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Turkey tries to take the 'honor' out of killing women

Faces pressure from activists and push to join EU

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey -- Desperately unhappy, Sahe Fidan, 21, left the husband she despised and sought refuge in her parents' home. They refused to take her in. A married woman can leave her husband only in a coffin, they told her.

Fidan returned to the husband, then left in a coffin. A few weeks ago, she was found hanged in the bathroom, her infant son strapped to her back with a sheet.

Her corpse was discovered when the baby, unharmed, began to cry. Fidan had committed suicide.

Or had she?

After her death in this southeastern Turkey village, another version circulated. Some activists and officials suspect that Fidan might have joined the ranks of Turkish women forced to kill themselves or whose slayings are disguised to look self-inflicted.

The killing of women and girls by male relatives who think the females have brought shame upon the family's honor is an atrocity that has plagued Turkey and other Islamic countries for generations. Thousands of women have died in so-called honor killings.

In Turkey, the government has taken action. Under pressure from an invigorated women's movement and eager to win approval from the European Union, the government has launched a major campaign against honor killings, at a level and breadth virtually unheard of in the Islamic world.

Turkish imams have joined pop music stars and soccer celebrities to produce TV spots and billboard ads condemning all forms of violence against women. Broaching a topic that remains largely taboo in many conservative societies, the nation's top Islamic authority has declared honor killing a sin.

Late last year, jail sentences for men and boys who commit the crime were stiffened, and new provisions in the penal code make it harder for a court to reduce sentences. (As recently as 10 months ago, in a typical case, the life sentence of a young man who had killed his sister was substantially reduced because the judges decided he had been "provoked." He had buried her up to her neck in rocks after she was impregnated in a rape.)

In cities and towns with the highest honor-killing rates, officials working with advocacy groups are holding town hall meetings and setting up rescue teams and hot lines for women and girls in peril.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the head of a conservative, Islamist-rooted party, went before a gathering of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in November to argue for better treatment of women and to condemn honor killings as a scourge that must be eradicated from Islamic societies.

"We can say these murders are isolated incidents, yet we cannot turn a blind eye to such inhuman acts that are largely the product of ignorance," he said. "Discrimination against women is worse than racism. We must reject the treatment of women as second-class beings."

The challenge is enormous: fighting archaic customs based not so much on religion as on deep-seated tradition and feudal clan systems.

Many specialists , social workers, and officials involved speak of a new era of openness and willingness to confront the problem, but they caution that it will be a long time before attitudes are changed. There is no indication that the number of killings or forced suicides has dropped, but advocates say they now have a better arsenal.

"On paper, we seem to have achieved a lot," Fatma Sahin, a lawmaker with the ruling party who oversaw the drafting of a 300-page report on honor killings, said in an interview in Ankara, the capital. "But when we go out into the field, we recognize that a lot more needs to be done."

A significant segment of the Turkish population defines all-important honor in terms of the chastity and obedience of each female member of a family. As "owners" of women, men must defend honor by safeguarding their bodies and sexuality.

In a U N poll conducted last year, 17 percent of Turkish men said they approved of honor killing. Many more approved of lesser punishments, one of the most common being the slicing off of a woman's nose.

Such attitudes persist in many segments of the Turkish population, especially in the Kurdish southeast, but local activism on behalf of women is flourishing.

"This is a part of the country where it is not accepted that women work or travel, where they are not valued as individuals," said Canan Hancer Basturk, deputy governor of Diyarbakir. "But girls see the other side, modern Turkey, on TV or in the media, and with the rise in literacy, people's expectations are rising."

Alarmed by the soaring number of women seeking help, the Diyarbakir government opened a shelter for abused women in 2005.

Behind a metal gate on the forlorn northern outskirts of the city, the low-slung complex houses about 50 women. Its location is discreet. The Los Angeles Times was given access on the condition that the women's names not be published.

One resident was a tall, fair 16-year-old who said her father had ordered her to kill herself.

He had arranged for her marriage to a man she wanted nothing to do with, and she went along at first, long enough to become pregnant. Then she left her husband, hoping to join her true love. But he had married someone else.

Incensed, her father gave her a single option: suicide. She fled to the police and was placed in the shelter, where she gave birth.

A woman who is raped is often blamed for the crime and faces punishment, even death, at the hands of her relatives. Sometimes she is given the "option" of marrying her rapist .

Only one rape victim interviewed said she thought she could go home again.

(Correction: Because of an editing error, the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was misidentified in a display quote with a story on Sunday's World pages about violence against women in Turkey.)