In a remote, mountain-fringed town of southeastern Turkey, a young woman who had barely begun to live met a terrifying death.
The body of the 16-year-old Medine Memi was found in an earthen grave last December, slumped in a sitting position with her hands tied. Large amounts of soil were in her lungs and stomach. She had been buried alive, the apparent victim of an honour killing.
But her suffocating death was symbolic of the fate that awaits hundreds of young rural Turkish women, some killed after moving to cities like Istanbul.
“It is really horrific,” says professor Shahrzad Mojab of University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “The practice has migrated to larger cities from the villages.
“It’s a question of poverty, lack of education and political ethnic suppression.”
In a long and arduous bid to join the European Union, Turkey has updated its laws on honour killing and imposed life sentences on perpetrators.
But more than 200 women a year in Turkey are killed by family members. Community workers say the figures are likely higher, as many go unreported.
In Turkey’s impoverished Kurdish region, the practice of honour killing has become a well-known ritual that is chilling in its precision: when a young woman is suspected of “dishonouring” the family by wearing tight clothes, having unauthorized contact with young men, or falling victim to rape, a family council is called, and a family member appointed as an executioner.
In the town of Kahta, where Memi was found, police arrested her father and grandfather.
The police went to her home after a neighbour reported that Medine had not been seen for a month. They found her body in a hole, newly covered with concrete. A local organization that campaigns against honour killings said Memi, one of 10 children, had gone three times to the police to complain she was being beaten, but was sent back to her family each time.
Media reports said her father had told relatives he was unhappy that his daughter had male friends, and the grandfather was said to have beaten her.
In the past, families often chose their youngest males as the killers of “erring” girls, because courts would give lenient sentences. But after the 2005 reform, a new practice of forced suicide sprang up.
According to media reports, victims would be locked in their rooms for days with rat poison, a pistol or rope, and ordered to spare their families the legal retribution by killing themselves.
The attacks on women are aggravated by the struggle between Turkey’s government and Kurdish separatist guerrillas, which has forced families to migrate to cities, where their conservative culture clashes with the liberated urban lifestyle.
“It’s a very tough social issue,” says Mojab, co-editor of Violence in the Name of Honour.
“The Turkish government has some very active and dynamic programs to fight honour killing, but it’s not just a family problem, it involves the entire community.”
In some cases, researchers have found, families are reluctant to punish their daughters for behaviour thought to dishonour them. But communities ostracize them unless they “cleanse” the supposed stain on the family’s reputation.