A drastic rise in reported "honor" killings and fatal domestic violence in Turkey has sparked a vigorous debate about the government's recent attempts to address the problem. It also highlights the clash of conservative values with the country's rapid modernization.
Government figures released in February suggest murders of women increased 14-fold in seven years, from 66 in 2002, to 953 in the first seven months of 2009. In the past seven months, one rights organization has compiled more than 264 cases – nearly one per day – reported in the press in which a woman was killed by a family member, husband, ex-husband, or partner.
“There’s been an incredible increase," says Gulhan Yag, a young activist who recently attended a funeral for a teenage girl killed for eloping with her boyfriend. "This feels like a genocide against women.”
Amidst a surge of public outrage, the Islam-rooted ruling party is being cast as both villain and hero. While some argue it has fueled social conservatism, others claim that for the first time, a problem that has long plagued Turkish family life is finally being uncovered – in part because women are asserting their rights and drawing attention to the issue.
“We know that violence against women has been a longstanding bleeding wound of the society,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a convention last month on the eve of International Women’s Day. “It is being reflected by the media as a growing issue when it is simply the hidden and unspoken truths being uncovered.”
On paper, progress for women
On paper at least, Mr. Erdogan's government has an impressive record for fighting the problem.
Since 2006, police officers have undergone training to combat violence against women, and now a specialized domestic violence police unit is being set up. Penal and civil codes were changed in 2004 and 2005 to increase sentences for honor killers.
Meanwhile, amendments to the family protection law currently in parliament will for the first time allow judges to impose restraining orders in relation to non-married couples.
“More women know their rights, people are more aware than before, and for the last five years police have been trained in these issues,” says Meltem Agduk, United Nations Population Program Coordinator for Turkey.
Are police willing to help?
But others question both the effectiveness of the legislation, and the government’s own commitment to the problem.
“Laws have been made but they are not being applied,” says Canan Gullu, chairwoman of the Turkish Association of Women’s Federations. “Police stations don’t work as they should and there are not enough safe houses for women.”
The government passed a law in 2005 recommending that municipalities with more than 50,000 people should have a women’s shelter. Few have paid attention to the vaguely worded, noncompulsory legislation, and so far only 65 are operating, compared to the 1,400 that would exist with proper implementation.
Activists claim police are unwilling or unable to help vulnerable women. In February, Arzu Yildirim, a mother of two, was murdered, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend after having requests for police protection rejected. Hers was one among many similar cases.
The funeral Ms. Yag attended was for 19-year-old Hatice Firat, who was killed Feb. 28 after running away to live with her boyfriend – an offense her relatives saw as staining the family's honor. Local media said her brother was the prime suspect.
But her case was not without sympathy. Yag and a group of other women arranged for a funeral after Firat's family refused to pick up her body. And a crowd of 150 people bore her coffin through the streets of the southeastern Turkish city of Mersin chanting slogans against the murder of women.
Police detained 11 relatives as well as her boyfriend, and two days later, 22 members of Parliament urged the government to investigate the reason for the rise in women's murders.
Prime minister's comment draws ire
Some see the government as part of the problem, however, claiming that the Islamic values espoused by Turkey’s leaders have fueled the violence. Erdogan particularly drew the ire of women’s activists last year when he said at a conference in Istanbul that he "did not believe" in gender equality, a comment that was widely reported in Turkish news outlets. (He went on to say that "that's why I prefer to say 'equal opportunity.' Men and women are different in nature, they complete each other.")
“If our prime minister says men and women aren’t equal, it affects men. There’s no positive example for them. They are now thinking that they can do anything they want,” says Gulsun Kanat, a volunteer social worker for the women’s charity Mor Cati.
Though it is impossible to substantiate such claims, Turkey’s statistics on gender equality remain abysmal by almost any standard. While in recent years the country has made tremendous strides economically, improved the situation of its ethnic and religious minorities, and is increasingly enjoying greater political clout on the global stage, it has languished near the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap reports since the index was created in 2005. It is currently ranked 126 out of 134 countries – lower even than Iran.
On the question of the rising violence, some suggest the rapid urbanization of the past two decades, twinned with the growth of civil society movements, have given rise to a gender war.
“A lot of the honor killings in Istanbul are being committed by people who moved from villages in the southeast,” says Vildan Yirmibesoglu, head of Istanbul’s Human Rights Council. “Women who didn’t previously go out on the streets are part of community life in a way they didn’t used to be. They want to study to go to school and to express themselves, and families don’t approve of this.”
Meanwhile, a growing number of women activists like those who buried Hatice Firat are intensifying their own fight against the killings and the patriarchal system that still grips Turkish family life.
“Men killed her, and we didn’t allow men to bury her,” says Yag, whose fellow activists carried out the funeral rites traditionally performed by mosque officials. “I’m at a point now where I draw power from the fact that I know we have to fight against this crime.”