*Author’s note: I hesitated for two years before writing this piece, thinking I had no business discussing women’s issues as a man. That’s why I’ve tried very hard to exclude my own voice here, leaving out my (entirely unqualified) opinions, analysis, or explanations. However, having had the privilege to interview several leading Turkish experts, activists and ordinary women about this issue during the course of reporting other stories, I was left with thousands of words of extra material that I think warrants sharing. Please enjoy. [Photos mine]
Istanbul. February 2015.
Hayrettin Bulan – heavyset, eyes-popping, gesticulating wildly, huffing and puffing – dashes around the room, explaining the reasoning behind his organization’s free shooting and martial arts classes for women in Turkey.
“Let’s say I’m a woman, and this is my house. A potential killer comes.” He makes a few Batman-like “pow” sounds, ducking behind a couch and talking, almost yelling, so fast that my interpreter has to tell him several times to slow down.
“He breaks the door down. She can hide herself behind something, shoot the gun, and attract some attention or buy some time. When she has a gun, he can’t just come and kill her […] It’s legitimate self-defence […] We’re not saying chase after him and kill him. We’re just saying, if they attack you, protect yourself!”
Bulan founded Şefkat-Der, a charity group that supports Turkey’s many marginalized groups, including women, in 1995.
“Imagine you have a daughter. Let’s say you’re a 45-year-old mother and [have] a 20-year-old daughter. She has a boyfriend or husband, and he’s trouble. He’s coming to kill your children. You’re in your house and the guy has a gun. What will you do? You could call the police, but they’ll take an hour to come!”
Bulan wants to arm women with legal guns (see my story here), but also to get them in shape, to train them to fight. He keeps referencing the 2002 American thriller Enough, in which Jennifer Lopez plays an abused wife who learns how to fight back. Bulan says women in Turkey need to protect themselves because the authorities are incapable or unwilling to protect them.
“What if Özgecan had a gun?” he asks, referring to probably the most famous femicide in Turkey’s history.
* * *
On February 13, 2015, a 19-year-old girl’s mutilated body was found in a creek near the village of Çamalan in Turkey’s southeast. She had been burned beyond recognition, and her hands cut off.
Özgecan (pronounced Uhz-geh-jan) Aslan, from a working class Alevi family, was an opera lover, avid reader and scholarship student studying psychology. She was riding alone in a minibus when the ultranationalist driver, Ahmet Suphi Altındöken, noticing they were alone, decided he’d like to rape her. But Özgecan, whose last name means lion, fought back, clawing his face and pepper-spraying him. For that he beat her with an iron rod, slit her throat, and stabbed her 11 times in the neck, then called his father and a friend to help him dispose of her body.
Altındöken had also beaten his wife, who later demanded the “heaviest sentence” for him. His sister told a reporter about his violent disposition, explaining to local media how she had learned how to take his regular beatings:
“We already knew how to get beaten by him. Probably Özgecan didn’t. She must have resisted or tried to fight back, which would have made my brother go completely nuts and made him hit harder.”
In December 2015 Altındöken was given a life sentence for, among other things, “murder with monstrous instinct and torture,” and was shot dead in prison by another inmate the following April.
Özgecan’s case became a cause célèbre, and her uncommon given name was tweeted 4.6 million times and became a catchword for violence against women in Turkey. Tens of thousands across the country marched against gender-based violence, and many disgusted women, radicalized by the patriarchy endemic to all sections of Turkish society, refused to let men join in (men are generally not welcome at women’s rights marches in Turkey).
Yakın Ertürk, a Turkish sociologist and the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, told me a sort of collective anger had been building up for a long time. Özgecan’s death finally galvanized society to demand justice to a problem that’s plagued Turkey for ages.
“This just became the drop that filled the glass,” she said when I interviewed her in 2015.
“Her death has sort of tilted the whole issue […] Her father made such a remarkable comment for a man with such grief, to say that Özgecan completed her mission with her death. I think that’s a sound way of looking at it. Her death really did serve some purpose in the country to bring [people together] from all segments of society. So let’s hope that we can follow up on it and make sure that these kinds of incidents don’t happen again and that we forget what Özgecan died for.”
Prominent feminist scholar and activist Pınar İlkkaracan also told me her thoughts on the reaction to Özgecan’s death in Turkey.
“I was amazed,” she said. “It’s become a landmark.”
İlkkaracan said what was different with this femicide, just one of hundreds a year, was that the response came from ordinary people, not just a handful of activists.
“For years almost every day one or two women were killed and we felt very alone.”
