In Turkey, cruel tradition trumps ‘picture perfect’ gender laws

Laws to promote women's rights are on the books in Turkey. But as the mood grows more conservative, gender issues are out of the spotlight and activists fear the government is backsliding. Part 3 of Reaching for Equity: a global series on gender and power.

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Cicek Tahaoglu, an editor of Bianet news, which tracks Turkish gender issues, looks at a poster with 2016 statistics of male violence against women in Istanbul, Turkey.

Disgusted by daily reports of men killing women in his native Turkey, film director Dersu Yavuz Altun made his protest in the way he knows best: on the big screen.

“Ayaz” left some women physically shaking after its first showing here in November. An intense morality play, it was inspired by a real-life murder case in which, amid pressure to restore "honor,"  a man kills his brother's wife when she leaves him for someone else.

The film delves deeply into gender violence and inequality in Turkey, exploring the country’s “manly man” macho culture and the corrosive impact of the crime beyond its immediate victim.

 “I thought I killed a woman, but I killed myself and everyone left behind” as well, one prisoner told Mr. Altun as he researched his film.

The director was struck by a realization, he says. “It’s like a civil war in the country, it’s like a war against women by men.”

That “war” is raging against a complex backdrop, where Turkish aspirations to Western-style modernity clash with profoundly conservative social attitudes and an increasingly authoritarian government. Shockingly, Turkey also has one of the world’s highest rates of femicide – the murder of a woman on account of her gender.

In the first seven months of 2009, official figures showed, there were 953 cases of femicide, about one every five hours. The public outcry at this revelation – and the steep, inexplicable rise leading up to it, according to official numbers – was so great that the government has not published comparable statistics since.

Such figures stand in dismal contrast to the progress Turkey has made toward some aspects of gender equality, unusual in a part of the world governed by strict social mores.

Many women work in corporations and law firms. Turkey was ruled by a female prime minister, Tansu Çiller, from 1993 to 1996. The country has a vocal women’s rights movement, and, spurred by European Union (EU) membership dreams a decade ago, parliament has done much to enshrine equal rights and protections for women in law.

But the country is sliding backward, analysts and activists say, as social and religious conservatism reasserts itself amid a crackdown against civil society that has helped turn women’s status and safety into a battleground.

Not long ago, hope reigned among women’s rights activists. In 2011, feminist groups were invited to parliament for the first time to help draft what became law No. 6284. That piece of legislation allowed courts to issue restraining orders against abusive men for up to six months, keeping them away from the wives they had victimized. 

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Tugce Canbolat is a senior administrator at Mor Cati, the only private women's shelter in Istanbul and an organization that has been at the forefront of Turkey's women's movement since the 1980s. So-called "honor killings" take the lives of several hundred Turkish women each year.

“People’s minds were changing, because the government was doing a lot of things to change the minds of people, to make social change,” says Çiçek Tahaoğlu, an editor at the “Bianet” website, which specializes in tracking gender issues.

The change was little more than skin deep, however, and the legislative defenses protecting women’s rights are fragile, argues one legal academic in Ankara who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of such issues. 

“When you look at the picture it is perfect, you have all the [laws] that you need,” she says. “In the Constitution you see all this equality and freedom, and even abolishing the death penalty.” 

But President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly indicated that he supports reimposition of capital punishment, she points out. “That’s why you can’t feel sure about the freedoms and the rights you have. It can change so easily.”


And the mood in Turkey has changed in the wake of a failed military coup in 2016 that instilled a deeper mistrust of civil society in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Once a supportive voice for women, the party has backed away from women’s issues in parallel with its fading interest in meeting EU standards in social affairs. 

“In the AKP’s first years it was doing a lot of good things, there was a lot of progress,” says Tuğçe Canbolat, a senior administrator of Mor Çati, a shelter for battered women in Istanbul. But “the AKP no longer works with women’s groups as they used to.” 

Indeed, there are signs that the government may be preparing to amend the landmark 2011 law protecting wives from their abusive husbands. The conservative, pro-AKP newspaper YeniAkit published an article last month, for example, linking an “explosion” in the murder rate of women to the legal restraining orders, suggesting the law was made “without paying attention to Turkish family structure."

It quoted a sociologist who suggested that imposed separation of a husband from his wife and the lack of a place to stay can “turn into anger” and “feelings of revenge against his wife.” Another YeniAkit article in late December claimed that law No. 6284 “has destroyed the family nest."

Women’s groups marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women last November with a march in Istanbul to protest what they called the AKP’s “misogynist policies.”

The groups’ spokeswoman, Mine Doğru, noted that the AKP was trying to make divorce more difficult when nearly half the women killed in 2017 lost their lives while they were trying to divorce or leave their partners.

The mood change is not restricted to the ruling party. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), appeared to justify domestic violence recently when he said baldly that “if a man is unemployed, if not enough money comes into the household, and if the pot is not boiling in the evening, this man will take it out on his wife.”

Wife beating is common well beyond poor households, however, to judge by figures from the official Turkish Statistical Institute. That government agency reported in 2015 that no fewer than 40 percent of women in Turkey “experience violence from their husbands or the partners that they live with.”

The 2016 version of the report, however, inexplicably offers no update on that statistic, stating simply that “married men and women are happier.” 

This official tendency to conceal or gloss over the extent of violence against women undercuts Erdoğan’s rhetoric on the issue, critics say.

His recent talking points have encouraged some women’s activists. “Anyone who commits violence against women should be punished,” the president said in November. “What did our prophet say? ‘Heaven is at the feet of our mothers.’ What I am doing here today is not simply a protocol; it is part of my wider duty in the struggle for women’s rights.”

Erdoğan used the speech to announce a new “action plan” for women; he claimed that the AKP had carried out “historic reforms for women,” and noted that his government finances 81 women’s shelters across the country.

But it was only three years ago that Erdoğan said equality between men and women was “contrary to nature.” And the authorities are doing little to challenge the social norms that sanction the violence against women that puts them in such shelters in the first place.

A long way to go

So others are taking up that challenge.

“Talking with women is not enough,” says Bahar Aldanmaz, a researcher at the Gender and Women’s Studies Research Center at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. “As a feminist, I love having men in my education training programs, I love talking with them and trying to understand their perspective, because masculinity, and the definition of masculinity, is an important reason why we are experiencing all this.”

“Being a man in Turkey, you have to be powerful, you have to be strong, you can’t cry,” Ms. Aldanmaz points out. Men feel they have the power to do everything, and then – boom – we have all this [violence against women] happen.”

The problem is deeply cultural, she says. “The TV series we are watching, it’s crazy, it’s all about men owning women. There’s violence, there’s jealousy, and people love it. It’s about controlling, it’s the definition of relationships in Turkey. That’s why it’s not shocking to have these rates of violence.”

Aldanmaz says she has seen attitudes shift, and that she is not “super pessimistic” about the prospect for more change.

But Turkey has a long way to go, cautions Ms. Tahaoğlu, the editor with Bianet.

“Gender roles are so strict in Turkey,” she says. “If you are a woman you need to cook, you need to clean your house. The belief in these gender roles is so deep, and so integral to our culture and our society, that when you change them a little bit, people think it’s a really provocative thing to do.” 

“The solution is, first, we have to start seeing women as equals – that is the first step that has not happened in Turkey,” she says. “Without doing that, everything else is artificial and ineffective.”

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