On February 11th, Özgecan Aslan, a 19-year-old-student, was brutally murdered in the Turkish town of Mersin. The outcry within the population was huge. Many people who engage themselves in women’s rights in Turkey demand that the government takes more responsibility for theses cases. An interview with Nurcan Bayraktar (*).
Why did the murder of Özgecan Aslan trigger so many reactions?
It has many reasons, but I believe she was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. For years, every day 4-5 women have been killed in Turkey. The government feeds the patriarchal system against women’s security. In a country where rapists and murderers are not properly punished or are released by courts, women have to take action themselves. Feminist movements in Turkey have reached great success through different campaigns. Each day, more women realize that whatever they wear, whichever nationality they have, wherever they live or work, in the family or in the streets, sexual harassment harms them and nobody protects them. Social media played a very important role to express woman’s self experience on sexual harassment.
Some other reasons can be listed: for example Özgecan was an Alevi and Berkin Elvan, the boy who died during the Gezi protests, was also an Alevi. Parts of the society have been already hurt by the governmental actions against them, and since the Gezi Movement nothing has been forgotten, the wounds are still bleeding! Another reason might be that the murderer was a nationalist who has little respect to women. And of course the father of the murderer played another role. His attitude towards his mother shaped his son’s attitudes towards his wife and all women around him.
Did Özgecan Aslan’s death change something within the discussion about women’s rights?
In the past, the idea was to keep the harassment as a secret. But this only helped to increase the crime. Maybe for the first time women took the word and said “This is a women’s issue, men who do not help to prevent the harassment, have no right to talk about this or even to say a word!” Women’s solidarity has been seen openly, for the first time. After Özgecan’s death women realized that these murderers are not psychopaths but living with us in the same house, same street, same office, everywhere in our daily lives. And men realized that it actually even their men’s dialogue can be harmful for a woman and women won’t permit that anymore. And a last reason is the coming elections. Women do want to show that this mentality is no longer accepted and this will make a difference in the elections. Consequently, I have to say: Women murders are political!
Just one day before the 25th of November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan argued that one “cannot bring women and men into equal positions; that is against nature because their nature is different”. How was your reaction to that comment?
I was not surprised. Because this is not the first time that he is using such sentences. To be able to legitimize his actions within the women rights issues, he established his first NGO KADEM. On the 25th of November, almost all women organizations have given a press release in the newspaper Hürriyet against his words and signed the release. On Twitter, from all over the world, people have sent their photos showing their position and all these photos have been shared among social media. Yet, all what he says is about his political agenda as we are talking about an NGO established by the government. It therefore could be named as a GO-NGO and not an NGO.
In terms of gender inequality, which are the topics that are most important in Turkey?
Let us put it this way, there is no gender inequality in Turkey, but there is patriarchalism. Within the scope of patriarchalism the most important topic is, of course, the violation of the right to live. The numbers of killed women by their husbands, boyfriends, brothers, fathers and all the in-law male family members have reached 3-5 women daily. The problem is, the patriarchal law is simply not enough to protect a woman. The patriarchal murderers always have an excuse by saying they became insane, which is accepted by the patriarchal court to have less penalty. On the contrary, when a woman murders a man, it is considered to be a planned action. Turkey is in an urgent need of a protecting and prohibiting law, which is not made by men but by women.
Unfortunately, the patriarchal government is not helping further. It is just continuing to feed the system. For example the prohibition of abortion: Can you imagine that you are being kidnapped and a held, forced to be a sex worker, you are pregnant and have no right for an abortion? Other topics can be listed as inequality in education, job and political opportunities, women’s instrumentalisation within the family, hate speeches and crimes, oppression and discrimination.
How is the Turkish Government addressing issues about violence against women?
The government, unfortunately, speaks out loudly that a woman and a man are naturally and cannot be equal! With such a mentality one cannot expect an improvement on solving the violence problems against women. Yet, by the end of 2014, a research commission has been established in the parliament to seek for the reasons of violence against women. It is a commission who does not accept that women and men can be treated equally! Or we have the Ministry of Family and Social Politics. The name of this ministry used to be the Ministry of Woman, Family and Social Politics until the year 2011. They changed the name of the ministry to show their ideal woman, the woman in the family!
