An honour killing with a difference

A Turkish woman takes the law into her own hands and kills the man who raped her.

The name of Nevin Yildirim was unknown in Turkey a few weeks ago. Then she took a gun to the man who had raped her, often at gunpoint, since the beginning of the year. She shot him repeatedly, stabbed him, chopped off his head, and took it in a sack to throw at the feet of the men in a café who had called her a whore. A woman from the provincial town of Yalvaç, Yildirim is pregnant with the child of her rapist, and now finds herself at the centre of a debate about women’s rights in Turkey.

It’s difficult not to be somehow impressed. Yildirim handed herself in at the police station with a statement that her honour had been restored, and liberal bloodlust will be satisfied to see a victim gain her vengeance. In a country where women are often silent victims of rape, honour killings, and suicide prompted by repressive families and communities, the story offers a break from disempowerment.

Yildirim has quickly become a heroine to women’s rights groups in Turkey. Public opinion is pressing for her to be given the abortion she was denied at 14 weeks, four weeks after the law makes abortion in Turkey illegal. Some feel Yildirim should be pardoned altogether, and the sentiment becomes less surprising the more you read about the abuse she suffered. One thing western audiences might not immediately expect is that millions of Turkish men will concur with these demands. Honour and courage are strong currency in Turkey, and as the overwhelming majority of Turkish men are not rapists, it’s not surprising they wholeheartedly approve of a woman taking the law into her own hands in dealing with one.

And yet there’s a dark irony here, because it’s also in the name of honour that Turkish women generally suffer most, and a country governed by honour has led us a situation in which patchy statistics of this secretive crime suggest a woman a day is killed in Turkey in the name of this very thing. The reason Nevin Yildirim had to kill her rapist is because her community and the police were either skeptical or silent in the face of the abuse she suffered. The thing that will best protect Turkish women is the rule of law, and the rule of law cannot work when people are celebrated and pardoned for taking it into their own hands.

From beginning to end, Yildirim’s story is a tragedy, and even with catharsis in the conclusion, it’s still a tragedy. Yildirim must be punished for her crime just as she punished her attacker for his; her sentence should make allowances for the provocation and self-defence that forced her actions, but still she should not be pardoned. To legitimise a brutal killing because it is carried out by a woman upon her attacker somehow supports the idea of women as a weaker sex, as if there is something charming about the woman who was able to turn the tide on the violence. Most abused women will never be able to do what Yildirim has done, and their misery will be compounded by expectations that women can protect themselves if only they have the courage to do so. Already there is talk of arming women to protect them from honour killings, the idea reveals Turkey's politicians in their embarrassing failure to grasp that people are better protected by rights and respect than firearms.

Meanwhile the Yildirim case allows the western media to go through its favourite motions. One report made direct reference to a Tarantino film, all focus on the decapitation and the blood. The Muslim world is too often guilty of these crimes and their fallout, while western journalists are ever on-hand to document them with all the sensitivity of a freak show.

Nevin Yildirim in custody. Image: a still from a news report by CNN.

Julian Sayarer is cycling from London to Istanbul, he blogs at thisisnotforcharity.com, follow him on Twitter @julian_sayarer.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.