An excerpt from
In Honor of Fadime
Murder and Shame
On February 2002, Fadime Sahindal was buried after a service held in the ancient cathedral in Uppsala. The ceremony was attended by Crown Princess Victoria, the head of Parliament, the ministers of integration and of justice, the archbishop, and other dignitaries. Fadime’s own family, the Sahindals, accounted for some two hundred and fifty persons among the two thousand that the cathedral could hold. At least another two thousand stood outside on that cold, rainy day to pay Fadime their last respects. The ceremony was broadcast live on Swedish TV.
The canon, Tuulikki Koivunen Bylund, officiated. Fadime’s family wanted a dignified ceremony in a sacred place, she said. Fadime loved Uppsala and had wished both to marry in and be buried from the cathedral. Hence this ceremony, even though Fadime was not a member of the Swedish Church.
No wedding though, only her funeral. Fadime’s beloved, Patrik Lindesjö, had died in a car crash on June 3, 1998. Four years later, Fadime met her death, murdered by her father because she stood by her love for Patrik and her right to a life of her own. “Fadime was a whore,” her father told the police. “The problem is over now.”
Was it then an honor killing? Or a so-called honor killing? Bishop Gunnar Stålsett calls it a shame killing. Let us free the concept of honor from the taint of violence and fear, he seems to say. The world needs true honor. Let us respect it and live accordingly.
One man who would agree with the bishop was kept under lock and key in Lørenskog Prison outside Oslo. He murdered his wife and was atoning for it by serving a twelve-year prison sentence. He claims that it was hammered into boys like him, from childhood on, that if a female brought dishonor on the family, she must be killed—whether daughter, sister, cousin, or wife. ”We need a new concept of honor,” he says.
A concept of honor that recognizes the integral value of the individual exists. It is found in many cultural settings, within the Western sphere of influence and outside it. Part of my intention with this book is to show that honor in the best sense of the word is understood and practiced by men and women of very diverse societies, some of which we might categorize as “traditional.” In many non-European communities, Fadime’s murder and similar horror stories reported in the media—for instance, death threats against young people who refuse to be forced into marriage—would cause as much revulsion and condemnation as they do in the West. This is true of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and people who do not belong to any of the world religions.
Yet there is no denying that honor killings exist. They are not “so called.” They are for real. We might well, in the spirit of Bishop Stålsett, label them shame killings. It would signal our condemnation of such acts, monstrous acts despite the pretense of high moral principle. But it is only by facing up to the facts that we can hope to fight these terrible crimes.
Worldwide, the concept of honor has different meanings and is practiced differently among diverse groups of people. I deliberately avoid using words like cultures or societies—words that easily create the impression that everyone belonging to this or that culture or society will react in a particular way. This is not the case. Even where honor killings are part of a local tradition, it is probably rare to kill your daughter, sister, or wife in order to cleanse the family of the shame she has brought on it. Compassion, pity, and love deter murder. People find other, less brutal solutions. But the fact that killing for the sake of honor is a time-honored tradition—even part of the law—in some societies is a measure of what Fadime had to contend with.
Fadime’s death was not a so-called honor killing. She died at the hands of a murderer—a murderer obsessed with notions of honor and dishonor, who had threatened to kill her several times. Already in 1998, Fadime’s father and brother had beaten her and leveled death threats against her. She had reported them to the police, and both men were sentenced. Her brother’s second assault got him five months in jail. Fadime had lived in constant fear for her life. And she was aware of the forces she was challenging: not mad jealousy or drunken, heedless violence, but convictions considered rational and sober when seen from a particular perspective. From that perspective, it is possible to wash away shame by taking the life of a daughter, sister, mother, or wife.
An approving audience is a precondition. For shame to be “washed away” and honor to be restored, you need a community of people who will reward you with acclaim—validate the killing and the code of honor that prescribes it. Fadime’s father was part of such a group. There is plenty of evidence proving that he felt buoyed up by friends and relatives who told him that he was right and also reinforced his feelings of shame and defeat. Afterward, some individuals still backed him, confirming that he had no choice: he had to kill.
Honor killings are not crimes of passion or motivated by jealousy. In the wake of Fadime’s death, there were those who argued that killing for the sake of honor amounts to the same as killing for the sake of jealousy. This is a mistaken conclusion. True, an honor killing can be driven by jealousy, but only as one factor that is neither the most critical nor the most relevant. Honor killings presuppose an approving audience, a group of people who will reward the murder with honor. This is what sets honor killings apart. Honor killings are committed with a view to the public—whether or not you are aware of it in the heat of the moment. You cast off your burden of shame, which is possible only in relation to an audience. True, your feelings of shame may be profound, without “the others” knowing. True, you can hurt in secret from insults and humiliations. But within the traditions we are discussing, you can be “cleansed” only after the shame has become known. Shame, as we construe it here, is a public phenomenon. Shame depends on dishonor’s becoming a fact to outsiders. This misery befell Fadime’s family, and it cost Fadime her life.
