance of dealing with the instigators if the killer is under age are all brought to light in this excellently well-written and masterfully constructed detective thriller.

“A Noble Killing” by Barbara Nadel Published by Headline, 2011 7.99 pounds in paperback ISBN: 978-075537162-4

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