Özgecan’s death spurred a remarkable social media campaign in Turkey called #SenDeAnlat (tell your story). Ertürk says giving women a platform to share their own trauma and read about other women’s experiences was incredibly cathartic and empowering.
“Discussing them heart-to-heart creates a sense of solidarity and you realize it’s not your fault, [and] that you share this problem with many others. There’s a social, structural element to it. It’s not you, it’s not that you’re inadequate, or that you’re inviting these problems […] When a woman faces violence, it kills her self-esteem and she starts thinking that she must have done something to deserve it.”
* * *
“Women are being killed like mosquitoes in this country,” says a reporter standing in front of an apartment building named ‘Bliss,’ where a group of women who’ve killed the abusive men in their lives are holed up. It’s not real, but a scene from the 2012 Turkish dark comedy, Last Stop Salvation (Kurtuluş Son Durak).
The revenge fantasy must have served as a kind of catharsis for many Turkish women, at least 42 per cent (or as much as 70 per cent) of whom have been beaten by an intimate partner (keeping in mind violence against women is virtually always underreported. For comparison, the World Health Organization estimated in 2013 that globally, 35 per cent of women on average have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a romantic partner or sexual violence by a non-partner. This percentage can reach well into the 60s and 70s for some sub Saharan African countries), and was a refreshing change from the many Turkish films and television series that tend to glamorize rape.
“In the past we used to read about traffic deaths. Now, news reports start with how many women have been killed,” Ertürk told me.
Since the government stopped putting out records on violence against women, our knowledge has been dependent upon figures compiled from media reports. According to numbers released last November by Kadın Cinayetleri (Women Murders) at least 1,134 women had been murdered by men in Turkey over the preceding five years, many of whom had been under some form of police protection.
According to the news website Bianet, which collects their own data from media reports, men killed at least 261 women in 2016. The Umut (Hope) Foundation puts the number much higher, at 397. The vast majority were killed by current or former romantic partners because they tried to leave them.
The recent spate of femicides (or at least the attention that the femicides, which have always occurred, are now finally receiving) feels like a kind of epidemic. A few years ago an almost unbelievable statistic regarding violence against women in Turkey was released: between 2002 and 2009, the annual rate of femicides went up 1,400 per cent according to the Ministry of Justice, peaking with 1,126 women murdered in 2009. The shocking revelation made front pages, and the government promptly stopped putting out stats after that. To confuse matters even more, the Ministry of Family said that only 171 women had been murdered in 2009.
Some experts expressed doubts at such a stunning increase, speculating that better reporting of violence was the real reason. İlkkaracan told me that such a high increase is virtually impossible outside of a war zone, but that the specific numbers can be distracting from the main issue:
“Definitely it’s not decreasing, that’s for sure. That’s the important thing,” İlkkaracan told me.
* * *
The reasons for violence against women in any country are hardly a mystery to those who study it.
“The root cause of violence against women is gender inequality,” İlkkaracan explains.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, Turkey ranks 130th out of 144 countries.
Bulan puts it in simple terms: “Turkey is a man’s country. Being a male-dominated country is in our genes.”
He goes on to explain the double standards in Turkish society relating to men and women, especially in regards to sex, pointing out their prevalence across the spectrum of demographic groups in Turkey – religious and secular, well-educated and poorly-educated, and in every political faction.
“Their son can bring a girlfriend home, but their daughter can’t [do the same]. Their son can rent a home [alone or with roommates of the opposite sex], but their daughter can’t. That’s the tradition in Turkey.”
Bulan says that when a man loses his virginity, he’s a hero, but when a woman has sex, it’s often considered shameful.
“When a man does it it’s normal, he’s called a çapkın (player), but when a woman does it it’s wrong.”
He tells me many Turkish men often want to marry virgins, but usually aren’t virgins themselves.
In 1999, 32-year-old Şükran Gönenç set herself on fire and jumped off the 15th floor of a building in front of a large crowd of gendarmerie officers and reporters after her boyfriend refused to marry her because she wasn’t a virgin.
Türkan Uruk, one of the participants in Şefkat-Der’s shooting classes, told me that a further problem may be how Turkish men are often raised. She says many men in Turkey are very dependent upon women – being coddled first by their mothers, then their romantic partners, and never really learning to be independent. She says if a woman leaves a man, he often feels very insecure, embarrassed, and desperate, sometimes lashing out against her and refusing to let her go.
Ertürk also hypothesizes that the high level of gender-related violence in Turkey may be actually a result of progress.
“I think it’s partially a response to the success of the women’s moment, [because] in the process, the patriarchy has become destabilized both in the home and in the public sphere.” Violence is often a form of backlash against this systemic change, a sort of horrendous growing pain.