She went public. She spoke out. She stood up for her right to a life of her own and for her love of Patrik, even after his death. She reported the bullying and death threats, and her father and brother were charged and convicted. This fanned the flames under the boiling rage of the family. An official charge was the final humiliation—proof that the men had failed to stay in control.
Fadime hoped that the publicity about her problem, about her case—publicity she sought not only for her own sake—would protect her and save her life. But the effect on the men from whom she needed protection was precisely the opposite: their shame was on show in the marketplace. They were pilloried. In that situation, what can you do to recover your “honor”? You do what Fadime dreaded: you kill. To get back in control you must show who holds the reins, who is lord and master.
So it is not about jealousy. It is about power and control. That is why killing for the sake of honor is different from crimes of jealousy. It is not about unrequited love or a couple’s relationship. It has to do with the rights of the collective over the individual and the individual’s duty to submit. It has to do with structures and systems, social categories of people indoctrinated into the belief that they exist to serve the system.
Fadime’s father is a victim too—a victim of a “culture” demanding that he must be in charge, rule, control, punish; that he must accept no challenge to his honor, which is not just his own. He is only a stakeholder, someone who manages a share in the tribal honor—as everyone must, for the sake of the tribe. The group has a stranglehold on the individual.
This is true also of Fadime’s mother, who supported her husband and son in the court case brought by Fadime in May 1998—to her daughter’s disappointment. Fadime’s mother is a victim too, another individual sacrificed on the altar of the collective. Fadime spoke about this when she addressed an audience in the Swedish Parliament House two months before her death: her mother had been blamed when Fadime broke with her family, a necessary choice if she was to live on her own terms.
The child’s shame will haunt the mother, because it is her duty and responsibility to ensure that the values of the father and his forefathers are passed on to the children. Virtue is crucially important—for girls. Every sexual contact before or outside marriage is extremely shameful—for girls. Here sexual has a broad meaning. Socializing, which most Westerners would regard as innocent, counts as sexual in these tradition-bound communities. Being seen in the company of a boy might be enough. A rumor that you have been seen talking to a boy might be enough. Reputation matters more than the truth. Young women have paid with their lives for flimsy tales about their flawed virtue. They were not even given the chance to defend themselves.
But in the case of Fadime there was evidence. Her father had seen her with Patrik in the street. The date was September 3, 1997. This was the point of no return. She must separate either from Patrik or from her family. She chose Patrik.
Fadime still stood by her choice after Patrik’s death. He died in a road traffic accident on July 3, 1998, the very day they were going to move in together. She was buried, as she had wished, next to Patrik in the Old Uppsala Cemetery. That it came to be was perhaps in part due to the events of September 11, 2001.
On this fateful day, Fadime had been in New York. She had gone for a week’s vacation, but she turned back to Sweden immediately after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. Sudden, unexpected death, and how it can hit anyone, became once more an experiential reality for Fadime, who had lived with death threats for so long and had also lost Patrik to sudden, unexpected death. She wanted to be prepared. So just after 9/11, on her return to Sweden, she contacted close friends and told them to make sure that when her time came, she would be buried next to Patrik.
Time was of the essence, as according to Muslim tradition the deceased should be buried before the next sunrise or as soon as possible afterward. Fadime’s good friends acted expeditiously. The memorial service for Fadime came to be on a grand scale; it was an exquisitely beautiful and solemn event. But for Fadime, all that mattered was to have her last wish fulfilled: to be laid to rest beside Patrik.
Will we ever understand honor killings? How can mothers ever agree to these murders? They sometimes do (though not in Fadime’s case). Over the years I have been asked such questions again and again. I too struggle to answer them. Is honor killing understandable? In what terms? I have arrived at the following conclusion.
No, we cannot ever understand it as a “lived experience.” In order to do so, I believe, one would have to be part of a tradition that justifies such acts. And even then it can be difficult. That a much-loved family member should be made to pay with her life is hard for those close to her to understand, even when it is part of tradition and thus “the way things should be.” But also in matters of life and death, there are contingent choices to make, depending on the circumstances. Honor killing is never an easy way out.
