Fear of Honor Killings Immigrants Flee Families to Find Themselves

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Part 3: The High Cost of a New Identity


How does one protect female immigrants from the morals, rules and persecution of their families? Johannes M., a 53-year-old social worker, looks after more than a dozen female immigrants who have fled from their families and are now living under new identities. For his own safety, he doesn't want his full name to be published.

Some time ago, M. organized an exhibition on the subject of victim protection at a school center in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. "After that, many young women from immigrant families contacted me to tell me that they couldn't stand it at home anymore." Whenever this happens, he says, he first tries to assess the level of suffering to which the girls are in fact subjected, and whether an intervention could help or would only exacerbate the situation.

If fleeing is the only option, the social worker figures that it will take three months to iron out all the formalities. "The funding is always the biggest problem," says M. For instance, he points out, a day in a residential facility costs about €200 ($260). "Almost all protective facilities will only accept someone once the youth welfare or social services department has approved the costs," says M. For this reason, an intensive investigation by the authorities is often required.

In major cities with large immigrant populations, like Berlin, the youth welfare agencies are now more attuned to the problem than in more rural areas. But even in the German capital, the amount of assistance the girls are likely to receive often depends on whether their caseworkers are knowledgeable about the problem.

Much is at the discretion of the agencies. If a woman seeking protection isn't a German citizen yet, she can obtain a new identity relatively easily in the course of naturalization. However, the German states do not document how many new identities are issued nationwide each year.

Once all the red tape has been taken care of, social worker Johannes M. sets up an escape date. On the appointed day, he sits in his car, with the engine running, and waits for the endangered woman to come running out. He often drives hundreds of kilometers to bring his charges to relative safety. He knows that her family, the men in particular, will doggedly search for the woman. To discover the renegade's whereabouts, people are threatened and bribed, and sometimes members of the extended family even distribute wanted posters nationwide.

Learning Life Skills

Eva K. experiences the extremes that the families will go to in their quests on an almost daily basis. As the director of the Papatya aid organization at the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf youth welfare office, she once witnessed how three men suddenly stormed into the office, grabbed a young Lebanese woman and took her with them. "No one dared to stop them. We spent half a year searching for her. She never resurfaced."

Living with a new identity, without family and friends, is a cruel burden. "They're all very compliant girls who try to please everyone," says K. "They're often distraught over the fact that they, of all people, can't stand this life." They are also tormented by the realization that their parents' sense of honor is greater than the love for their daughters. One in two of the women was threatened with forced marriage, says K., while one in five had told her about honor killings among their relatives.

Many of the escapees struggle with their new freedom. "After all, they were brought up in systems that deliberately kept them dependent," says K. After spending some time at Papatya, they often move into managed group homes or women's residential facilities first. "Many have to learn important life skills, such as dealing with money," says the social worker.

The degree of oppression in which the girls or women lived before they escaped depends on two factors: how poorly the family was integrated into Western culture, and how many brothers kept watch over them. In many cases, K. explains, the male siblings' role is to guarantee "that their sisters don't do anything that could harm the family honor."

Pressure on the Men

In his research, Jan Kizilhan, the Freiburg-based psychologist, has observed a tremendous "social pressure on the fathers and the sons." For a study titled "Socialization and Beliefs in So-called Honor Killings," he interviewed 21 men of Turkish descent who had been arrested for honor killings in Germany. Kizilhan's conclusion is that very few of these men exhibit the typical traits of a killer or a violent criminal. Most of them, he says, came under pressure from fathers, mothers or the community. Men with little education who were victims of violence themselves are especially likely to be potential killers, says Kizilhan. And if fanaticism is also a factor in the social environment, the threat of honor killings is particularly high, according to Kizilhan.

In 1994, Germany's Federal Court of Justice ruled that honor killings were to be classified as murders for "base motives." According to the court, German legal and moral concepts are to be applied, and not those of an ethnic group that does not recognize German norms.

The study by the Max Planck Institute for the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation demonstrates that a large number of judges do not agree with the 1994 Federal Court of Justice decision. According to the study, honor as a motive is considered a mitigating circumstance in 25 percent of cases. In about 40 percent of the cases examined, the court did not even address the question of whether honor constituted a base motive.

Gunter Widmaier, a criminal attorney in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe, where the Federal Court of Justice is located, sees this behavior as evidence of trepidation on the part of some judges "to call a spade a spade, because they want to avoid appeals." The unsatisfactory result, says Widmaier, is that the reality behind many crimes is not recognized, and as a result it is underestimated how widespread certain social phenomena are.

