Fear of Honor Killings: Immigrants Flee Families to Find Themselves

By Antje Windmann

Hundreds of young female immigrants are hiding from their families in Germany after fleeing oppression, physical violence and even death threats. Charities and social workers help the women get new identities and build independent lives for themselves, but the risk of revenge from honor-obsessed relatives remains.

Bahar ran away early on a winter morning, one-and-a-half years after her mother was murdered. She helped her younger siblings get ready for school, and then she gave them a goodbye kiss on the forehead. Her uncle and her brothers were still sleeping. Bahar tiptoed out of the apartment in her socks, walked down the stairs and out the door. And then she ran for her life.

Today Bahar is 26 and likes to wear high-heeled shoes. She has chosen a popular café in a small city as a meeting point. She is wearing a modest amount of makeup, and her black hair is pulled back into a bun. She smiles tentatively and introduces herself, using the name in her new passport, which, for her protection, cannot be used in this article.

Bahar's family came to Germany from Iraq in 1996. They lived in the eastern city of Halle an der Saale for the first two years, in an apartment in a high-rise building with a dingy kitchen. Her father felt that most jobs were beneath him, beat his wife and "put out cigarettes on her skin," says Bahar. The father would sometimes disappear for months at a time. Bahar suspects that he was involved in criminal activities. "Everything was always peaceful without him. We even had a picnic in the park once," says Bahar. She took along some of the photos from that day when she ran away, but she can't bear to look at them, she says.

During those happy times, when she was alone with her six children, Bahar's mother came to the conclusion that she wanted to separate from her despotic husband. She went to the local town hall with Bahar to get information about German divorce law. When the father found out about it, he took a knife and locked himself in the bedroom with his wife on a summer night in 2003. Bahar holds up her hands to show us two scars: the evidence of her attempt to save her mother.

With the mother dead and the father sentenced to life in prison, an uncle took control of Bahar and her five siblings. He managed to make a caring and thoughtful impression on the youth welfare office, but it was deceptive. He used to turn up the music before he began beating the children. Bahar used makeup to hide the bruises. "I wasn't allowed to read books, and I couldn't even go out on the balcony anymore," she says. "Just cook, do the laundry and clean."

Bahar endured her life as a virtual slave for a year and a half. "Then I knew that I would either kill myself or leave."

Living in Fear

Germany in the 21st century, almost 60 years after the first guest workers arrived, is a country in which hundreds of female immigrants like Bahar live in hiding from their families. They have left everything behind: their home, their friends and their relatives. They refuse to abandon hope and allow themselves to be broken by the incompatibility of their own wishes with the expectations of their family and social environment. They don't want to conform to the traditional values of the regions where their families come from. Instead, they want to live like women in Western societies: free, independent and emancipated.

Every year Papatya, a Berlin aid organization, takes in 60 girls and young women who have run away from their families because of cultural conflict, and who had faced the prospect of abduction, forced marriage or even death. The Rose Shelter in Stuttgart receives 80 applications a year from women who have suffered in these ways. The youth help organization Yasemin documents about 400 consultation visits, while the website Sibel receives more than 300 calls for help each year. The organization Peri e.V. claims to have helped about 50 girls and women run away from their families since 2008.

The list of the female immigrants' countries of origin is long. It includes Turkey, Kosovo, Albania, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and India. A few months ago, a man from Sri Lanka poured boiling water over his daughter in a town in Germany. She had refused to accept a forced marriage.

Bahar fled to a women's shelter, but she was still afraid. "I saw my uncle on every street corner," she says. If someone on the bus seemed suspicious to her, she would get off at the next stop, holding a can of pepper spray in her hand. Bahar has moved to four different places since she ran away, and today she lives in a small city. She finished high school and entered a vocational training program, and she is currently in the process of getting her driver's license.

But despite her new freedoms, Bahar is still being held prisoner by her family. She has to lie to people, even those close to her, including friends, neighbors and coworkers. Anyone who learns about her past and her real name could pose a threat to her. Bahar doesn't allow anyone into her "fortress," as she calls her apartment -- not even her German boyfriend.

"He was surprised that my parents are so tolerant, but that I never visit them. He sensed that I was hiding something," says Bahar, lowering her head. When she still refused to confide in him, after being together for six months, he ended the relationship.

Family Was Not Very Religious

While Bahar is alone with her secret, Mariam, a 28-year-old woman of Lebanese descent, can share hers with her boyfriend Thomas, 34. Three-and-a-half years ago, they fled from Mariam's family together, but today they live in constant fear of discovery and the likely consequences. "One of my relatives was shot by her husband, because she had left him," says Mariam. "My family felt that it was the right thing to do."

She is a quiet young woman with dark eyes and a smooth complexion, but she has reddish blotches on her neck, probably a sign of her agitation. "If my family finds us, we're dead," she says.

Mariam was three years old when her family moved to Germany from Lebanon. She has 11 siblings. The girls' lives were controlled by rules and prohibitions. She says that her father gambled away her oldest sister in a card game when she was 14 or 15. "In our world, they put a ring on your finger and a chain around your neck, and your future is sealed," Mariam explains.

It wasn't because of their religion, Islam, because the family wasn't very religious. They never prayed, and she wasn't required to wear a veil.

Mariam's case shows that the fact that a family doesn't pray, fast or require its female members to wear a headscarf is no indication of liberality in family matters. Archaic traditions and patriarchal ways of thinking do not grant women free will, explains Jan Kizilhan, 46, a psychology professor and ethnologist in the southwestern German city of Freiburg. According to Kizilhan, extended families who are poorly integrated into German society have a "collective understanding" about what women are permitted to do and what is considered dishonorable behavior. "This understanding structures and regulates communal life." Kizilhan has served as a court-appointed expert, sometimes in honor killing trials, for the last 15 years.

The behavioral rules he mentions stem from a time when there was no police and no rule of law in many of the immigrants' regions of origin, so that patriarchs fashioned their own laws in the villages. "In some families, these rules are passed on, without thinking, from generation to generation," says Kizilhan, "and religion is wrongly used to legitimize them."

Number of Killings May Be Underestimated

If a woman violates a traditional norm with her behavior, she damages the reputation of the entire family, the ethnologist explains. Reputation is elementary in these societies, in which women are treated as the property of men. People don't like to do business with a man who doesn't have his women under control, because he is seen as weak and unreliable.

He can make up for such a flaw by buying his way out of his disgrace, or by chastising the woman in a way that is visible to everyone. "There are clear courses of action" for this manner of reestablishing honor when it has supposedly been violated, Kizilhan explains. In the most extreme cases, they include honor killings, which Kizilhan considers "a social and not a religious phenomenon."

According to an estimate by the United Nations, at least 5,000 girls and women worldwide are murdered in the name of honor each year. In a study commissioned by Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office, criminologists with the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law identified seven to 10 so-called honor killings in Germany per year. The authors of the study examined 78 cases from 1996 to 2005.

But Kizilhan, who published a book about honor killings in 2006, believes that the number is "undoubtedly higher." He is very critical of the Max Planck study, saying: "The researchers didn't examine inexplicable and hidden murders, nor did they look into alleged suicides, accidents and missing person reports."

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