As an outsider, the best I can do is try to explain what honor killings are all about, while knowing full well that there will inevitably be a gap between explanation and true understanding. And that is just as well. I don’t believe that we should aspire to understand every aspect of human existence. It is reassuring that there are limits to empathy in cases such as Fadime’s. Nowadays many like to claim that “nothing human is alien to me.” But come what may, no one is able to embrace more than a fragment of humanity‘s variability, its endless diversity.
Still, we can take an important step toward comprehension by trying to grasp the kind of crises that lead to honor killings. “He had no choice,” some said who condemned Fadime’s murder but sympathized with her father. “It was the only way out.” This is what we must attempt to take on board: that killing your own child can become “the only way” and might even be a solution to a problem. At the heart of the matter lies a feeling of shame and degradation, of having been offended and humiliated, laughed at, and made to look ridiculous in full view of the public.
Later we will consider the trial of Fadime’s father. On display will be a culture clash so total that her father exclaims: “What she has done to me—I don’t know how I can explain it to you!” He appeals to the court as best he can and bursts out, addressing the prosecutor: “My Fadime, the way she behaved . . . if you had a daughter like her, you would’ve wanted to shoot her too!” Then, the next second: “No, no, I was sick of course. No father would kill his daughter if he wasn’t sick!”
This is not wild shadowboxing but a tormented man’s despairing attempt to translate from one culture to another. He knows how necessary Swedish sympathy is for him. Swedish people will understand that no man would willingly kill his child. They must surely also understand that he was pushed to extremes and, besides, that he was sick. It is very human.
We all try to tune in to others, find some kind of resonance, by playing on themes of experience and feeling that we believe are held in common. The trouble is, our words tie us down. They can hinder as well as help our project. Fadime’s father used words that boomeranged. He had misunderstood his audience. None of “us” could agree that if we had a daughter like Fadime, we too would have wanted to shoot her.
But we respond to the man in front of us when see his profound despair, because he perceives himself to have been hounded and forced to act in self-defense. To gain insight into what honor killing is all about, we must look “beyond the words”—read between the lines—and try to engage with a very human dilemma. This applies to cultural understanding in general: we mustn’t become fixated on words but recognize that rhetoric sometimes obscures the fact that we lead comparable lives. From cradle to grave we struggle with similar existential problems, and we recognize this despite a sea of differences and discrepancies separating our core ideas, lifestyles, personalities, and material circumstances. And this is somehow comforting.
That could also be the reason why some believe that honor killing is the same, or very similar to, killings driven by jealousy. We need to understand. Categorizing honor killing in this way at least helps us avoid seeing “the Other” as apart. Instead he is “one of us.” Someone you recognize. We too have felt jealous—yes, perhaps even been so inflamed by jealousy that murder seemed thinkable.
So far, but no further. The comparison ends here. For it is a matter of murdering, or being prepared to murder, your own child—for honor’s sake. Even when wives are victims of honor killings, the deed is often done by relations on her side of the family. She is murdered by her own people.
And she is killed for gain. The outcome is recovered reputation and prestige, which can also be turned into money and other material advantages. The market value of the family increases, as it were.
Without honor the family becomes a laughingstock; everyone looks at them with derision. The girls become worthless in the marriage market. The boys are regarded as wimps—unmanly. Socially and politically, the family is beyond the pale.
“Now we can walk with our heads held high,” eighteen-year-old Amal said after her sixteen-year-old brother had killed their sister. The family was Palestinian. “We were seen as the most prominent family, had the highest reputation,” their mother said. “And then we were dishonored. Even my brother and his family stopped talking to us. No one came visiting. They only said: ‘You must kill her.’<ts>”
This story centers on Basma, a woman suspected of adultery. Terrified that she would be killed, she ran away with her alleged lover. Her husband divorced her, and she secretly married the other man. Contempt for her family spread all around their Palestinian village in Jordan. Basma’s mother took a rifle with her when she went off in search of her daughter. In the end the fatal shot was fired by Basma’s sixteen-year-old brother, who had been only ten when she ran away.
In some traditions that sanction honor killing—they vary—a woman is never free of her own family. Even after she is married off, she can still cast them into the depths of shame. Time is no healer. Unless cauterized, the shame festers and grows more and more deadly.
In Fadime’s case it took four years. Four years of mortal danger before they finally killed her. This slender young woman exerted a “terrible power” over her family. Because she had chosen Patrik, with whom she never even had the chance to live, and because she insisted on leading her life on her own terms, she had to die. Four years after Patrik’s death she paid the price. Can this be understood?
