Over the past few months I have spent time at the Old Bailey watching the trial of Mehmet Goren, a father who murdered his 15-year-old daughter because she defied him and ran off with the man she loved.
In the small courtroom, full of bewigged barristers, police officers and Turkish interpreters, I watched as the dark underbelly of multiculturalism unfolded in front of me. The main witness against Mehmet was his wife, Hanim, who broke all the laws of her family’s strict Kurdish culture to testify against her husband. Last week he was convicted and sentenced to life with a minimum of 22 years, but his two brothers, who were accused of conspiracy to murder alongside him, were acquitted.
Hanim and her surviving daughter, Nuray, are terrified of what the wider family might do to them in retribution; the police are taking the threat seriously — panic buttons have been installed at their home. The terrible vengeance of the thwarted father is like a medieval saga but it is playing out in modern London.
It was in January 1999 that Goren strangled or smothered Tulay. The day before she disappeared, her father told her eight-year-old brother Tuncay to say goodbye to his sister “for ever”. When Hanim came home the next day, her husband had a wound on his hand and scratches on his face. For the first time in their married life he had washed his own clothes; his stained shirt was lying on a radiator. Hanim saw that the garden had been dug up “like a ploughed field”; two knives and the washing line were missing. Tulay’s body has not been found.
Mehmet had been in prison twice before they left Turkey. He regularly terrorised his family. Despite being convinced that her husband had killed Tulay, Hanim continued to wash, clean, cook and fulfil her other wifely duties. It must have been hell, but Hanim spoke no English, lived in a strange city and under Kurdish custom was her husband’s chattel. Physically she may have been in north London, but inside her house and her community she lived in feudal southeastern Turkey. How can we allow this to happen?
A report by the United Nations on “honour killings” in Turkey spells out the helplessness Hanim would have felt. One Turkish word for wife is helalin, meaning “someone over whom you have a right”. In that culture “honour is everything” and is entirely bound up with women, chastity and obedience. “If you don’t comply … if you risk death in order to get married with the one you love, then you are dishonourable,” the report says.
Tulay’s sister Nuray explained what this culture clash meant: “At home she was expected to be a dutiful Turkish daughter, while out of the family home she was exposed to a lifestyle completely at odds with her upbringing.”
Tulay was 10 when she was smuggled to London in a lorry. She attended a mixed comprehensive. Pictures show her looking beautiful in a sparkly blue dress at a cousin’s wedding and trendy in a black leather gilet. Rebellious, she began to bunk off school and to smoke. On work experience in Hackney, she met Halil Unal, 29, a fellow Kurd (but a Sunni Muslim, not an Alevi like the Gorens). The police described them as being like Romeo and Juliet.
We all know what a headstrong 15-year-old in love for the first time can be like. Tulay knew she had rights in England and did not have to live the way her father insisted upon. She knew she couldn’t be with Unal without being married so the couple got engaged. They even tried to get married, but she was too young. And then she got pregnant.
In most British families this would have caused a drama; for Tulay it was a death sentence. Under Turkish custom both young people in such circumstances might be killed. Goren attacked Unal with an axe (for which he was sentenced to seven years in jail). And Tulay “disappeared” — her mother and sister still don’t know where she is buried.
I live only a few miles away from where Tulay died. Every day I take my children to school and smile at my fellow mums, many of them veiled Somali women. Like Tulay and many other women in Britain today, they too live parallel lives. Their children are growing up with mine, doing the same homework, playing the same games. But most of the mothers speak little English and keep to themselves. From as young as four their daughters are veiled. When I help in the classroom, these shrouded girls are great — full of life, zooming up climbing frames in their veils. But secretly I fear for them. I fear for them as they grow up in a cultural schism, with one half of their lives in 21st-century Britain and one side in a deeply traditional culture transplanted into our midst.
I can’t help wondering: will they too fall in love at 15 with the “wrong” boy and incur the wrath of their father? How will they be able to reconcile the world they are shown at school with all its expectations and rights and freedoms with the prescriptive, restrictive strictures of home? I see trouble ahead.
Officially there are a dozen “honour killings” a year in Britain, but experts know this is the tip of an iceberg. Thousands of teenage girls go missing from schools in areas with large Asian populations such as Luton and Bradford, often sent home for arranged marriages. I got to know one Afghan girl who had fallen in love and run off with her English boyfriend; she was ostracised by her entire family. She told me one lunchtime in tears: “They mourn me as if I am dead.” The elders back home were furious. She worried that they would come after her.
The suffering of women like my friend and girls like Tulay — not to mention their oppressed mothers — is the shameful side of tolerant Britain. Hanim Goren was amazingly brave to speak out against her husband. As her daughter Nuray said in her witness statement: “In taking this action she has confronted and accused the men of our family. No one should fail to realise what this means within our culture. These people do not forget. My mother and I have a message for women who feel they have no voice. Let them find the courage to come forward to the authorities. Let them know that like us they will be listened to and taken seriously … As a result, let no more Tulays fall victim to this primitive custom.”
If families such as the Gorens choose to live in Britain, they must accept that we do things differently here; that British women are not chattels but free to love and marry whom they please. In the past we have been tolerant — too quick to say, “That is their culture. We cannot interfere.” I felt proud of the police I met in court, who did not give up when the family wouldn’t testify but went to Turkey to gather evidence about “honour killings” to help nail Goren. Let a message be sent to men such as him and the women they oppress. This is Britain. We will not stand for it.