Lost in Sweden: A Kurdish Daughter Is Sacrificed
Sarah Lyall, USA
July 23, 2002
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
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
"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
Mesud was sentenced to six months in prison, and Fadime
moved north again. But relations with her family were
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."
From The New York Times, July 23, 2002.