Afghan Girl's Death Sparks National Debate

Hamburg, Germany - Ahmad O. stabbed his sister more than 20 times because the 16-year-old girl didn't live her life according to his values. Women's rights advocate Seyran Ates is now calling for German society to intensify its efforts to stop honor killings. "A girl isn't a whore if she goes out," she says.

Morsal O. was 16, a young girl with joie de vivre. She laughed a lot and she was a go-getter. She was a good student, had ambition and a lot ahead of her in life. But she was murdered on Friday, May 9. Her 23-year-old brother Ahmad, with the help of a cousin, lured her to a parking lot near a subway station in the German port city of Hamburg under a false pretense and stabbed her 20 times with a knife.

If Morsal had known she would be coming face to face with her brother, she probably wouldn't have gone that evening. The two hadn't been on talking terms for quite some time, and Ahmed had threatened his sister repeatedly. Just before her murder, Morsal had sought refuge from her family, who moved to Germany from Afghanistan 13 years ago, at a number of city social facilities, most recently living for more than a year in a youth safe house. But she never succeeded in entirely breaking off contact with her family.

For more than an hour, emergency doctors fought to save Morsal's life, but she died on the way to the hospital. The girl's parents rushed to the scene, but they weren't allowed to attend to their daughter because they had forgotten their IDs in the midst of the turmoil.

Morsal died alone.

Killer: "My Sisters Are My Life"

"Maybe he did it out of love," Moral's cousin Mujda said, when asked why Ahmad stabbed his sister that night. Mudja O. gave an extensive interview to SPIEGEL TV following the crime, discussing the stabbing and her cousin's possible motives for the killing. "We spoke to him and he told us, 'My sisters are my life. She should be put away before anything happens to her. The last sentence that we heard from him was that he loved his sister."

It was not the first time Ahmad, who worked in an auto parts store, had come to the attention of the police for violent acts, either. In police circles, he was known as a serial offender, constantly in trouble for beatings and even stabbings. Morsal had even tried to get charges pressed against her brother with the police after he repeatedly attacked her, but she later withdrew them.

In the SPIEGEL TV interview, her cousin says that Morsal "simply wanted more freedom." She wanted to lead her own life and not the one her parents had planned for her. "She was actually given a lot of freedom, in my opinion. She had some piercings, for example. Her parents didn’t say anything about it. She could wear what she wanted -- even if she wasn't allowed to wear a miniskirt to school."

Morsal had tried to test her limits -- they were sometimes very narrow at home. For Morsal they were too narrow even if the 16-year-old dressed like a Western girl, with tight jeans and colorful shirts.

There were constant fights because she wore too much makeup, or didn’t come home when she was told to, because she locked herself in her room, didn’t do enough homework or had the wrong friends. Ahmad thought it was his duty to take care of his sister. He observed what she was doing closely. He was worried, his cousin says. If he couldn’t keep an eye on her, he had some other member of the extended family do it for him. Cousins, second cousins, uncles and aunts, the network of relations was tightknit -- and big.

Morsal tried to protect herself from these restrictions, her cousin recalls. She managed to almost completely avoid Ahmad and she no longer spoke with him. "He tried again and again and he failed. At some stage the parents stepped in and said, 'That's enough, this is our daughter."

The trouble never let up, though, and Morsal eventually moved into a youth safe house. Her lifestyle, her concept of freedom and self expression didn’t chime with her family's. Tradition was very important to Ahmad, and he didn’t want Morsal to be out and about at all hours of the day. "He was worried when he didn’t know where his sister was. He didn’t want to get a call at 1 a.m and be told his sister was lying beaten up on the street. He was expecting something like that," his cousin says, attempting to explain something she herself cannot really understand.

Ahmad's Mother: "I Hate Him"

According a United Nations report, around 5,000 women fall victim to "honor killings" around the world each year. The true figure, however, is most likely much higher. Between January 1996 and July 2005, 55 honor killings were reported to the police in Germany alone. Yet it is difficult to record the crime because there is no official police definition.

"We have to stop talking about 'so-called honor killings,'" lawyer and women's rights activist Seyran Ates told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "There is no such thing. These are not 'so-called' honor killings, but plain and simple honor killings. This term honor is based on a woman not being allowed to express her own sexuality. It means: no premarital sex, no boyfriend. If a girl or young woman doesn't stick to this then she is seen as a scourge -- someone who must be killed to in order to restore honor."

Honor can be washed clean with the blood of the "guilty one," she explains. "The term 'honor,' that honor killings are based upon, has nothing at all to do with the Western understanding of the word," says Ates. "And it can only be overcome by publicly rejecting it. Children have to be taught in school that this term is dehumanizing. We have to take a stand within society. We have to make it very clear: 'If you think like this, then you are living in the wrong century. You are breaking the rules of the constitutional state in which you live, and you are not respecting human or women's rights.'"

Ahmad's parents have already distanced themselves from their son. In an interview with German public broadcaster NDR, his father said: "My son is a criminal," and his mother said "I hate him." The police are investigating how much Ahmad's family might have known about his murderous plan, but they haven't found any incriminating evidence so far.

But Ates says that those who carry out honor killings should also be considered victims. "The men are one part of a system," she says. "A 23-year-old man is driven to brutally stab his sister to death. But he was not born a murder. We have to reflect on what pushed him so far."

This perverted understanding of honor needs to be dealt with critically while these men are still in school, and awareness of the issue has to be raised within the legal profession, where many of these cases are handled, she argues. In particular, work needs to be done to raise awareness among families. "It needs to be communicated to families that their daughter is not a whore if she goes out in the evening. We have to tell families: 'Whatever your daughter does, whether she takes drugs, or has a boyfriend, or gets involved in crime -- no one has the right to kill her.'"

If a girl turns away from her family, then it is vitally important that she is given protection and that someone accompanies her if she contacts her family. In Berlin the Papatya Project (more...) helps girls who are being hunted by their families. Papatya has no official address and cannot be directly contacted by telephone -- in order to protect the young women. Contact is established through aid organizations and youth welfare services. People who work with the girls say that they are rarely aware of the danger their relatives can pose and often meet with their fathers, brothers or cousins. "We advise the girls not to leave the house during the first few days. We have a lot of girls who are in danger, and who don’t go outside for weeks at a time," one of the project staff told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

"What Pushed Him so Far?"

Nevertheless, many young women, including Morsal, repeatedly reestablish contact with their families, despite warnings that they shouldn't. "They hope that their families will at some point accept their lifestyle," said the Papatya counseler. "But no one can force force them to go somewhere they don't want to go or to leave the city. I can also understand these girls though because they are often very young and wouldn't want to just give everything up from one day to the next, either."

"They still want to be a part of things," says lawyer Ates. "Many have a very positive sense of the family which they have grown up with. At home they seek security and love. But reconciling a Western lifestyle with closeness to the family is a huge feat to accomplish." Morsal also knew that she was in danger -- and she met with her brother and cousin anyway.

"I've been spending all of my time trying to imagine what was going through Ahmad's mind," Morsal's cousin told SPIEGEL TV. "I don't think much of him any more. And I very much hope that he will be given a just punishment. No matter what she did, Morsal didn't deserve this."