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.