By Hilary Beaumont, Copy Editor
About 30 women wearing purple and red lined the tiled main street of Taksim, Istanbul on Nov. 25. They smiled for the few reporters who showed up, and ignored the male police in full riot gear standing across the tram tracks. Their posters showed headshots of other women, and photos of coffins. Scrawled in red lipstick on a mirror between two protesters were the words “erkek devlet” – in English: “male state”.
They chanted against honour killings, a customary practice in which one family member murders another because he or she is believed to have shamed their family name. Perceived ‘shame’ can range from improper clothing at one end of the spectrum, to sexual or marital relations deemed unacceptable at the other. Female rape victims are common targets of family ‘cleansing’.
There is now one victim of an honour killing each week in Istanbul, according to a recent government report. The same report estimated there have been 1,000 of these murders in the city in the last five years. Women are most often the victims. They are usually killed by male relatives, or pressured into committing suicide.
In one such case, Sait Kina stabbed his 13-year-old daughter Dilber to death, the Washington Post reported in 2001. He did it because she spoke to boys and ran away from home on several occasions. He said he had carried out his duty.
Two weeks ago, I left Canada with the impression that women were systemically undervalued. I touched down in Turkey.
Turkish social values place a large emphasis on women dressing and acting modestly. Females often wear headscarves and long sleeves. In more extreme cases, they are expected to avoid interacting with men who are not their relatives. These expectations stem from conservative Muslim values (98 per cent of Turkish people identify with Islam). But in 1923, Turkey was established as a secular state. And now, many young women no longer want to carry on modest lifestyles. This leads to a clash of values within families.
While booking bus tickets from Eskisehir to Izmir earlier this week, my male travel companion noted a map of our bus that showed where men and women were seated. The interactive map gives women the option to sit by another female. The helpful diagram would not let us sit together on the bus.
Next week, we fly to Cairo. Though we didn’t come across any seating problems, we did find this jarring travel advisory:
“Women should cover their arms and legs if travelling alone, and covering your hair may help to keep away unwanted attention … Egyptian women, even those who wear the full hijab, are often subjected to sexual harassment, including cat calls. You may find that completely covering up does not make a huge difference, with regards to harassment, versus wearing a top with shorter sleeves. In regards to harassment, it’s also important how you act … the best thing to do is ignore men who give you unwanted attention. They want to get some reaction out of you.”
“I didn’t see a single woman on the streets when I was there,” my travel buddy told me, remembering Cairo seven years ago.
Honour killings also take place prevalently in Egypt. The United Nations estimates 5,000 people are victims of honour killings globally each year. These murders happen all over the world: in Pakistan, England, Germany, the U.S. and, yes, even in Canada. The difference is the level at which they are tolerated socially.
Ironically, I’ve realized I should be grateful for the level of inequality between men and women in Canada. I may still experience sexism, but at least I can speak to a man without fearing death.
The brave protesters in Istanbul made it clear they wouldn’t stomach violence ‘justified’ by shame. They wore pictures of their sisters and the colour of the first women’s shelter in Istanbul: the Purple Roof. It has housed women who fled from their families for actions Western women do daily without a second thought.