The End of Misplaced Tolerance?

This makes a verdict that was pronounced by the district court in the western German town of Kleve in December 2009, in the case of the murder of Gülsüm S., all the more remarkable. The 20-year-old woman of Kurdish descent had been beaten to death with branches by her triplet brother. Her face was so badly damaged that she was almost unidentifiable. The court reached a unique verdict: It convicted both Gülsüm's brother and her father of murder, even though the father had not been directly involved in the crime.

Does the Kleve verdict mark the end of years of misplaced tolerance on the part of the German judiciary? Psychology professor Kizilhan hopes that the ruling will at least send a message because, in his view, it is clear that more acts of violence will be committed in the name of honor in Germany "in the next 10 to 15 years." "We are dealing with a battle of the immigrant generations that remains invisible to outsiders," says Kizilhan. The second and third generations, he explains, are still using the old values to remain in control. "At the same time, more and more female family members are rebelling against this."

Kizilhan is pinning his hopes on prevention. He believes that the police should keep a close eye on families with a history of violence and oppression. "If the officers make it clear to the patriarch that they're watching him, he'll shy away from beating his daughter or wife, not to mention killing them."

Other experts want to see the structures changed. One such measure would be to make kindergarten attendance mandatory for immigrants, so that their sons and daughters are familiarized with the liberal ways of the West at an early age. Another would be for municipalities to employ more immigrants, who could then improve cultural competency in local administrations.

Bilkay Öney, the integration minister in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, would also like to help women who were brought from other countries to Germany for forced marriages. These women, says Öney, a member of the center-left Social Democrats who is herself of Turkish descent, should be granted a separate legal status after less than the current three-year waiting period. Otherwise, she explains, they have no way of freeing themselves from a violent situation. "If the family believes that they have stained its honor by separating from their husbands, often they are no longer able to return."

The most appropriate solution, says Yasemin Karakaoglu, a professor of intercultural education at the University of Bremen, would be dual citizenship. "It doesn't just promote integration," she argues. "It would also have a positive impact on aid and support programs for girls and women. After an abduction, for example, it would create the legal basis to be able to bring the victims back to Germany."

The advantages of dual citizenship are evident in Britain, where women can turn to a "Forced Marriage Unit" for help. It is made up of employees of the Foreign Office and Home Office, as well as social organizations. If a young woman with a UK passport is abducted to another country, the unit notifies the British embassy in that country. It then searches for the missing woman and, with the help of security personnel, ensures that she is returned to the UK.

Confident Enough to Go Out Alone

Mariam and Thomas often talk about which of the two gave up more for the other one. They were married last week and want to start their own family.

Mariam talks about the "real home" that they now have, a two-room apartment somewhere in Germany. The furniture is from an estate sale, they've painted the walls in warm colors, and there is a common name on the doorbell. Even Thomas's parents don't know where their son is.

Mariam is now confident enough to go to the bakery alone. "Being able to move about freely is the greatest luxury for me," she says. She is now completing a business management training program.

She was only forced to confront her family one more time. On the advice of her attorney, she filed a complaint against her sister after the sister had threatened her on the phone. Because the court did not wish to jeopardize her safety, Mariam took part in the proceedings via videoconference. Her anxious face could be seen on three screens in the courtroom, in a scene reminiscent of a Mafia trial.

But she had merely been dispensing sisterly advice, the outraged defendant claimed, while her husband ridiculed the proceedings from one of the visitors' benches.

'I Feel Hate'

When the court questioned Mariam's older sisters, they testified that they were married to cousins. "It's normal for us," they said. They painted a picture of a loving, "perfect" family, one in which every family member could do as he or she pleased.

"Why then should your sister go to such great lengths, if she had nothing to fear?" asked the judge. The family members had no response, and for the first time there was silence in the courtroom.

The court's ruling lit a beacon of hope for Mariam. Her sister was convicted of coercion and sentenced to six months in prison, suspended to two years on probation. "Should anything happen to my client now, the circumstances will be more obvious. It was an important step," Mariam's attorney said in a statement in the courtroom.

Sometimes tears come to Mariam's eyes when she thinks about her little sister. She regrets having left her alone. And when she thinks about her parents? Mariam reflects for a moment. "I feel hate," she says. "And longing."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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