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  • The Tradition Effect:Framing Honor Crimes in Turkey
  • Dicle Kogacioglu (bio)

An honor crime is commonly defined as the murder of a woman by members of her family who do not approve of her sexual behavior.1 While there are no official statistics on the crime in Turkey, an incomplete collection of the cases that received coverage in the national media shows that in the three-year period between 1994 and 1996 a total of fifty-three women fell victim to honor killings (see Yirmibesoglu).

Recently two events brought the issue to international public attention: the murder of Fadime Sahindal in Sweden by her father and the death sentence against Amina Lawal and its subsequent overturn in Nigeria. Sahindal was a member of the Kurdish minority in Sweden, where her family migrated from Turkey twenty years before her death. She was a vocal critic of honor crimes, bringing the issue to attention through her legal and public appearances. The series of court cases against Amina Lawal took place in the background of the divide between Christian and Muslim elements in Nigeria and the ensuing tensions between the federal and local juridical structures of the country.

Various actors, including the media, political parties, activist circles of various sorts, state institutions, and international bodies of [End Page 118] governance see honor crimes as primarily caused by tradition, alternately called "codes of honor," or more broadly, "culture."2 Yet, even the most superficial examination of such publicized cases as those of Ms. Lawal or Ms. Sahindal reveals that factors such as one's ethnic identity as a minority, one's activism, or one's position in relation to state structures and contestations are integral to the perpetuation of honor crimes. In other words, honor crimes stand at the intersection of multiple political and social dynamics.

Clearly, this is an observation that applies not only to honor crimes but to most so-called traditional practices attributed to non-Western societies and to migrants from these societies. Indeed, the debate on honor crimes unfolds in dialogue with debates on other "problematic non-Western practices"3 such as female genital mutilation, sati,4 arranged marriages, and dowry murders. Feminists from third world countries, addressing first world feminists in particular, have noted that to frame such practices as tradition is to ignore the structures of power and inequality at play.5 Given the multiplicity and complexity of the institutions involved directly or indirectly with honor crimes, it is impossible to think of women in the third world as falling prey solely to traditional patriarchal structures. (See Lazreg, "Feminism," Mani, Mohanty, Narayan, and Spivak.)

In contemporary Turkey honor crimes take place in the context of the actions of such institutions as the Turkish state, the European Union, political parties of various sorts, national and transnational markets,6 national and international media, and feminist and human rights organizations. As I will show, what are defined as honor crimes and the ways of dealing with them are produced in relation to these institutional practices and discourses. That is why, following fellow third world feminists, I argue that the analytical framework for examining honor crimes and other so-called traditional practices should shift from a focus on "tradition" or "culture" to an examination of the effects of various institutional structures.7

Third world feminist criticisms have been relatively well received in some Western feminist circles.8 The continuing dialogue among third world and first world feminists about such so-called traditional practices is an extremely important achievement. Nevertheless, it is clear that arguments similar to the ones criticized by third world feminists continue to be deployed by international institutions. Neither is the national political field immune to the appropriation of arguments of "tradition" in the making of gender inequality and violence against women. [End Page 119] In Turkey, for instance, an equally popular name for honor crimes is "crimes of tradition."9 The prevalence of this discursive framework makes clear that the third world feminists' critique is still relevant to both national and international power struggles.

If the so-called traditions are made and remade in relation to the actions of institutions, then the reduction and eventual extinction of honor crimes...


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pp. 119-151
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2004
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