* * *
The watchdog organization “We Will Stop Femicide Platform” reports that of the 28 women they reported murdered in November, 35 per cent were killed “for wanting to make decisions over their own lives.” The mundane reasons* male killers often give would almost sound humorous if they weren’t so tragic:
“She dyed her hair red.”
“She bought a new dress.”
“She didn’t make meatballs and potatoes.”
Most of the killers were romantic partners and family members, and they often kill for reasons of namus – honour. Anthropologist and Turkey expert Jenny White writes that “a person’s namus is a critical evaluation of one’s good name by society and one’s peers.”
Though there are many different words and versions for a word we use so infrequently in English, namus is a complex moral concept of a woman or man’s honour and is linked with female sexual honour (iffet) and male pride. As White writes:
“A namuslu [with namus] person obeys society’s moral norms, doesn’t steal or lie, and obeys society’s sexual rules. Women are alone in being judged by their iffet, a characteristic of their person (unlike namus, which relies on the social evaluation of others) that refers explicitly to their sexual honor (chastity and innocence).”
If a woman sullies her iffet, such as when sexual penetration (in Turkey a man or woman’s sexual honour is only lost be being penetrated, not by doing the penetrating; for instance a man is only considered gay if he’s been penetrated) destroys her chastity (ırz), not only is her namus destroyed, but the namus of her family and, if she has one, her romantic partner, is also lost.
White writes, “A man whose namus has been destroyed through public disapproval has lost the right to hold his head up in society, and in traditional communities a man without namus may lose his social identity and even be shunned, along with his entire family. No one will do business with him; no one will marry his children.”
In other words, women carry the great burden of their own iffet, which affects the namus of the male relatives of their entire extended families (which in Turkey tend to be huge). Namus can only be restored, according to töre (customs and traditions transferred over generations and rooted communal culture) by killing the ‘sullied’ woman, forcing her to kill herself, or forcing her to marry whoever violated her ırz (a common practice, and one that can reduce or eliminate punishment for the rapist).
“When a man cleanses his honour by doing something to a woman, people will tell him ‘You did the right thing,’” Bulan tells me, saying these men are treated like heroes in prison. He half-jokingly suggests that if women were to ‘cleanse’ every man who damaged their honour, there would be no men left in Turkey.
* * *
Many activists criticize the ruling Justice and Development Party for addressing women’s issues from a conservative, family-orientated viewpoint. In 2011 the Ministry for Women’s name was even changed to the Ministry for Family and Social Policy, and the term “gender equality” was replaced with “gender justice” in official discourse.
“I’m sorry, it’s not even called the Ministry for Women, it’s called the Ministry for Family now. Even that shows something,” İlkkaracan says.
“What it signifies is that instead of looking at women as individuals, her place is at home; she’s seen only [within the context] of family […] The AKP government is holding family above all else, especially women, [saying that] women should be mothers, they should be sisters and daughters. They’re not taken as individuals.”
Ertürk says gender equality should be the foundation of any initiative to support women.
“Without equality, justice cannot be possible,” she told me.
Legislation pertaining to gender-based violence introduced by the AKP was actually a huge step forward. As I wrote in an article for al Jazeera English:
“Divorce was made easier, women’s rights in the workplace were increased, the headscarf ban in state institutions including universities was lifted or relaxed, and a new penal code free of patriarchal language, which criminalized marital rape and increased penalties for sexual crimes, was introduced.”
But İlkkaracan told me the problem isn’t the legislation, but the implementation.
“[Femicides] might be increasing because of the conservative policies of the AKP government, which is very much negatively affecting gender equality. The laws are good, but they’re not being implemented, and moreover, there’s a very clear attack on gender equality,” she said.
“Even if you have a very good law, it’s not enough.”
Examples of poor implementation abound.
In 2014 a local court in the eastern province of Erzurum reduced the sentence of a man who stabbed his wife after seeing her with someone else. The man described his wife’s mannerisms as “suspicious” and “provocative, and the judge argued it could be considered provocation and an extenuating circumstance that the woman had been wearing leggings and sitting “slightly leaning to one side.”
In 2015, a court in Ankara ordered a woman to pay compensation to her husband after his hand became swollen from beating her.
Ertürk says she can’t remember a time when the government and civil society has diverged so much on this issue.
“I think we’re confronting a serious conflict of discourses here. States and rights groups rarely see eye to eye, but I don’t think we were ever put on such polar ends as we are right now.”
She says the government doesn’t see independent civil society groups as partners.
“Since the 1980s, the women’s movement has been getting stronger and stronger,” she says. “This is being challenged now by the authorities, and it’s really scary.”
