Nuran Uca never made it to 61 Aydin Arslan Street. If she had gone to the colourful two-storey building, climbed its narrow stairwell, walked down a corridor and sat in the plump brown armchair that so many other women had used, she might be alive today. There, with counsellors from the Kam-er support group, she could have talked about the “crime” of falling in love with a man she could never marry.
Instead, on June 14 the Kurdish woman succumbed to the phenomenon that is claiming lives in this Kurdish area of south-east Anatolia: she hanged herself in the bathroom of her home.
“She was just 25 but it was especially tragic because both were teachers, educated people,” said Remziye Tural at Kam-er, the women’s organisation that has become a lifeline in Turkey’s poor south-east for those who face death because of a perception of dishonour. “She was modern and wore tight clothes—which is why his family rejected her. She was banned by her parents from seeing or speaking to him, and then they stopped her leaving the house. In the end the pressure was too much.”
Despite the searing heat, Ms Tural is dressed for work in a pink T-shirt, combat trousers and boots.
On the streets of Batman, a city with a population of 250,000, an alarming number are harbouring suicidal thoughts, and acting on them.
Across Turkey, men are twice as likely as women to take their own lives, but, defying that trend, more than 300 women in Batman have attempted suicide since 2001. Seven women died in almost identical copy-cat deaths in one month alone.
The rising number of suicides has brought schoolgirls marching in protest to Batman’s cemetery crying “stop the violence”, a courageous act given the conservative mores in Batman.
“The numbers are increasing,” said Ms Tural. “By June this year, 19 had tried to take their lives and most were successful. That’s just in Batman. All over, in villages and towns, young girls are committing suicide.”
There were those who had jumped into the River Tigris, others who had fallen off rooftops or cut their wrists, and some, like Nuran Uca, who had opted to end their lives abruptly as they were doing chores around the house.
Invariably, survivors said it was their kader, or destiny, to meet such an end.
But women’s groups and human rights advocates believe the suicides are tantamount to murder. Stories have emerged of girls as young as 12 being locked in rooms for days with rope, poison or a pistol.
“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that these are, in fact, ‘honour killings’ passed off as suicides—that these girls are being forced to take their own lives,” said Aytekin Sir, a psychiatrist who has studied the practice. There is no evidence that Nuran Uca’s family forced their daughter to kill herself.
Last year, Yakin Erturk, a special UN envoy, arrived at the same conclusion, saying “honour suicides” had clearly begun to replace “honour killings”, with the deaths increasingly being disguised as accidents.
For a long time the potent forces of fear and shame in the communities stopped young women visiting the Kam-er centre on Aydin Arlsan Street. But recently at least four girls a day have gone there, often in fear of death sentences issued by their fathers and brothers for infractions perceived to have brought shame on their families.
Nearly one-fifth of those who walked through the doors of the organisation since it started up in 1997 complained of threats from their families. Some had received text messages on their mobile phones saying typically: “You have blackened our name. Kill yourself or we will kill you.”
According to Vildan Aycicek, at the organisation’s headquarters in the city of Diyarbakir, west of Batman: “Women apply to us when they think they cannot survive the violence any longer. Most are illiterate and don’t know their legal rights. If they do, they have no idea how to use them.”
There had, she said, been cases of Kurdish and Turkish women calling Kam-er’s hotline from Britain and other countries saying they also feared for their lives. Worldwide, the numbers of “honour killings” are notoriously difficult to estimate. But in Turkey the vengeful practice is cited by academics as the cause of death for hundreds of women each year—far above the official annual figure of 70. Sometimes adultery, or a woman’s desire for divorce, prompts an all-male “family council” to order a killing.
But the list of “offences” is long: rape, incest, pregnancy brought on by both, a girl ringing into a radio chat show, exchanging eye contact with a boy or wearing a skimpy shirt. Sometimes accusations are no more than rumours.
One villager near Diyarbakir explained the attitude of his home area. “Without rules you have chaos,” said Seyikan Arslan. “If my sister or my mother made a mistake we [men] would have to make it right. They would have to pay to cleanse our honour.”
Few places demonstrate the clash in Turkey between east and west, between tradition and modernity, better than the towns of Anatolia. Both Diyarbakir and Batman, the site of Turkey’s first oil refinery, have seen a surge in migration from desperately poor rural areas.
The culture clash has played a large part in exacerbating tensions within families and particularly between patriarchal fathers and their female offspring. “Migration is behind the big rise in honour and suicide killings,” said Dr Sir, whose research found that support for the deaths far outstripped other popular penalties such as a woman having her nose sliced off or head shaved.
Ironically, the suicides have also been blamed on Turkey’s efforts to stop “honour crimes”. With Ankara’s reforming Islamic-rooted government determined to enter the EU, it has toughened laws against the killings. Lenient sentences for those who cite provocation as a mitigating factor are no longer possible. So, to save men from a life in prison, experts believe families are instead forcing women to kill themselves.
“Often there is about two months between a killing being ordered and it taking place. That gives us time to save a woman,” said Ms Aycicek, mentioning the “intervention” teams of activists, police, imams and government officials set up to tackle the practice.
Yet, despite these measures, some deny the prevalence of this revenge.
“A lot of this talk about honour killings is aimed at showing Kurds as primitive and savage,” said Bawer Ucaman, at Diyarbakir’s chamber of commerce.
Absent from the campaign in Batman has been the mayor, Huseyin Kalkan, who was awarded damages by DC Comics after a lawsuit over the use of his town’s name for the superhero Batman. That money, activists point out, could be used to save women like Nuran Uca.