Fadime’s family had lived in Sweden for twenty years. They were Kurds from Elbistan near Malatya, a provincial capital in southeast Turkey. Some three hundred members of the clan are in Sweden, but many have settled in other European countries or are still in Turkey. Back home, honor killings are not unusual. Fadime’s maternal uncle was the first of the Sahindals to migrate to Sweden, and he arrived at the end of the 1960s. Fadime’s father followed him in 1981. The rest of the family joined him in 1984; Fadime was seven years old at the time. In Turkey, the Sahindals are powerful and influential. Fadime’s parents are cousins, and her father’s sister is married to her mother’s brother. Fadime’s two older sisters are also married to sons of siblings. Her two younger sisters and her brother are unmarried.
In Sweden, Fadime’s father worked for sixteen years, until 1998, and his employers speak well of him. He had learned a bit of Swedish and was a sociable man. He had not been in trouble with the law prior to the conviction for threatening to murder Fadime (May 1998). He admits to murdering Fadime. She lived to be twenty-five years old.
Even Fadime’s immediate family struggle to answer the question: how could he? People need to understand. Not just “we,” the outsiders, but also, and especially, those who were closest to her. How could Fadime’s father bring himself to kill her? Reconciliation seemed imminent. Just a little earlier, their father had hinted as much, according to his eldest daughter, Fidan.
“Hearing that was such a wonderful relief. Daddy said the time for forgiveness might have arrived. He admitted to having made a lot of mistakes and wrong decisions,” Fidan says. “I had a vision of the day when the whole family would be united again.”
The second daughter, Elmas, backs her up. “We are just an ordinary family. None of us believed that he could ever act like this.”
When Fadime died, her mother was present and tried to prevent the killing by stepping between the murderer and his victim. Fadime’s two younger sisters, thirteen-year-old Nebile and twenty-three-year-old Songül, were present too. Afterward they received treatment for shock.
Mother and sisters had come together to say goodbye to Fadime, who was to go off to study in Kenya the following week. They met in secrecy, as they had done three or four times earlier that year. It is not known how the father found out that they were in Songül’s flat in Uppsala Old Town. When they didn’t open the door the first time he called, he left. The women were scared. As Nebile and Fadime prepared to leave (their mother was staying the night), Nebile checked the landing through the peephole in the door. It looked safe. But her father had returned. As he rushed the door, he shot Fadime in the face and the back of her head at close range. “You filthy whore!” he shouted.
He was sick in the head, Fadime’s eldest sister says, and other members of the family agree. Only a sick person would do something like that. He was not accountable. Too desperate, incapable of thinking straight. Some family members cling to this explanation, which is understandable and reasonable—human, in short.
Others disagree. He had to kill, some immigrants told the Swedish media. He had no choice, no alternative. Fadime’s death is tragic but cannot be condemned; it was indeed a life-and-death matter. Her father’s back was against the wall—and not only his.
“I have ruined the life of my whole family,” Fadime said in 1998. “No one will marry the girls now. They are all branded as whores.”
At Fadime’s memorial service, the tributes included wreaths from the government and Parliament, underlining the importance attached to this small but great human being: she was honored with a ceremony that was as close as possible to a state funeral.
In her memorial address Canon Koivunen Bylund said, “Fadime was a martyr of our time. Let us thank God for Fadime, that with her fearlessness, strength, and love of life, she has given courage and strength to so many.” Fadime had been heartbroken after Patrik’s death but had not given up; instead she gathered herself together and devoted her life to fighting for the individual’s right to choose how to lead her own life. “Why does death undo the bonds of love? Why does death tear apart what life builds?” the canon demanded; she concluded that we have no answers.
Fadime’s mother and sisters sobbed before the memorial service began. Weeping spread among many of Fadime’s friends and in the rest of the congregation, including Crown Princess Victoria. “The heavens wept too when Fadime was buried,” the newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported. Rain poured down as she was interred next to her beloved Patrik.
Was Fadime a Muslim? The question has been repeatedly debated in the media. No, she was not a Muslim, the Islamic Council in Norway has pronounced. Many agree. But some of Fadime’s relatives told the media differently: Yes, we are Muslims. Songül, one of the sisters, says that the whole family, including her father, are Muslims but, as far as she knows, not practicing. The reporter presenting the funeral broadcast on Swedish TV commented: “The family is Muslim, but not active worshipers.” A student told me: “Believe me, the Sahindals are not Muslims—they just say they are. In fact, they are Yazidi, and that’s completely different.” Another student said, “If they were Muslims, why did they have Fadime’s funeral in a church and not a mosque?” A third exclaimed: “They prayed Our Father in church. And she’s supposed to be a Muslim?”
