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.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.