Ayse Onal

ISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)–For years, coverage of so-called honor killings in Turkey took the perpetrator’s side, describing them as heroes and their victims–typically young women accused of harming their family’s social standing by committing adultery or engaging in premarital sex–as deserving of their bloody fate.

Women’s groups, by contrast, demonized the perpetrators and worked to empower women by educating them about their legal rights and encouraging economic independence.

Journalist Ayse Onal, 54, found both approaches to the homicides–in which family members kill the woman to restore their "honor"–deficient. She adopted a new approach: critical attention and an open ear for the killers.

"I felt for them," Onal said in an interview in a hotel lobby in Istanbul in April. "Nobody ever asked them about their thoughts. In my opinion, they don’t want to kill."

By her side was her son Mehmet, a law student who serves as her English translator. She constantly jokes that "he is my slave."

Since her latest book, "Honour Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed," was released late last year, her slave has been in a good mood. He gets to tag along to the myriad conferences and book launches to which Onal is invited, in places like Hong Kong, Beirut and Oslo. The book is a collection of ten stories, based on interviews with the killers conducted in prisons across Turkey.

Although there are no reliable statistics, Onal estimates that at least one woman or girl is killed each day in Turkey in the name of "honor," and Bianet, a news Web site, found a similar rate of one reported assault or crime per day over a two-week period.

A Closer Look

The book has its roots in a TV report made by Onal and her close friend Mehmet Altan, a professor of economics and one of Turkey’s most prominent journalists. In 2004, they applied to the Ministry of Justice for permits to visit the prisons where they knew "honor" killers were confined. A year later they were granted access to 10 prisons selected by the government, where they conducted filmed interviews with over four dozen men. Although they were allowed to bring in cameras, they weren’t allowed other equipment, and much of the footage they took was too dimly-lit to use.

The men were scattered in prisons all over the country. Onal insisted on this geographic distribution to disabuse her viewers of the notion that "honor" killings only happen in Kurdish communities, which are localized in the south and east of the country.

The "honor" killers’ ages ranged from 18 to 35, but most were in their early 20s. Families often assign the youngest member to carry out the killing on the assumption that a juvenile will get a reduced sentence.

In November 2005, the "honor" killings interviews were aired in two parts during Onal and Altan’s program "Z Report," broadcast on the privately-owned national cable channel Star TV. Each episode drew large audiences and, according to Onal, set records for viewership. It was the first time the killers spoke–and people listened.

Killers’ Stories

One man, Murat, killed his mother Hanim, who had been having an affair with her step-cousin Halil. The whole bazaar, where Murat ran a stall belonging to his uncle, was abuzz with the gossip. His uncle insisted that Murat must kill Hanim, otherwise he said, "I won’t be able to show my face in the market." But it was not until Sevda, the woman Murat loved, turned him down that he realized how much it meant. Her family would never give her to him, because she told him, "My mother said your mother is a bad woman."

He stayed awake all night, pacing the streets, and returned at dawn. He picked up a gun that his sleeping father, a security guard, had left beside the bed. A few minutes later, he killed his mother with three bullets.

"No one else could have done this project," Altan said. "Both because of the quality of Onal’s work, and her commitment to it. She showed us a side of Turkey we don’t often see: painful stories about community pressure."

After the program aired, Onal says, she began to hear the women’s side too. Phone calls poured in from women scared of being killed by their family, and Onal received them at home, offering help where she could. Grateful to finally have a sympathetic ear, men called as well.

"They would tell me ‘I don’t want to kill my sister,’" Onal said.

Anna Louie Sussman is a Beirut-based freelance journalist. She recently completed her master’s in human rights at the London School of Economics.