Lifting the Veil on Violence Against Women in Turkey

With a president who says women should know their place and a deputy PM who tells them not to laugh in public, Turkey’s skyrocketing female murder rate should come as no surprise.

Zvi Bar'el
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Women demonstrating in Istanbul after the rape and murder of Ozgecan Aslan in February 2015. Too much domestic violence goes unreported.Credit: AFP
Zvi Bar'el

“Deger Deniz took her secret to the grave,” Turkish newspaper headlines shouted after the horrific murder of the popular singer-songwriter, whose body was found in her Istanbul apartment last week. “Deniz knew her killer,” said the police, whose conclusion was based in part on the fact that nothing was taken from her home. The killer or killers tied her hands with the cable of a cellphone charger at one point before strangling her with the strap of her bag. It is believed that the motive for Deniz’s brutal murder was personal.

Deniz was the third woman to be murdered in Turkey this month, after the homicides of two noncelebrities that have been classified as incidents of domestic violence. According to nonofficial statistics, at least 100 women have been murdered in Turkey since the start of the year. The majority are classed as family violence and do not make headlines.

Before Deniz, the last case that caused a national uproar was that of Ozgecan Aslan, a 20-year-old college student who was stabbed and beaten to death by the driver of a minibus taxi who tried to rape her en route. News of the heinous incident sparked demonstrations throughout the country and demands for the government to put an end to domestic violence, aid its victims and impose stiff prison sentences on perpetrators.

In April, a number of leading Turkish women, including actresses and businesswomen, told the stories of 12 women who were murdered by a partner or former partner. It was the local staging of “Wounded to Death,” a series of monologues created and written by the Italian writer, journalist and TV personality Serena Dandini to draw attention to violence against women. It has since been performed in cities around the world. The Turkish show was held at the Hilton Istanbul Bosphorus hotel.

According to government figures, at least 281 women were murdered in Turkey in 2014, but women’s advocacy organizations believe the number of women murdered by their husbands or relatives is much higher.

The issue of domestic violence is veiled in secrecy in Turkey. Many incidents are never reported, out of “shame” or “a hope that it was a one-time incident,” according to human rights activists. Turkey’s Family and Social Policies Ministry reported that its domestic violence hotline received over 100,000 calls last year, and estimated that the number of unreported cases is three to five times that.

The 183 hotline, which is available in Kurdish and Arabic as well as Turkish, is so popular that the government announced plans to establish a similar hotline that Turks living in Europe can call for legal advice and counseling from experts. But the ministry’s efforts to fight domestic violence with panic buttons and electronic handcuffs for offenders do not satisfy the women’s organizations. They say the battle against violence is becoming politicized in a way that makes it acceptable to hurt women.

They point to remarks by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan describing abortion as “treason” and constant calls by senior officials in his ruling Justice and Development Party for women to return to “their traditional roles” of mother and helpmeet.

In December the government chose three NGOs (out of 10) to partner with in its effort to combat violence against women. One of them is the Women and Democracy Association, whose deputy chairwoman is Erdogan’s daughter Summeyye Erdogan. In a recent speech in Brussels, she declared that it was “normal, fair and righteous” for women to receive smaller inheritances than men because men were responsible “for bringing the bread home.”

In a conversation with Haaretz, an activist for a women’s aid organization said that state authorities treat the NGOs “like groups of bored women with nothing to do.” Some women who dared complain to the police, he related, reported psychological abuse. The policemen demanded that they return home “and act like good women” or mocked their appearance.

“How can we believe the president’s good intentions,” asks the activist, “if he doesn’t bother to condemn Ankara’s mayor for his chauvinist remarks about the U.S. State Department spokeswoman?”

He was referring to a tweet by Mayor Melih Gokcek featuring a picture of Baltimore police using force against a looter and an image of Marie Harf with the caption “Where are you, stupid blonde, who accused Turkish police of using disproportionate force? [against antigovernment demonstrators in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013]. Come on blonde, answer now.”

When the president himself calls prominent Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman “a shameless militant woman” and tells her to “know [her] place,” and when Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc says that proper women do “not laugh in public,” it is only natural for a woman who happens to represent the U.S. State Department to be described as a “stupid blonde.” What is permissible for the president, the mayor and the senior leadership is certainly permissible for ordinary husbands, who only want to put their wives in their place.

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