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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MP Michelle Thomson's full speech on rape at 14: "I am a survivor"

The MP was attacked as a teenager. 

On Thursday, the independent MP for Edinburgh West Michelle Thomson used a debate marking the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to describe her own experience of rape. Thomson, 51, said she wanted to break the taboo among her generation about speaking about the subject.

MPs listening were visibly moved by the speech, and afterwards Thomson tweeted she was "overwhelmed" by the response. 

Here is her speech in full:

I am going to relay an event that happened to me many years ago. I want to give a very personal perspective to help people, both in this place and outside, understand one element of sexual violence against women.

When I was 14, I was raped. As is common, it was by somebody who was known to me. He had offered to walk me home from a youth event. In those days, everybody walked everywhere - it was quite common. It was early evening. It was not dark. I was wearing— I am imagining and guessing—jeans and a sweatshirt. I knew my way around where I lived - I was very comfortable - and we went a slightly differently way, but I did not think anything of it. He told me that he wanted to show me something in a wooded area. At that point, I must admit that I was alarmed. I did have a warning bell, but I overrode that warning bell because I knew him and, therefore, there was a level of trust in place. To be honest, looking back at that point, I do not think I knew what rape was. It was not something that was talked about. My mother never talked to me about it, and I did not hear other girls or women talking about it.

It was mercifully quick and I remember first of all feeling surprise, then fear, then horror as I realised that I quite simply could not escape, because obviously he was stronger than me. There was no sense, even initially, of any sexual desire from him, which, looking back again, I suppose I find odd. My senses were absolutely numbed, and thinking about it now, 37 years later, I cannot remember hearing anything when I replay it in my mind. As a former professional musician who is very auditory, I find that quite telling. I now understand that your subconscious brain—not your conscious brain—decides on your behalf how you should respond: whether you take flight, whether you fight or whether you freeze. And I froze, I must be honest.

Afterwards I walked home alone. I was crying, I was cold and I was shivering. I now realise, of course, that that was the shock response. I did not tell my mother. I did not tell my father. I did not tell my friends. And I did not tell the police. I bottled it all up inside me. I hoped briefly—and appallingly—that I might be pregnant so that that would force a situation to help me control it. Of course, without support, the capacity and resources that I had within me to process it were very limited.

I was very ashamed. I was ashamed that I had “allowed this to happen to me”. I had a whole range of internal conversations: “I should have known. Why did I go that way? Why did I walk home with him? Why didn’t I understand the danger? I deserved it because I was too this, too that.” I felt that I was spoiled and impure, and I really felt revulsion towards myself.

Of course, I detached from the child that I had been up until then. Although in reality, at the age of 14, that was probably the start of my sexual awakening, at that time, remembering back, sex was “something that men did to women”, and perhaps this incident reinforced that early belief.​
I briefly sought favour elsewhere and I now understand that even a brief period of hypersexuality is about trying to make sense of an incident and reframing the most intimate of acts. My oldest friends, with whom I am still friends, must have sensed a change in me, but because I never told them they did not know of the cause. I allowed myself to drift away from them for quite a few years. Indeed, I found myself taking time off school and staying at home on my own, listening to music and reading and so on.

I did have a boyfriend in the later years of school and he was very supportive when I told him about it, but I could not make sense of my response - and it is my response that gives weight to the event. I carried that guilt, anger, fear, sadness and bitterness for years.

When I got married 12 years later, I felt that I had a duty tell my husband. I wanted him to understand why there was this swaddled kernel of extreme emotion at the very heart of me, which I knew he could sense. But for many years I simply could not say the words without crying—I could not say the words. It was only in my mid-40s that I took some steps to go and get help.

It had a huge effect on me and it fundamentally - and fatally - undermined my self-esteem, my confidence and my sense of self-worth. Despite this, I am blessed in my life: I have been happily married for 25 years. But if this was the effect of one small, albeit significant, event in my life stage, how must it be for those women who are carrying it on a day-by-day basis?

I thought carefully about whether I should speak about this today, and it was people’s intake of breath and the comment, “What? You’re going to talk about this?”, that motivated me to do it, because there is still a taboo about sharing this kind of information. Certainly for people of my generation, it is truly shocking to talk in public about this sort of thing.

As has been said, rape does not just affect the woman; it affects the family as well. Before my mother died early of cancer, I really wanted to tell her, but I could not bring myself to do it. I have a daughter and if something happened to her and she could not share it with me, I would be appalled. It was possibly cowardly, but it was an act of love that meant that I protected my mother.

As an adult, of course I now know that rape is not about sex at all - it is all about power and control, and it is a crime of violence. I still pick up on when the myths of rape are perpetuated form a male perspective: “Surely you could have fought him off. Did you scream loudly enough?” And the suggestion by some men that a woman is giving subtle hints or is making it up is outrageous. Those assumptions put the woman at the heart of cause, when she should be at the heart of effect. A rape happens when a man makes a decision to hurt someone he feels he can control. Rapes happen because of the rapist, not because of the victim.

We women in our society have to stand up for each other. We have to be courageous. We have to call things out and say where things are wrong. We have to support and nurture our sisters as we do with our sons. Like many women of my age, I have on occasion encountered other aggressive actions towards me, both in business and in politics. But one thing that I realise now is that I am not scared and he was. I am not scared. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.