LONDON // Police and religious communities across Europe are mounting new offensives against "honour killings". The moves follow a string of high-profile cases across the continent when family members have been successfully prosecuted for killing young daughters and other relatives, normally because they refused to take part in arranged marriages or had fallen in love with someone deemed unsuitable.
A case in Britain this month, which ended with a Turkish father being found guilty and ordered to serve a minimum of 22 years for killing his 15-year-old daughter in 1999 because of an affair she was having with a man from a different sect of Islam, was described as "a wake-up call" over the problem of honour killings. The conviction of Mehmet Goren, the father of Tulay Goren, was possible only because his wife spoke out after 10 years of silence.
The UK case marked the first time that prosecutors called on expert witnesses in an honour crime trial. They were used to describe how the "namus", or family code of honour, worked among Turkish Kurds. Such developments, plus the establishment of special police units with a greater understanding of honour crimes, are being mirrored in Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy after high-profile cases there.
Far from all of the trials have involved Muslims. Young Hindu and Sikh women who refuse arranged marriages and, particularly, those who fall in love with someone from a different caste, have been victims as well. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 5,000 women are killed in the name of honour worldwide each year, at least 1,000 in Pakistan. According to the UN Development Fund for Women, 22 women in India are killed every day in dowry-related murders.
The problem is a relatively new one in Europe, exacerbated by the sudden influx of immigrants in the past two decades. British police estimate that a dozen women a year are murdered in the United Kingdom in the name of honour, but many others are tricked or forced into travelling back to their home countries to be killed there. A helpline for Kurdish women in the UK gets an average of 1,000 calls a year.
The difficulty for the authorities has been understanding the reasons for these killings and trying to penetrate the code of silence within migrant communities. Threatened women " seldom go to the police, but they often seek help from the health service or domestic violence charities," said Aisha Gill, a senior lecturer in criminology at London's Roehampton University and an expert on honour killings.
"Professionals in these organisations are urging the government to understand that preventing honour-based violence requires a change in the beliefs and practices that give rise to this type of violence in the first place." Leading figures in Islam are attempting to curtail honour killings. In Turkey, a group of 80 scholars has been re-examining Muslim traditions in the hadith for the past three years. They eventually plan to publish six volumes, based on the Quran, that reject many controversial practices in the hadith, including honour killings and the stoning of adulterers.
About 250 activists and scholars from 47 countries gathered in Kuala Lumpur this year to launch a group called Musawah ("equality" in Arabic), which aims to bring equality and justice to Muslim family law in legal systems around the world. Queen Rania of Jordan has also spoken out against honour crimes in her country and has given support to women's rights groups trying to change laws that effectively amount to giving legal impunity to men involved in such killings.
Such initiatives are becoming known by women throughout Europe, mainly because the word is being spread via the internet. Campaigners say there is still a long way to go. Diana Nammi, who runs the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation in the UK, said that 10 years ago, police did not know how to handle women seeking a safe haven from the threat of an honour killing. "At best women were treated as victims of domestic violence, an inappropriate strategy," she said. "There is no doubt that more women now have confidence to come forward because changes have been made to the policy and the law; help is available for victims.
"People are also more confident to stand up against killings within communities because they see the perpetrators being held accountable." She said police, social workers and teachers need training to provide safety for women and young girls. Ms Gill said: "Honour killings are anything but honourable. They are brutal, premeditated acts of violence perpetrated by the very people who are supposed to protect the victim from harm."