Lost in Sweden: a Kurdish daughter is sacrificed
UPPSALA, Sweden — For a while, Fadime Sahindal seemed an ideal symbol of second-generation immigrant success in a country that prides itself on its openness and tolerance.
She spoke fluent Swedish, had a Swedish boyfriend and believed that foreigners should adapt to Swedish culture. Last year, she spoke passionately in Parliament about the difficulties of being a young Turkish woman pressing for Western-style independence against the wishes of her deeply traditional parents.
But it was this very desire for independence that provoked her father into a rage so great that he killed her in January, turning her into the tragic emblem of a European society’s failure to bridge the gap in attitudes between its own culture and those of its newer arrivals.
As Sweden prepares for national elections this fall at a time of rising anti-immigrant sentiments across Europe, the case has hardened many Swedes’ attitudes toward non-Nordic immigrants, who make up about 9 percent of the population. Right-wing parties want to require immigrants to conform more thoroughly to Swedish customs with language lessons, citizenship tests and the like.
”It’s hard to say what Swedish society should do,” said Marianne Broddesson, the treasurer of Terrafem, a support network for immigrant women. ”It has to do with the whole social situation in the country, and it’s very, very complicated. It has to do with segregation, doesn’t it — with people who don’t want to enter into Swedish society, and who don’t realize that their kids are growing up here. But how do you tell people to become more Swedish?” By all accounts, Fadime’s father, Rahmi Sahindal, had little interest in becoming Swedish. Originally from a small Kurdish village, he moved to Sweden with his family in search of better prospects when Fadime, one of five daughters and one son, was 11.
Neither he nor his wife learned to speak Swedish. Instead, they clung hard to their Kurdish identity, living as part of a patriarchal clan of some 400 emigrants from the same region. Authority was vested in a network of male relatives, and the concept of honor — to the family, and to tradition — was all-important. The wishes of individuals, and especially women, were considered far less significant than the wishes of the group’s elders.
Fadime’s two older sisters both married first cousins from back home. But Fadime (pronounced fa-DEE-meh), as she is universally known in Sweden now, refused to enter into such an arrangement. Instead, in the late 90’s, she secretly began dating a Swede named Patrick.
But her father, who worked in a dry cleaner’s, once saw the couple holding hands, and exploded with anger. ”Fadime said she knew from that instant that she could never live with her family again, that she could never be secure again,” said Leiff Ericksson, one of Sweden’s best-known lawyers, who represented Fadime after her father threatened her. She moved north, returning home only to fetch her possessions under police escort.
Her father — and her brother, who now hated her with all-consuming passion, family members say — continued to threaten her over the telephone. She went to the authorities, who decided to prosecute.
The case received a great deal of publicity, and the trial became the subject of a television documentary. Television cameras recorded, too, how Mesud Sihandal, Fadime’s brother, tried to attack her during a break in the trial. The father was ordered to pay a fine; the brother, 17, got a suspended jail sentence.
Fadime now prepared to defy her family again, by returning from the north to move in with her boyfriend, Patrick. But in a sad twist to a very sad tale, Patrick was killed in a car accident two weeks after the trial ended. Initial suspicions that his car had been tampered with proved unfounded.
”You can understand Fadime’s feelings now — she was like glass,” Mr. Ericksson said. Several days later, her brother attacked her in an Uppsala street, beating her so badly that she was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. In the subsequent trial, Mesud, who had a criminal record, testified in court that Fadime was ”a whore.”
”I asked him in court, ‘You say that Fadime has dishonored the family, and what have you done — you have stolen and used drugs,’ ” Mr. Ericksson said. ” ‘Doesn’t that dishonor your family?’ And he said, ‘I’ve broken your rules, but Fadime has broken our rules, and our rules are much more important.’ ”
Mesud was sentenced to six months in prison, and Fadime moved north again. But relations with her family were irreparably damaged.
Her father said, ” ‘She has destroyed so much for us, and we are so ashamed,’ ” said Nalin Pekgul, a Kurdish member of the Swedish Parliament, who befriended Fadime and tried to make peace between her and her parents. ”He thought his life was finished because wherever he went, people gossiped about him. He kept saying, ‘I have no life. I wish I was dead now.’ ”
Mrs. Pekgul brokered an agreement where Fadime’s father pledged not to harm her, as long as she stayed away from the news media and from Uppsala. ”He told me all the time, ‘I don’t want her to come back to Uppsala, because my son will kill her, and I don’t want to lose two children,’ ” Mrs. Pekgul said.
Fadime agreed never to speak publicly again, pursuing her work instead in the youth wing of the Social Democratic Party. But her parents’ hard-heartedness crushed her. Her main family ally was her younger sister Songul, a fragile young woman who has been plagued by psychiatric problems for most of her 24 years. The sisters spoke often, and it was at Songul’s Uppsala apartment that Fadime was murdered.
At least three people saw Rahmi Sihandal shoot his 26-year-old daughter that January day — Fadime’s mother, a teenage sister and Songul — but only Songul tried to help Fadime, performing CPR while blood poured from her sister’s ears, nose and mouth.
”At the hospital, the doctors said that Fadime was dead,” Mr. Ericksson related. ”At that point, one of her older sisters phones a male member of the family, in Songul’s presence, and says, ‘The whore is dead now.’ ”
Songul, too, was the only one willing to press charges and to testify in court against her father. She had a breakdown after that, and is now being treated at a psychiatric hospital in Uppsala. In a telephone interview from the hospital, she said what infuriated her family most was Fadime’s decision to speak to the news media.
”They were so angry when she was on television, when she wanted to talk about the family crisis,” Songul said. ”But she wanted to do it not for herself, but for other girls, for everybody who has to live that sort of life.”
Life has not gone well for Fadime’s family since her death. Her father is in jail, sentenced to life imprisonment. Her mother, shattered, has moved back to Kurdistan.
Songul, Fadime’s beloved sister, feels betrayed — by the news media, which she believes sensationalized her sister’s story; by her family, which refuses to acknowledge her; and by the Swedish government, which she believes should have helped her parents more.
”My dad is a victim of this, too,” she said. ”I think he loved Fadime, in a strange way.” Autor: Sarah Lyall