Originally published in issue #27, May 2005
Three German women are killed every four days by men with whom they used to live and one woman in every three reports physical violence. But it has taken just one murder in a Muslim family and sloppy reporting in the media to stir up all-too-stereotypical anti-Muslim sentiments. Elizabeth Zach looks back at the Surucu case and the media frenzy that ensued.
The headline seemed to say it all: “Another woman has had to die like this!” A murky photo of a crime scene at a bus stop accompanied the eye-catching BZ lead story on Feb. 8, with knockout bold letters and a pulp fiction feel. The shooting victim this time was Hatun Surucu, a pretty, petite 23-year-old single Turkish mother. Police say she was shot at a south Berlin bus stop, allegedly by her brothers avenging what they perceived as her betrayal of tradition and family honor.
Surucu, who had been forced into an arranged marriage at age 16 and had moved to Turkey with her husband, later divorced him and returned to Berlin in 2000 with her infant son. She refused to wear a headscarf and enrolled in a vocational school to learn to be an electrician. She dated German men and, according to her friends and classmates, was optimistic about finding her place in German society. That the tabloid BZ would report on the murder as sensationally as it did is hardly surprising – the story carries all the trappings of love, betrayal, and honor gone awry. But what followed is more shocking: mainstream daily newspapers, weekly magazines and domestic and international correspondents eagerly followed suit, portraying the killing as the death knell for multiculturalism and an unmistakable sign of the violence of Muslim culture.
Why Surucu’s murder has attracted so much attention is perplexing, because such crimes are extremely uncommon, and, even more disturbingly, the press rarely so doggedly pursues cases of violence against non-Muslim women. “I won’t deny there are problems with ethnic gangs or with violence in these immigrant communities,” says Dr. Werner Schiffauer, an anthropologist at the Europa-University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) who has served as an expert witness in trials where honor killings were alleged. “But I am uneasy and suspicious that the press has given so much attention to this case.”
Mainstream newspapers such as the Berliner Zeitung devoted story after story to the murder. Interviews with politicians and sociologists, Turkish leaders and women activists expounded on the case in their pages. Photos of a shrine at the bus stop where Surucu was gunned down and of mourners at her grave, as well as numerous interviews with those who knew her, filled pages of newspapers and magazines and time slots of TV programs. Spiegel Online’s English-language edition matched and even surpassed the luridity of local tabloids in its dramatized description of the murder, including a maudlin digression on the five-year-old the victim left behind: “Her son awoke looking for his mother… Now her little boy has his own tragedy to bear.”
Later in the article, Turkish women are simplistically portrayed as victims, their lives a “plight”: “Tens of thousands of Turkish women live behind these walls of silence, in homes run by husbands many first met on their wedding day, and ruled by the ever- present verses of the Koran.” The article even goes a step further to claim that the Muslim community tacitly backs the murder: “Within their communities, the killers are revered as heroes.” The political subtext is edifying: “In Germany, a nation where pacifism is almost a universal mantra, murderous macho patriotism not only exists but appears to be thriving. It may even be Germany’s liberalism – and its post-World-War-II fear of criticizing minority cultures – that has encouraged ultra-religious families to settle here.”
The press has rushed to depict Muslim culture as the bogeyman, abandoning any attempt at objectivity. What went wrong here? A deeper look into the realities experienced by both Turkish/Muslim and other German women shows an entirely different picture, which most media have failed to report. “What happened to Hatun Surucu, it seems to me, could have happened to a German woman, and the press wouldn’t have reacted the way it has,” says Dr. Monika Schröttle, a University of Bielefeld sociologist specializing in gender relations. “Instead, it’s gotten to the point where you look at every Turkish man on the street or in the supermarket as a perpetrator.”
Schröttle is no stranger to the nature of the press. She recalls a telephone conversation with an editor at Der Spiegel last fall regarding a series of stories the magazine was planning. The editor asked Schröttle about a study she helped conduct for the Federal Ministry for Families, Seniors, Women and Youth, which examined women in Germany who have been victims of violence perpetrated upon them by intimate partners. Schröttle told the editor that among German, Muslim and Eastern European women who had been attacked by men they were close to, there was only a slight differ- ence in the numbers: the study showed that 32 percent of women in Germany had reported physical violence, compared with 40 percent of Turkish women and 35 percent of East European women. Nine percent of Turkish women reported having experienced sexual violence versus 12 percent of German women and 14 percent of women of Eastern European descent. At one point in the conversation, the editor told Schröttle that Der Spiegel was actually planning a report on the lives of Muslim women in Germany. That passing comment, says Schröttle, made her wonder. “The part of the study that looks at migrant women is such a small aspect,” she says of the 366-page report which contains only 17 pages on the violence experienced by Turkish and East European women. “The study shows high rates of violence against non-migrant women, too, but this was not mentioned by the press.”
Nor was much coverage given to a study by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to which an estimated 300 German women a year – three women every four days – are killed by men with whom they used to live. For European women aged 16 to 44, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury and death, making it more deadly than road accidents and cancer. And the Council of Europe, in a 2002 study, reported that domestic violence is increasingly prevalent among those with higher incomes and education. “There is a public perception that these types of killers tend to be from poor backgrounds and with little education,” reported French daily Le Monde’s English-language edition in a July 2004 editorial on the aforementioned studies. “That is not the case.”