The arguments about Fadime’s beliefs, if any, are symptomatic of the direction of the public debate in Norway in the wake of her death. In Sweden the response was different. The Norwegians focused on honor killings in the context of Islam. The Swedes took note of the fact that the murderer was Kurdish, in this as well as in the two most talked-about earlier cases. We will look into possible explanations for these attitudes later. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that one recent honor killing (1994) in Sweden took place within a family of Palestinian Christians: a girl who had refused a forced marriage was killed by her father.
On the day of Fadime’s funeral, a Swedish Moroccan girl said to me, “It’s the Kurds who have a hard time in Sweden now, not the Muslims.” Most Kurds are Muslims; however, what she was stressing was that the public’s attention would focus on the traditions and the role of women within certain ethnic communities. Many among the Kurds had actually stated their condemnation of the killing of Fadime. Murder is, and remains, an exception.
What would Fadime have said about all this speculation—and all this conflict—about what she was, or was not? Why should a human being be boxed in like that? No one knows what Fadime believed at heart. If she was a Muslim, she kept it to herself. According to Islam, every human being is responsible before God. It is not for others to sit in judgment.
The family respected Fadime’s wish to be buried from the cathedral in Uppsala. It may or may not signify that they felt pressured to accept and had no option but to agree once her funeral was under the aegis of the state and would be attended by members of the royal family, the government, and other authorities. However, we do know some things for certain.
Fadime broke through barriers; she wanted to build bridges. She stood for an inclusive view of humankind, universal in its emphasis on the individual’s irreducible value. She represented freedom and equality, regardless of gender, religion, and ethnicity. She was against narrowness of vision and wanted to reconcile warring factions among those who believe that they are the only guardians of truth, a truth that is theirs for ever. Fadime embraced all and everyone. This too, characterized the ceremony when she was laid to rest: It brought persons of many religions and ways of life together under one roof. The selection of music and songs was drawn from many times and cultures, tunes, which allowed everyone to feel at home. It was how Fadime had wanted it.
The music at her funeral was secular as well as religious: “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton; “Bridge over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel, sung in Swedish; the hymn “Härlig är jorden” (Splendid Is the Earth); “Till Mine” (In Remembrance), an organ chorale without words by Nils Lindberg; a sung version of the sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer´s day” by William Shakespeare; “Fatime,” a Kurdish folk tune; and Fadime’s favorite, U2’s ”One.”
Canon Koivunen Bylund took care to find words that would soothe and comfort, words that would offer inclusion and support, not rejection—of forgiveness and reconciliation. She reminded the congregation of how, in days gone by, they would have left their weapons on the porch before entering the sanctuary of the church. In that spirit, she went on to say, let us now leave our bitter feelings behind and walk forward together. In the declaration of faith she inconspicuously changed the wording so that the Muslims would not feel too much like outsiders. The Holy Trinity—as in “the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost”—was taken out of the introduction, because the Trinity conflicts with the teaching of Islam. Everyone prayed to Our Lord; Muslims, Christians, and Jews all believe in one God, and Muslims too call him “Our Lord.”
As Fadime´s coffin was about to be carried out of the cathedral, six women, bareheaded, all clad in black, stepped forth. They were her cousins and friends, all but one Kurdish by descent. According to Muslim tradition, men should carry the coffin, and this was what the canon had been led to expect until a few minutes before the funeral, when the women presented themselves and demanded to be the pallbearers. The canon told them to sort the matter out with the men, which they did. Then the bishop said, “But will you manage?” “God will give us strength,” answered the women. In this way they made history.
It was an unforgettable moment. One woman holding a large photo of Fadime led the procession as the coffin, draped in white carnations, Fadime’s favorite flower (fifty thousand such carnations graced the cathedral), was carried out into the rain and fog. The spectacle of the black-clothed, black-haired, bare-headed women, Muslim by birth, leading Fadime’s way out of the church toward the place where she had wanted to be laid to rest bespoke an uproar, a protest. It was not just an act of solidarity with the victim but a momentous message: “She is ours now. You have betrayed her.” The male members of Fadime’s clan had not heeded her calls for support during the four years that she had lived with death threats. Her brother had tried but failed to kill her. Others had concurred that she should be killed.
Surrounded by women, sustained by a silent procession of pallbearers, Fadime’s coffin was carried to the car that would take her to her final resting place in the Old Cemetery.
“To me, this is a free country!” Fadime said in protest against being exiled by her family, who had driven her away from Uppsala and threatened her with death if she returned. “I have a right to come back to the place where my beloved is buried.”
Fadime did come back home.