BOSTON (WOMENSNEWS)–A 22-year-old Turkish immigrant woman owned a pet bird when she lived with her husband. She used to open the cage and free the bird from time to time, letting it fly through the apartment.
But her husband grew annoyed by the bird, and then he’d yell at his wife. And hit her. And hit their two young children. Meral (she asked her real name not be used) clipped the bird’s wings to pacify her husband, but she never stopped seeing her own life in the trapped existence of the bird. And her husband never stopped hitting.
She was raped daily–even after she had given birth–battered, shot with a BB gun, burned with cigarettes and cut with glass, Meral said. Once her husband shaved her head in a fit of rage. The worst was his demand that she kiss his feet.
Today Meral is seeking asylum on grounds that if she were forced to return to Turkey and her abusive husband, she would very likely be the target of an “honor killing” for bringing perceived dishonor upon her husband. After escaping from Turkey with her two children, she also filed for divorce.
Seeking divorce and abandoning her husband would be grounds for an “honor killing,” according to Meral, her lawyer and women’s advocates. Women have been murdered for far less–flirting or being seen in public with a man not a member of their family.
“I may be killed here in America if they find me,” Meral said in an interview. “But I would rather be a dead body here than there.”
Even if her application, filed six months ago, is granted, she said, “I still have to face the consequences and be in hiding my whole life.”
Though hers is not the first asylum application to be based on domestic violence, it is believed to be the first sought on the basis of both honor killing and domestic violence.
Administration Sets Aside Expanded Asylum Rules for Abused Women
The Immigration and Naturalization Service last January proposed rules that would expand the grounds for asylum to include women who are victims of domestic violence. The Bush administration, however, has set those rules aside pending further study.
“What is important here is highlighting the fact that there are proposed regulations that would grant asylum based on being a domestic violence victim,” said Leslye Orloff, director of the battered immigrant women’s project of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund in Washington. Women’s Enews is a media project of NOW Legal Defense.
“Because they were not final rules, the Bush administration may retrench,” Orloff said in a telephone interview. “It may undo some of the good work that was done by the INS. If they don’t, then a case like Meral’s would be granted asylum.”
However, Meral’s attorney, Lisa Johnson-Firth, believes she has another avenue to justify her plea for asylum. Applicants for asylum must prove they have endured persecution or have a justifiable fear that, based on their race, nationality, political persuasion or association with a victimized social group, they would be persecuted if they were deported.
Johnson-Firth said in an interview that Meral’s plea case might fit into that final category–victimized social group–as well as the proposed protection for battered women seeking asylum because Meral takes a more liberal view of Islam and “fell into a social group of women who failed to conform to social norms in Turkish society.”
Asylum Case Is Pending, Divorce Trial Expected This Spring
In a pre-trial divorce hearing here April 20 neither her husband, who was not identified, nor his lawyers appeared. The judge granted her spouse or his representative one more opportunity to appear at a divorce trial later this spring, but the date has yet to be set.
Attempts to contact the husband and his lawyer were unsuccessful.
“I believe that if she returned to Turkey she would likely be killed or will be targeted by her family or her husband’s family,” said Leyla Gulcar, Ph.D., an expert on honor killings and co-founder of a small international women’s rights organization in New York City. She filed an affidavit supporting Meral’s claim of a well-founded fear of persecution.
Meral’s husband comes from an affluent, well-connected family in Turkey. He teaches at a university and is a member of the military. Meral fears he will be under pressure to restore his family’s honor by finding and killing her. And he would have the resources to do so.
Although born in Turkey, Meral was reared and educated in Germany where she came to realize that some of the accepted treatment of women in Turkey was really abuse. At age 15 she returned to Turkey after her mother’s death. Her family arranged her marriage a year later and she and her husband moved to the United States in 1994, so that he could attend a university in Massachusetts.
After completing his education, the family moved back to Turkey. Meral escaped with her children, a 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter.
Study: Most Turkish Women Say Murder Possible Over Family Honor
Several years ago, a study in eastern Turkey found that 67 percent of women believed their husbands or families would murder them if they dishonored the family. Most of the respondents who did not believe they would be killed thought they would be badly beaten instead, according to the study that appeared in 1998 in the Journal of Reproductive Health Matters, an international journal in the United Kingdom.
Last August, “The Muslim’s Handbook,” published in Turkey, instructs men to beat their wives “as long as they avoid the face and don’t hit too hard.” The handbook was published by the state-funded Religious Foundation, an affiliate of Turkey’s government-run Religious Affairs Directorate. The directorate dictates topics to be preached at mosques and appoints Muslim clerics.
“I believe in love,” Meral said. “I believe you should know each other and fall in love and respect each other and have the same rights.” She said she would tell her husband that the Quran teaches men to be gentle and treat their wives “like a rose.”
“I’d say: ‘You can’t abuse God’s given body.'”
From Johnson-Firth’s office overlooking Boston’s skyline, Meral laughed with her lawyer and the two friends who helped her escape from Turkey. Over French fries and sandwiches, she talked of helping other women in her situation, even if it resulted in her death.
“If I saw a woman escaping, I would be so proud,” Meral said. “I would say, ‘good for her.'”
Megan Cooley is a free-lance writer in Boston, covering community, social, education and women’s issues.
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