The attempted rape and horrific murder of a 20-year old university student was at the extreme end of a spectrum of violence in Turkey, and as such, it caused widespread public censure and outrage. There were mass protests across the entire country. The killing of Özgecan Aslan, whose body was found, last Friday in Mersin, in southern Turkey, has brought thousands of men and women out on the streets.
In a country where violence and harassment against women occur daily and with impunity, the extent of protests and outpouring of anger were unprecedented. At the funeral, women defied Islamic tradition and insisted on carrying the coffin. Thousands turned up at schools and workplaces, dressed in black. Women of all ages were invited to share their experiences of sexual harassment and violence on social media under the hashtag #sendeanlat. Within hours, it became one of the highest trending topics worldwide.
Some commentators have called the brutal murder of Aslan “a breaking point”; others believed it would become “a milestone” in the fight against discrimination and violence towards women.
I am not sure whether this latest manifestation of public outrage would produce a significant change, any more than, say, the anger seen after the last May’s Soma mining disaster had done.
Yet, perversely, for me, it was a reconfirmation of the depth of violence embedded in Turkish society. Not only domestic and gender-related violence, but all other kinds of aggression are normalized or even condoned by society.
An average man, slapped by his mother, caned by his teacher, bullied by his friend, punished by his commander in the army and, if he ever dared to protest, beaten and gassed by the police on the street, in return becomes a life-long perpetrator of abuse.
Turkey is still a strongly patriarchal society. The primacy of the father and the husband in the family is supported both by cultural and religious norms. From the day she is born, an average female has to deal with gender bias and discrimination inside and outside her family. As elsewhere in the world where women are denied equal rights with men, violence against women is a pervasive problem in Turkey. 40% of women say that they have experienced domestic violence in their lives. The Sabanci University’s recent study shows it is across all social classes. According to the report, 75 % of female university graduates have been victims of violence at least once in their lives..
The propensity towards violence can be seen in the social, cultural, economic and political spheres as an accepted means of interpersonal conflict resolution. Even in Parliament, deputies kick, punch and wrestle each other from time to time; they cause causing injuries to each other so serious that they require hospital treatment. Every day, somewhere in the county, a doctor or a health worker gets assaulted by patients or their relatives. On the roads, minor car accidents turn into fisticuffs between drivers; elsewhere, trivial disagreements between men end up either in hospital or police stations.
The way Özgecan Aslan had been murdered was particularly horrific but it was not that unusual. In 2014, 294 women were killed by men in Turkey. The independent news organisation Bianet reported 27 deaths this year, in January alone.
Newspapers are full of news of murders and sexual assaults against women. They are often illustrated with naked photographs of the real victims or representative bits of pornography turned into teasing photo galleries. Violent attacks against women with or without resulting homicide have become run- of -the mill- everyday events. Well-known television presenters see nothing wrong in inviting notorious murderers to their shows, turning them into overnight celebrities. Lenient sentences handed down by courts and the lack of public censure against crimes committed against women for what deemed to be transgressions of “moral behavior” are just part of the wider picture.
Immediately after the murder of Özgecan Aslan, calls for reintroduction of the death penalty have surfaced. Those advocating it came from all shades of the political spectrum, but especially from the government circles, such as veteran politician Binali Yildirim who suggested bringing back hanging with planned changes to the constitution. Others, including those espousing better human rights and equality for women, called for castration or even worse, vigilante punishments for the suspects in jails.
As an initial reaction to Özgecan Aslan murder, EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkır’s comments were revealing. He said that if his daughter were the victim, he would take a gun and seek retribution himself, even though he believed a state should not behave like that and take revenge. Was this a reflection of his lack of trust in Turkey’s courts to deliver justice or did he never escape the cultural and social norms of a patriarchal society despite his elite education and years of diplomatic service?
Turkey’s chronic violence problem, correctly described by the President as the “bleeding wound of the country” did not appear during the Justice and Development Party government. However, any political party that has been in power for 12 years has to account for what they have done to deal with such a colossal social problem. Legal changes and policies had not sent a strong enough message to society. On the contrary, the President and his government issued several statements undermining women’s status in the country.
In response to angry reaction of women’s rights activists to Özgecan Aslan killing, President Erdogan criticized them for “ being too distant to country’s culture and religion”. By telling that the women have been “entrusted to men by God”, Mr Erdogan, an Islamist politician, once again showed that he did not even feel the need to pay lip service to protection of half the country’s population.
This post is also available in: Turkish