We confront the biggest obstacle in the law. The lawmakers and the law enforcement agencies were and are still men with the patriarchal mentality. Even after a divorce men and women are not equally treated in Turkish law. A man can get married again the other day after divorce. But, a woman either has to wait 300 days or has to prove that she is not pregnant by a report – which is a personal experience of mine.
What exactly happened?
Me and my lawyer, who is a specialist on the women’s rights law, have gone to court to object to this practice – which is, submitting a report to prove that I am not pregnant. We argued that this is against women’s rights. We added all the related articles in the national and international agreements that mean to protect women’s rights (Turkish Constitutional Law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Istanbul Agreement etc. The judge did not even read the articles and we lost the case. The case is in appeal now. We are waiting for the result to take the file to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Unfortunately, these days we hear that the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is thinking about Turkey’s resignation from the Istanbul Agreement, which was first signed in Turkey and by Turkey!
What is the Istanbul Agreement about?
The Istanbul Agreement gives the responsibility to the state to protect women from violence and the state is addressed to pay reimbursement to the woman if it cannot protect her. At the end of 2014, the European Council called the countries, who signed the Istanbul agreement, to send a member to the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO). GREVIO aims to follow the countries how and if they obey the agreement. The government, by a tricky movement, announced at the last minute that only NGOs that became an association can take part in the election of this member. 69 Woman and LGBT NGOs were kept out of the election on purpose and guess who is going to GREVIO – one of the associate members of AKP’s Central Decision and Board of Management.
Although signed, the international agreements are not obeyed and applied in the end decisions of courts. I am translating the petitions of woman applicants and the governmental defences at the ECJ. Especially through CEDAW, women subject to violence gained the right to apply personally to the ECJ when local court decides negatively. In those petitions one can see that the articles of the international agreements are totally ignored locally.
How do Turkish courts decide when it comes to violence against women?
The judging mentality still protects the male aggressor by using the “male honour” – although there is the law 6284 “Protecting the Family and Preventing the Violence Against Women“, which was accepted in 2012. The former version of this law was excluding the women who were not married. It took the government ten years to change this, as it is in power since 2002. Regarding the child marriages, the government still does not take action. But the academics and lawyers in the country insist on working on this topic. For instance KAHDEM, an organisation for legal support for women, has released a declaration insisting on preventing marriages below the age of 18.
Are there cases where the situation for women has improved during the last 10 years?
Yes, there has been an improvement. The consciousness about freedoms has improved. More women have returned to business life. Women wearing headscarves appear more and more in the society, which is very important. LGBT members do express their existence. Kurdish women have more power to speak with the government. However, the government derives many of these declarations from ideas that women are creatures to be protected, they are flowers, their place is heaven, women’s position in the family is important, women gave birth, they are mothers and they should give birth to at least three children. For example, financial incentives for the women who are taking care of the old or sick family members at home; house credit (Mortgage) support for those who marry at university; punishing adolescent flirts like sexual violence to prevent violence, but releasing the rapists in accordance with the sexual violence rule; impossibility in building cooperation grounds between the Ministry of Family and Social Politics and the women or LGBT NGOs. All these expressions idealize the woman and prevent her to become an individual within such a society.
Due to the recent refugee crisis in Syria, there also many women and girls fleeing the war and seeking refuge in Turkey. How is their situation?
Unfortunately we read mostly bad things about them. It is hard for them to find proper jobs. Patriarchal men make use of their starvation and suggest them to marry their daughters. The same system but worse is valid for these women too.
Are these women getting support from other women’s activists in Turkey?
Yes, maybe for the first time there has been really much support for the Syrian immigrant women given by the associations, NGOs, activists, lawyers by projects and local or international funds to enable them to establish a new life, for accommodation and to survive. Turkey did not have a real law for the immigrants so far. But the Istanbul Agreement covers also the immigrant women. From the Syrian families in Berlin I learned that the fleeing costs are too high. I am not sure whether there are projects to help bringing them over to Turkey or somewhere safe in the world.
(*) Nurcan Bayraktar has been engaged in women’s rights for many years. She regularly writes about these topics on the blog “Okurperest”, which focuses on literature, movies and arts and participated in the book project “Kadınlar Dile Gelince” with 19 other female writers. She lives in Istanbul and Berlin.
Helsinki Yurttaşlar Derneği: www.hyd.org.tr
İnsan Kaynağını Gelistirme Vakfı: www.ikgv.org
Göçmen Dayanışma Ağı: http://gocmendayanisma.org/blog