By late fall and into the winter, Der Spiegel was joined by numerous other press outlets which also ran features on the wretched lives of Muslim women in Germany. Deutsche Welle online, in reporting on the study, warned that “German women with Eastern European or Turkish parents or grandpar- ents were the most affected by violence.” The debate over whether women should be allowed to wear headscarves in public fueled the discussion, as did the question whether Islamic precepts ought to be taught in German public schools. The shooting death of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh only added to a growing discomfort that all is not well in the parallel societies that Muslims and Germans inhabit.
In many reports, the political agenda is all too easy to read between the lines. For many conservatives the Surucu case served as the perfect chance to speak out at last about what liberal tolerance and multiculturalism had made taboo for so long. Against the backdrop of record-breaking unemployment figures, integration problems and post-9/11 anti-Muslim fears – heightened by the prospect of Turkey entering the EU – Surucu’s death opened a Pandora’s box of reactionary comments, best exemplified by CDU MP Rita Pawelski’s verdict: “The dream of the multicultural society is an irresponsible one.” Never have the conservatives of the CDU shown such concern toward the fate of women in general and Muslim women in particular.
Surucu’s fate had become a symbol of the evil within Islam and the dangers awaiting a besieged German society. “Every social group has aggressive people in it,” says Dr. Frank Wendt of Charité’s Institute for Forensic Psychiatry, trying to reconcile the public discourse. “The Muslims, or even the Russians here, live schizophrenically, often having arrived with high expectations that go unfulfilled.” Wendt cites unemployment statistics: 45 percent of Turks in Berlin are unemployed, and in general the state of integration in the German capital leaves much to be desired.
This reporter believes that a study surveying domestic violence according to social classes instead of cultural, religious or national backgrounds could bring interesting results. Anthropologist Schiffauer agrees. He also believes Hatun Surucu was not killed for reasons of family honor, but rather out of what he calls the “stress of migration,” wherein immigrant families fail to adapt to a new society, navigate the language or survive economically. By contrast, honor killings, he says, are carried out exclusively in the rural provinces of predominantly Muslim countries, when a family believes its name has been tainted due to a daughter or sister having defied sexual mores. The young woman is considered unsuitable for marriage and therefore a drag on the family’s finances. “In Germany, we have a high jobless rate within the immigrant community, and there is racism against immigrants,” says Schiffauer. “I believe that if the brothers killed (Hatun Surucu), it was a means to empowerment and not to regain some lost honor.”
The press, says Schiffauer, rushed to cite the statistic of “40 honor killings in Germany between 1996 and 2004,” a figure provided by the Turkish women’s organization Papatya. But out of those 40, Schiffauer classifies nine at most as honor killings, and the rest as murders of passion or rage – similar to the euphemistically labeled “crimes of passion” committed against non-Muslim German women. Dilek Güngör, a columnist for the Berliner Zeitung who chronicles the everyday life of her Turkish family, recalls how, as a staff reporter, she saw dozens of stories about husbands killing wives out of rage or jealousy, and yet these crimes barely merited two paragraphs in the paper. “And now, suddenly, everyone is interested in domestic violence, ever since the case of Hatun Surucu,” she says.
Choosing photos of Muslim women in headscarves, or of women who have left their families and have their faces disguised in the media because they fear family retribution, also plays into the stereotype of the oppressed Turkish woman. “It’s this language of images, and this fascination with an alien image,” says Güngör. “It’s all we’re seeing in the coverage of Turkish life.” Reporters, she says, are encouraged to focus on the most extreme angles when covering the Muslim community. Following the Surucu shooting, she remembers watching a television news program in which the journalists asked some Turkish teenage boys what they thought of the case. Among other things, one of them said: “The whore lived like a German,” a quote which was subsequently used and overused in many press reports both here and abroad – including the reputable Spiegel Online – as irrefutable proof that the whole Turkish community condoned the murder. “Of course, if you get any group of teenage boys together, they’re going to say something provocative like that,” says Güngör. “It was irresponsible of the press.”
Yet some Turkish women believe that something is definitely wrong in their communities, as evidenced by a recent trickle of books on the subject. Hanife Gashi’s Mein Schmerz trägt deinen Namen (“My pain bears your name”), Großer Weg ins Feuer (“Great way into the fire”) by Seyran Ates and Die Fremde Braut (“The foreign bride”) by Necla Kelek all explore cases of compulsory marriage and marital violence.
A steadily louder group of Muslim women is voicing concern about unequal rights between Muslim men and women and German society’s reluctance to judge. “It’s the same clichés and traditional norms which continue to exist because nothing has been done to change them,” says Emel Algan, former director of the Islamic Women’s Association in Kreuzberg. “I think it’s about time the Muslim men in leadership positions finally come clean and take a position on this matter.” “In the case of Hatun Surucu, a taboo has been broken, and we need to use this chance to discuss the issue,” says Seyran Ates, a 41-year-old Berlin lawyer. “It doesn’t help when people think honor killings are not a serious problem.” But it is just as damaging when it is presented as normal, as a pervasive occurrence in a naturally oppressive community.
This important issue is crying out for more discerning coverage which, instead of adding fuel to the fire, could calm passions on both sides and contribute to a more responsible political answer to the problem. Hatun Surucu was shot dead in Neukölln, in February