The Eastern Turkish city of Van is, according to certain travel books, much more modern than you would think. And then they sum up by informing us that young people hold hands on the street, that you can get beers in nice lively bars where women too can go without a problem, and that there is a huge university. Now that I have been to Van I can agree that, on the surface, the city of half a million inhabitants does indeed look open, modern and lively. I went there for a story I’m doing on refugees in Turkey, and quite a few refugees from Afghanistan and Iran enter Turkey via Van. It’s the largest city in the east, and it has an UNHCR office that takes care of the whole asylum procedure. The women of Afghanistan and Van certainly add to the modern feeling you get when you walk down the streets. Their heads are half covered (meaning that the scarf rests halfway down their head, so that lots of hair is visible), and they use quite a bit more make up and jewellery than the average Turkish Muslim woman does. Van is not grey and gloomy, it’s colourful, spacious and light.
But then I came to the women’s organisation in Van. On their pin board hung a photo of a woman whom you would describe as modern if you saw her walking along the street. Long hair, no head scarf, a bit of make up, modern green shirt, young, smiling. I knew it immediately when I saw the picture: this woman is not alive anymore. And unfortunately I was right: just one and a half weeks ago she was killed by her husband. They were not married officially, but just by the Imam, which is still how it often goes in the east of Turkey. The woman was 18 years old and pregnant, and made her husband angry by talking to another man, thus being unfaithful. Then Emine, the woman who passionately leads the women’s organisation, tells me that there has been a real wave of killings in and around Van in May: in just ten days six women were killed by their family because of matters of ‘honour’. The women’s organisation always visits the family of the victims. They are usually not welcome guests, but they want to show that the women care about the lost life of another woman. After that, the organisation follows the court case and sometimes serves as an expert witness in court.
Six women in ten days. That makes you look differently at the modernity of Van. Underneath all this modernity linger centuries-old traditions in which women’s lives are not worth much and where women always have to be careful not to break any social codes. Even sadder: even when she behaves flawlessly, the smallest thing can be interpreted as violating the family honour. Even though this doesn’t always lead to killing, the chance that the woman won’t survive is still there. And that defines the modernity of a city more than the number of bars or beers available.