“You must develop a system, an integrated mechanism where all stakeholders are working together,” İlkkaracan adds.
“There’s no interest in that at all […] There’s quite a negative attitude towards women’s NGOs […] At the moment they’re very hostile to anyone who’s not [pro] AKP.”
When I ask feminist lawyer Hülya Gülbahar how the AKP has been for women’s rights, her initial response is hysterical laughter. She tells me the party’s attitude and ideology is contributing to the rise in violence against women, and says they place people who don’t believe in gender equality in positions of administrative power.
Members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) often invoke namus and other patriarchal language when speaking about women’s issues.
Ertürk tells me that after Özgecan was killed, President Erdoğan bashed feminists and used the term emanet – entrusted – to describe the position of women in society.
“You know these feminists,” Erdoğan said in an address to local leaders. “They say, ‘How can women be entrusted to men? This is an insult.’ Well, you have nothing to do with our religion and civilization. We are looking at the words of our prophet. He says ‘Women are entrusted by God. Respect and do not harm them.’”
“This isn’t what we want to hear,” Ertürk says. “As someone who is taken under their protection, you are very much left to their mercy. And let’s remember that women are being killed by those very people to whom they are entrusted. So I think this language is wrong, this understanding is wrong […] It all enforces women’s position of dependency. Women are valuable so long as they behave within the parameters drawn by patriarchal understanding […] Women aren’t minors to be protected.”
President Erdoğan has invoked the language of sexual shame when speaking about women who are opponents of his policies.
“It isn’t clear whether she is a girl, or a woman,” he said in 2011, referring to a demonstrator beaten by police and suffering a broken hip during a protest in Hopa. In Turkish kız (girl) can carry the meaning of virgin, while kadın (woman) implies non-virgin.
Erdoğan has called contraception treason, and made headlines last June by saying women who reject motherhood are “deficient” and “incomplete.”
Former deputy prime minister and AKP member Bülent Arınç, speaking in 2014, said “[A woman] will not laugh out loud in public. She will not be inviting in her attitudes and will protect her chasteness,” which resulted in a social media campaign of women posting photos of themselves laughing.
In 2012, AKP member and Ankara mayor Melih Gökçek said, “Women should give birth even if it was rape. The government will take care of the baby. The baby is innocent; the woman should be decent and avoid the abortion option. If there should be someone to be killed, the woman should kill herself, not the baby.”
During the June 2014 elections, the AKP’s Muzaffer Çakar told women in Karahasan village in Muş to go home and send their husbands to vote for them.
Türkan Uruk, the woman who participated in the shooting class, is a pious Muslim, and is outraged by AKP politicians’ comments.
“This is all bullshit. They’re charlatans, pretending to be representatives of Islam,” she told me, saying her religion respects women but has been manipulated and corrupted by politicians.
However, many Turkish women, themselves socially conservative and raised in a highly patriarchal society, agree with statements like these.
According to the 2011 round of the World Values Survey, 60 per cent of Turkish women agree that, “Overall, men make better business executives than women do.” Sixty-three per cent agreed that “On the whole, men make better political leaders than women do.” Sixty-five per cent agree that “When a mother works for pay, the children suffer.” Ninety-four per cent agree that sex before marriage is “never justifiable.” According to the Turkey Values Atlas 2012, 59 per cent of women believe that “women should always obey their husbands and should not question their words.”
The AKP and President Erdoğan, despite having so few women party members, have traditionally been incredibly popular with women. A 2014 study indicated that 55 per cent of women voted for Erdoğan in the presidential election that year, more than men (48 per cent). Other studies have found that women support the AKP more than men, and have for a long time.
However, as Jenny White writes, “once the AKP won elections and consolidated its power, Islamist activist women were locked out of meaningful participation in political decision-making.”
So what can the government do to help solve the problem of violence against women and gender inequalities?
İlkkaracan says that in Turkey there’s no integrated system or mechanism to prevent violence against women, wherein the police, courts, social and health services, and women’s groups work together.
Ertürk says economic empowerment is crucial.
“To the extent that women are economically independent and empowered, they can change the terms of engagement,” she tells me.
“The state has the due diligence obligation to prevent, protect, and prosecute. Prevention is still the weakest link,” she says. “I’m not only talking about passing laws, but actively supporting women’s empowerment at all phases. Supporting women’s groups, job creation, childcare services.”
However, Ertürk says the government completely blocks out independent women’s organizations.
“There’s a serious breaking point here,” she says. “It’s going to be a very rough journey from here on.”
* The source was an article from the now obliterated Today’s Zaman archive