Women See Worrisome Shift in Turkey

Posted on 26 April 2012


Published: April 25, 2012

Daniel Etter for The New York Times
A victim of domestic abuse in a women’s shelter in Istanbul, Turkey, on March 31, 2012. She has fled her husband and does not want to reveal her identity. 

ISTANBUL — Gokce, a soft-spoken 37-year-old mother of two, has lived on the run for 15 years, ever since her husband broke down a door and shot her in the leg six times after she refused to return to him.

Stoic and prematurely graying, she said her husband had since kidnapped her mother and stabbed her brother, trying to force them to reveal her whereabouts. She repeatedly turned to the police. But, she said, they chided her to return to her husband. One time an officer advised him to break her legs, so she could not escape.

“Our state is the No. 1 enemy of women,” Gokce said on a recent day at a woman’s shelter here, declining to use her last name for fear of her husband. “I was 14 when my husband started to abuse me, and now I’m 37, and I am still living in fear for my life despite all my cries for help.”

Rights groups say domestic violence against women has reached alarming proportions here, with women’s rights being undermined by Turkey’s flagging prospects for European Union membership and a Muslim-inspired government that is increasingly embracing the conservative values of the Arab world it seeks to lead. So bleak is the situation that this year one religious outreach group suggested that the state should protect women by arming them and providing state-financed shooting lessons.

Fears that the governing party has been backsliding on women’s rights were fanned this month when President Abdullah Gul approved a controversial education bill that critics said would encourage child brides. The culture wars over women’s role in Turkish society also reflects tensions in a majority Muslim country where the state’s official secularism is increasingly clashing with an ascendant class of religious conservatives. With their rise, critics complain men are increasingly acting with impunity against women.

According to data from the We Will Stop Women’s Murders Platform, a human rights group, 160 women in Turkey are known to have been murdered by family members, lovers or spouses in 2011, a 200 percent increase from the previous year. A total of 179 women are known to have been raped in 2011 and another 70 allegedly committed suicide, although 3 of them were later found to have been murdered as well.

After Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party first came to power in 2002, determined for Turkey to join the European Union, it made women’s rights a priority; it changed the penal code to remove laws that discriminated against women, criminalizing rape within marriage and introducing life sentences for family members who killed girls in so-called honor killings. But analysts say that women are now losing ground.

“The government started off as an unlikely feminist but has dropped the ball,” said Nigar Goksel, a senior analyst at the European Stability Initiative. “Equally, the Arab Spring is pulling Turkey in a more conservative direction.”

While the governing party says that it is simply socially conservative and pro-family, Ms. Goksel argued that rising figures of domestic violence and the participation in the work force of only 28 percent of Turkish women — less than half the E.U. average — reflected that the integrity of the family was being valued over woman’s individual rights.

Mr. Erdogan, a pious Muslim, attracted the ire of many feminists here when during last year’s election campaign he called on every Turkish woman to have at least three children and argued that birth control was advocated by those who sought to weaken Turkey. With subsidized childcare facilities not widely available in Turkey, many women protested that the prime minister was pushing them back into the kitchen.

Those fears intensified with the introduction of a controversial education bill that extended compulsory education attendance to 12 years — a measure the government says will bring Turkish education in line with the standards of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But the bill permits home schooling after the first eight years, prompting concern among women’s groups that conservative parents will take their daughters out of school, confine them at home or marry them off.

Ayse Bohurler, a founding member of the Justice and Development Party and a leading woman in the party, said the education of women had improved under the government, which was also taking a strong stand against domestic violence. In March, it passed ambitious women-friendly legislation, including a law forcing husbands of abused women under state protection to wear electronic monitoring devices and legislation allowing police to issue protection orders, if a family court or prosecutor is unavailable. “The party is conservative but I see that they are changing,” Ms. Bohurler said.

Police officials in Istanbul said that they were under strict orders to take every woman’s complaint seriously and that a culture of impunity for men was a relic from the past. But some women’s advocates argued that legislation, however well intentioned, was not enough to change mentalities in an abidingly patriarchal nation.

While a law requires that every municipality in Turkey with over 50,000 people have at least one women’s shelter, women’s groups say there are only 63 shelters across the country of 79 million people. One local official in Ankara from the governing party recently told a conservative women’s group that opening women’s shelters was ill advised since they enabled women to leave the family home, a member of the group said.

Vildan Yirmibesoglu, a lawyer who heads the Human Rights Council for Istanbul Province, said a culture of conservatism in Turkey meant that police officers often tried to encourage abused women to return home rather than applying for protection orders.

In February last year, Arzu Yildirim was shot eight times by her partner and killed in the middle of a busy street in Istanbul, even though she had filed a criminal complaint with the state prosecutor asking for protection. The letter was found in her blood-stained purse.

Other women lamented that sexual harassment in Turkey was so ubiquitous that it was considered acceptable.

When women in the eastern province of Mus complained last year that high unemployment in its capital had resulted in men’s spilling out of overcrowded teahouses and sexually harassing female passersby, Necmettin Dede, the mayor and a member of the governing party, had a solution: “Do not walk around — sit in your homes,” the Hurriyet Daily News reported.

Umit Boyner, head of Tusiad, the largest business association in Turkey, said it was paradoxical that outmoded attitudes persisted, even though many women in Turkey held executive positions in an abidingly Western-looking country where a woman had also become prime minister. “It’s a mind-set problem,” she said. “This is not something that can be changed by law.”

Gokce, for her part, says she finds refuge with friends and at public shelters. Sometimes she sleeps in police cars. With little hope of state protection, she says she now is determined to change her identity. She dreams of seeing her parents and her children, whom she has not seen in 15 years. Her children live with her husband and she fears that contacting them would be her death sentence.

“Where is my state to help me?” she said.