Ozan Kose / AFP / Getty Images

Turkey steps up rhetoric on domestic violence, but will actions match?

Brutal murder of university student has mobilized a government widely accused of perpetuating patriarchal culture

ISTANBUL — The thousands of women roaring inside an Istanbul sports area Sunday were not fired up for a game but for a political gathering that touched on domestic violence in Turkey.

The topic has dominated conversation throughout the country, especially since the brutal murder of a university student last month, with government leaders — widely accused of perpetuating a patriarchal culture that enables violence against women — strongly weighing in.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu attended the meeting, a convention for female members of the conservative ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Istanbul, in order to rally his supporters ahead of parliamentary elections in June. But he also used the occasion to encourage women to reject and report abuse.

Members of the AKP’s Istanbul women’s branch at a political convention on March 15, 2015.
Emily Feldman

His audience — almost entirely women in colorful headscarves, fervently waving flags — gave him a rock star reception, cheering in response to his prompts.

“Even if it is your brother who is committing the violence, will we stand up against him?” Davutoglu asked. “When there is violence against women and children, are you ready to take action when we say, ‘Take action’?”

Outside the arena, women from the AKP stole away for fresh air, tea or a cigarette. They noted a renewed resolve in the party to educate the public about violence against women in an effort to crush what has been a long and stubborn plague affecting some 40 percent of women in Turkey, according to U.N. statistics.

“I want this issue to be solved as soon as possible,” said Dilek Deniz, a 26-year-old member of the AKP women’s branch in the Istanbul district of Esenler. “We need education … Men should be educated as much as women.”

Sabriye Deniz (no relation to Dilek Deniz), a mother of two grown children, said society has already changed.

“Before, if a woman was beaten, it was a shame to talk about it. Violence against women was legitimate,” she said. She linked the increased prevalence of domestic violence in the news and public discourse to increased reporting of a problem that was once kept behind closed doors. She credited the AKP for the change, saying that the party empowered women to participate in politics and public life, “even if their husbands don’t like it.”

While there is little doubt about the extent to which the AKP has transformed the lives of religious women — who were previously unable to attend universities or work at government institutions while wearing a headscarf — violence against women remains a scourge, affecting all segments of society.

According to various tallies, more than 280 women were killed by men in Turkey last year. These murders — many carried out by husbands and boyfriends — appear in the news with numbing frequency. 

Though the murder of university student Ozgecan Aslan, who was attacked and killed by her minibus driver while she was on her way home from a shopping center, was not related to domestic violence, it shook the nation and quickly became a symbol for the assortment of problems facing women in society: inequality, sexual harassment, domestic violence, discrimination. 

It prompted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a bane of feminist groups, to declare that violence against women is Turkey’s “bleeding wound.” He followed that with a promise to launch a unit to track reports of domestic violence cases and urged muhtars (elected neighborhood and village leaders) to protect the women in their districts.

‘The government has on paper all the means to tackle [the problem]. But in practice, it has been unable to implement its own laws.’

Emma Sinclair-Webb

senior Turkey researcher, Human Rights Watch

Still, experts are not hopeful that the government’s new efforts to address the issue will yield positive results. 

They point out that Turkey already has strong laws to protect women against violence. In 2012 it became the first country to ratify a Council of Europe convention that clearly defined and criminalized everything from stalking to forced marriage and psychological abuse. It also obligated Turkey and other signatories to start hot lines and open shelters for women in danger.

“The government has on paper all the means to tackle [the problem]. But in practice, it has been unable to implement its own laws,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior Turkey researcher with Human Rights Watch. “Women under protection have been killed, and those are the cases where the government must take a hard look at what went wrong.”

Sabriye Deniz, who attended the rally, said domestic violence against women used to be accepted. She credits the AKP for the change, saying the party empowers women to participate in politics and public life “even if their husbands don’t like it.”
Emily Feldman

Critics argue that the government’s very framing of women’s issues, often in religious or paternalistic terms, exacerbates the problem. 

In response to Aslan’s murder, Erdogan encouraged not only muhtars but men generally to protect women from harm, since women were “entrusted to men by God.”

The remark sparked an outcry among women’s rights activists who saw the comment as implication that, in the government’s view, women are not entitled to individual rights and protection and must be granted them by men. Some questioned which women the government hoped to protect. There is a widespread notion in women’s rights circles that Erdogan and his supporters make a dangerous distinction between “their” women — virtuous and pious — and others.

Deniz Kandiyoti, a professor at the University of London, recently described the dichotomy in an article for Open Democracy in which she contrasted Erdogan’s response to two reported incidents. 

The first dealt with a young religious woman who claimed to have been viciously attacked during the Gezi protests — a claim that has since been discredited. Upon hearing news of the report, Erdogan raged against the attack on “our sister.”

When commenting on a report of a female protester injured in clashes with police two years earlier, he dismissively questioned whether she was “a girl [virgin] or a woman.”

This distinction might be behind the strong government response to the murder of Aslan, said Jenny White, an anthropology professor at Boston University who has written extensively about Turkish society.

“She was a good girl. She was a student. She was not someone you could make out to be a slut,” she said. 

Davutoglu addressed the crowd gathered at the sports stadium Sunday as the “beloved women of beloved Istanbul.” But he was clear about his intention of rooting out the problem of domestic violence from all segments of society, and he called on the women of the AKP to help. "We will combat this all together," he said.

From the stadium, adorned with banners proclaiming that violence “against women betrays humanity” and that every woman elected is a strong step forward, the attendees marched out into the world with their orders, from the top.

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