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In Turkey, a show of male solidarity in tackling violence against women (+video)

The brutal rape and murder of a university student has galvanized protesters in Turkey and put its government in the spotlight.

Decked out in miniskirts, dozens of men braved winter weather to march in Turkey’s largest city Saturday to protest rising violence against Turkish women.

Some brought their young children; others carried placards calling for the government to strengthen protection of women. All said they had donned skirts in support of women’s rights, denouncing a culture they say legitimizes violence by blaming the victim.

“To say that a woman deserves rape or invites harassment by wearing a miniskirt is sick and we need to change this mentality,” said Mete Corumluoglu, a local nightclub DJ and one of the protest organizers. “I don’t want my daughter to grow up in a country where she doesn’t feel safe or free because of her gender.”

Saturday’s rally was part of a wave of demonstrations that swept Turkey after the murder of a 20-year-old university student by a bus driver who allegedly attempted to rape her. Notably, the killing has spurred a national debate among men as well as women about sexual assault and violence against women, in a patriarchal country where the subject has long been taboo. It highlights a rift within Turkish society, reflecting tensions in this majority Muslim country where the state’s official secularism – a bedrock of modern Turkey’s identity – is increasingly at odds with the government’s conservative religious agenda.

“Turkish women have succeeded in getting a number of legal protections on paper, but people’s attitudes, especially in the highest ranks of power, are still lagging behind,” said Dr. Jenny White, a professor of anthropology at Boston University who has published several books about Turkey. “Women are still considered as being the property of their husband and the community, so crimes against them are not treated as seriously by the state.”

Özgecan Aslan, the university student, was the last passenger on a minibus in the southern Turkish city of Mersin on Feb. 11 when the driver attempted to rape her. When she tried to fight him off, police say he stabbed her then beat her to death with an iron pipe. Her body was burnt and dumped in a riverbed where it was discovered two days later.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced the murder and called violence against women the country’s “bleeding wound,” vowing harsh penalties for Ms. Aslan’s killers. Police have arrested and charged the driver and two associates in connection with the murder.

His defenders point to a slew of protections enacted since his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002. These include criminalizing marital rape and increasing penalties for so-called honor killings. In 2012, Turkey became the first country in Europe to ratify a Council of Europe treaty on violence against women.

Conservative culture

But critics say Erdogan’s response – passing laws that protect women – leaves untouched Turkey’s male-dominated conservative culture that treats women as inferior. In the case of rape, women are occasionally forced to marry the rapist or targeted for honor killings by family members.

“Turkey is a country where the violation of women’s rights is dramatically high,” said Zelal Ayman, a director at Women's Human Rights-New Ways Association, a nongovernmental organization in Istanbul. “This government doesn’t see a woman as someone who should have a life an individual.”

Erdogan previously angered activists by declaring women unequal to men and calling motherhood a woman’s primary role in society. He has also said that women should bear at least three children, and attempted to outlaw abortion and adultery.

“It’s good that women are breaking the silence about violence and harassment in Turkish society, because it isn’t something we’ve seen before,” says Diba Nigar Goksel, editor-in-chief of the Istanbul-based Turkish Policy Quarterly. “But Turkey still has a very long way to go…. I think [Erdogan] genuinely doesn’t see the problem in his rhetoric. I think he genuinely thinks he’s saying something effective.”

The first protests over Aslan’s murder were held on Feb. 14, including one in Aslan’s hometown, where women broke with Islamic tradition at her funeral by carrying the coffin. A Twitter campaign followed, under the hashtag #sendeanlat (tell your story), in which Turkish women shared stories of sexual assault and violence.

After conservative Turkish commentators, including a popular singer, suggested on Twitter that women who wore miniskirts were inviting unwelcome sexual attention, men responded by posting photographs of themselves in miniskirts. This meme carried over into Saturday’s protest where men marched in skirts, attracting mostly curious and amused reactions from onlookers in a popular tourist district.

While reliable statistics on violence against women are difficult to come by, a report by the Ministry of Family and Social Policy this month found that four out of 10 women said they had been exposed to physical or sexual violence by a family member. Human rights group Bianet reports that 281 women were murdered in 2014, a 31 percent increase over the previous year.

'Hard to see something changing'

Turkey’s Minister of Family and Social Policies Ayşenur İslam said the government would introduce an electronic bracelet system in March to deal with violent offenders. Both the perpetrator and the victim will be fitted with bracelets, which will have a GPS location system that will be monitored by officials.

Meanwhile, private solutions are also being put forward. Hayrettin Bulan of a national women's group, Sefkat-Der proposed arming at-risk women, and is planning a series of firearms training workshops next month. And Mert Nomer, an attorney in Istanbul, has taken a less controversial route, organizing free self-defense courses.

“What has to change is men’s basic understanding of equality,” he said. “But if you ask me, I’m sorry, but this is political... if we still keep on having the political party in power right now, if they will keep on ruling the country, nothing will change. I think it will be worse.”

As protests continued to spread across Turkey, however, so did reports of further assaults against women. A man killed his girlfriend in the southern province of Antalya last week; in a separate incident, another man was arrested in Hatay for allegedly beating and attempting to rape a 12-year-old girl. A third reportedly threw his wife off a balcony in Izmir after a fight, leaving her critically injured, Turkish media reported.

“This has been happening for a long time, and I think sadly it will continue to happen,” said Goksen, a businesswoman on the sidelines of Saturday’s protest who did not want to give her last name. “This is something many have experienced from a young age. It’s really hard to see something changing in the short term.”

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