14 May 2009
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The month of February saw the sentencing of an Afghan-German man for the May 2008 “honour killing” of his sister, Morsal Obeidi. Following the verdict the scene in the courtroom was one of mayhem as family members screamed, assaulted journalists and attempted suicide – yet another grim reminder of the violent life that Morsal led behind the supposedly secure walls of her home. Even as the irony of the brutal death of a sixteen year old girl born in war ravaged Afghanistan and brought to Germany in the hope of a better and more peaceful life refuses to fade out, the incident itself raises some very critical questions.
Ahmad-Sobair Obeidi is believed to have lured his sister to a parking lot in Hamburg and brutally stabbed her following a brief altercation. Twenty three stab wounds, inflicted with such force that Ahmad would later wear a bandage on his forearm, is how the young life was snuffed out. The verdict described the murder as a “treacherous and premeditated bloodbath” after all attempts to “discipline” his sister had failed. Ahmad is believed to have retorted that had the trial taken place in Kabul, Afghanistan, he would have been released long ago.
While Morsal was killed in May last year she already had a very volatile relationship with her family with a history of beatings by various members of the family, reports of this physical abuse to the police which were invariably retracted and rescues by the child and youth emergency cell. Morsal and her brother came to Afghanistan when she was three so in a sense Germany is the only home she knew. Her father, once a combat pilot left Afghanistan in 1992 when the civil war started. While the Obeidis were not an overtly conservative family the friction between the family and the rebellious teenager appeared to stem from her comfort with her ‘western’ lifestyle, a life she watched her peers have, which included uncovered hair, makeup and short skirts. And yet even as her clashes with the family might appear the rebellion of a pubescent teenager for someone who left behind a country at a time where the swathe of blue burkas was the only colour in a war-ravaged backdrop the life she was living might have appeared anything but normal.
Following her death what was commonly said of her was that she did not ‘act according to the prescribed moral concepts’ and was often referred to by sexual pejoratives. The only time the violence stopped in Morsal’s brief life was in 2007 when she was believed to have been sent to Afghanistan to reform her ways, learn a little more of about her own native culture and appreciate the freedom she enjoyed in Germany. Not surprisingly it was also insinuated that perhaps she was actually pregnant during the time and that was the reason she was sent away. It can hardly be missed that details like this gain importance when a certain message needs to be sent out about the victim in the context of and subsequent to an honour killing for greater social (if not legal) sanction.
What makes this case even more crucial is how it was represented in some of the local media - as a clash between two very different cultural systems. And in this clash Morsal, the murdered victim, was seen as this young heroine fighting against the tribal culture of her parents while her brother, who fatally stabbed her, represented the evil rejecting the “superior” value systems of this more evolved culture and society. The sixteen year old was eulogised as a martyr for both the women’s cause and that of more modern, civilised values. The parents seen as the obstacles to her integration only corroborated this view by being critical of the judge and saying that their dead daughter bore some of the guilt of her own murder. Thus, Ahmad, who already had a long history of several assaults, was dubbed as the “executioner” of their “parenting methods.”
The problem with the oversimplified argument of assimilation versus alienation, Morsal versus Ahmad is that even though Morsal had a sense of where she really wanted to belong in the context of social and cultural identity she returned repeatedly to this abusive family. Why did she feel a false sense of security even in this violent set-up? And that in itself is a statement on her torn teen life between the public and personal domains, between perhaps social acceptance on the one hand and family security (however misplaced) on the other.
The term ‘honour killing’ is controversial in itself, in that it places the burden of the family’s honour and reputation on women – and girls as young or younger than Morsal - paving the way for their further victimisation. The fact that it could be used in a country like Germany to snuff out a young life only makes this trend more disturbing as it gives male members of society space to reinforce their control over women. Violence in the name of honour is nothing but disguised domestic violence and death in the name of honour is nothing but murder. It is rooted in the gender imbalance existing within communities which is what needs to be addressed more immediately, even by institutions within the host nation when dealing with immigrant groups.
And even as some German politicians and other groups used the murder to relook at the failed experiment of “multiculturality” in German society the question is that can cultural identity, when it clashes with basic human rights of an individual, be placed over the valid legal order?. While Ahmad’s action delivered the perfect excuse for a resurgent discourse on ‘the other’ it is a potentially dangerous argument as evidenced from the violence that many women in diasporas endure before they have the courage or requisite avenues to seek help.
Morsal’s, as also her brother’s would then appear as a classic tussle between two worlds that the second generation diaspora very frequently experiences. A world she lived in and a world she was forced to adopt to as her real one – but one she was far removed from physically. Quite ironically, even as her death becomes a document of this tussle to fit both worlds into one – the host culture without conflicting with the moral diktats of the paternal culture men and women in her native homeland risk death by challenging these very traditional perceptions of Afghan women. And in her death the even greater irony remains that Hamburg turned out to be a more dangerous place for young Morsal than Afghanistan itself.