The anatomy of gender violence in Turkey

Sexual harassment and violence against women have become a daily reality on Turkey’s news cycle, though some cases still have the power to shock society into action.

Footage of the moments after Emine Bulut’s ex-husband fatally stabbed her in front of their daughter drew a wave of outrage in August, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan later declaring that he favoured the death sentence in cases of femicide.

But behind the bombastic statements by politicians, Turkish women have been working tirelessly to bring the perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence against women to justice, tearing down the image of women as helpless victims. 

The We Will Stop Femicides Platform, created by-women-for-women in the year 2010, has taken an active role in that struggle, ensuring that the wider public is informed about cases of violence ranging from men torturing women with cigarettes in Antalya to the case of Nurcan Demiröz, whose former lover murdered her by planting a stick of dynamite in her home.

As reports of extreme violence against women continue to come out at an alarming pace, women have been forced to prioritise their basic rights to life, divorce, employment, and freedom of movement.

For feminist writer Berrin Sönmez, all kinds of sexual abuse and assault stem from an unequal distribution of power, and this is a common problem around the world – but Turkey has lagged behind in dealing with it due to a culture of impunity in cases of violence against women.

“In some countries, women struggling against these crimes, and the law is implemented against perpetrators without concessions. But in others, it is difficult for (violence against women) to even be accepted as a crime, either on a legal level or in the public perception – perpetrators are not punished, so the crime goes unaddressed,” Sönmez told Ahval.

“In other countries likes ours, the necessary legal framework is in place to combat violence against gender violence, but the struggle has been rendered insufficient by the lack of implementation,” she said.

Turkey is the first signatory of the Istanbul Convention, a ground-breaking set of measures to combat gender violence and domestic violence adopted by the Council of Europe in Turkey’s largest city in 2011.

Yet women’s rights groups have said the government has failed to live up to the commitments laid out in the convention, which in recent years has been targeted by conservatives and Islamists who say it is damaging Turkish cultural values.

This has resulted in intense lobbying to change or withdraw from the convention, according to Hüda Kaya, a deputy for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party.

“In particular, they want to rob women of their right to alimony. There’s a male lobby that is pressuring the government to withdraw its signature from the Istanbul Convention, which they say is harming family values. They’ve been meeting with parties in parliament to try to gather support,” Kaya said.

Meanwhile, Kaya said, violence against women continues in every segment of society and every political sphere. 

“Nationalists, socialists, atheists, they are all responsible for violence against women. Men from every level of education commit violent crimes. Even academics kill their wives without blinking,” Kaya said.

“The male-centric mindset is dominant in every sphere of life. This is reflected on a social level as violence and murder – there’s no difference between religious and irreligious people. Men firstly dominate women,” she said.

The efforts to preserve this patriarchal system are at the heart of the opposition the Istanbul Convention, and are also the reason for stiff resistance to LGBTI+ rights groups, according to Sönmez.

“Because feminism and movements for equality for LGBTI+ people are phenomena that are fundamentally pushing back the patriarchy. That’s why cooperation between feminists and LGBTI+ organisations is very natural,” Sönmez said.

“While they work to break the pattern of male hegemony and strive for equality, they are also targeting gender-based violence in the same way”, said the feminist writer.

Thus, violence against trans individuals – another area covered by the Istanbul Convention – has also seen a mixed response in Turkey, according to human rights activist and lawyer Eren Keskin. 

“There’s great indifference to attacks on trans people; people don’t care, because many of them think the same as the attackers. Homophobia is deeply engrained in our geography,” Keskin said.

“You can say you’re a leftist, a revolutionary, a liberal, whatever, but if you’re homophobic you’re no different to racist fascists,” she said.

Women and LGBTI+ groups are facing an uphill struggle in spite of the significant gains the Istanbul Convention represents because of the lack of implementation, said Keskin, who said that many judges and lawyers in Turkish courts are unfamiliar with the law.

“Thus, women and trans women will have to struggle to reach those gains. And that struggle will be an extremely long one,” she said.