The power of men and media
By Jenni Cardamone
Great strides have been made in the fight for gender equality in many parts of the world but harsh disparities remain prevalent and women and girls are still viewed as second-class citizens by some societies. Turkey is a prime example of the latter.
Turkey has strong laws condemning violence against women and was the first country to ratify a Council of Europe convention aimed at protecting women from domestic violence. Despite these facts, the statistics show that gender equality is a farce in Turkey. The surface level policies that aim to protect women from violence are meaningless without true leadership and a judicial system that holds perpetrators accountable.
Domestic violence is prevalent among both rural and urban women alike. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, 39.3 percent of women have experienced physical violence from their intimate partners in their lifetime. Turkey ranks 125 out of 140 countries in the 2014 Global Gender Gap Index. Disturbingly, “Turkey made no progress in reducing domestic violence between 2008 and 2014” according to the Domestic Violence Against Women Report 2014.
Legal loopholes and the misogynistic culture fail women who have suffered brutal assault and even death. According to a New York Times article, activists have made progress in earning legislative victories in Turkey around violence against women since the 1990s. Additionally, Turkey is the most progressive country in the Middle East when it comes to violence against women. According to the Republic of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Turkey constitutes an exemplary country with regard to gender equality and in providing rights to women in the social and political life.” Despite the upbeat tone of the government’s rhetoric which highlights many policy advances in the early and mid-2000s, in 2015 I would not want to be a woman living in Turkey. Having laws on the books is not enough – unless they are enforced, they are meaningless.
One major problem is that the predominantly male judgeship in the country has the discretion to reduce sentences based on their personal preferences. Further, many men use the argument that a woman “provoked” them and thus receive an extremely light sentence. With an engrained viewpoint of women as second-class citizens, it is no surprise that a judge would lack empathy for a woman, regardless of the circumstance, often siding with the man.
Women’s rights groups in the country feel that since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in office “women’s rights are slipping”. Despite changes in law around headscarves and other legislation that at a glance appear to favor women, they have been widely criticized as politically-driven policies that have not translated into significant change. In contrast to some of the seemingly positive policies Erdogan has introduced, he at the same time has made bold and controversial remarks calling for women to have a minimum of three children, renouncing abortion and encouraging laws that embrace people marrying at a young age, demonstrating his continued attempt to limit the role of a woman within society. In order to begin closing the gender gap, women must be empowered by their country’s leadership and their own male family members, whether it be their father encouraging education or their husband supporting a career which takes them outside of the traditional homemaker role.
In November 2014 Erdogan publicly stated that women are not equal to men “because it goes against the laws of nature.” In his sexist remarks he characterized women as delicate and weak, claiming that motherhood is the true position for women as defined by Islam. These remarks have rightfully caused a huge uproar on Twitter and even led to a female news anchor condemning the remarks, a very unusual occurrence given Erdogan’s increasing tendency to target journalists who criticize him. Remarks like these, from the leader of the country, undermine the policies he has put in place and leave women exposed to violence.
Under Turkish law, either the man or the woman can file for divorce in the case of adultery, abuse or “irretrievable breakdown of marriage” with the latter being the most common. That said, there is an overwhelming and ever present fear among women in Turkey to ask for a divorce given the disturbing frequency of violence against women by their husbands in this situation. In a recent article looking at some high profile murders by the husbands of women seeking divorce, the author states “While domestic violence affects women internationally, there are specific issues linked to the context of Turkey: a fight for equality in a state that in many ways is still very conservative.” This is an example where by the books the government has a policy that appears to promote equality (the man or the woman is empowered to request a divorce) but in reality the systems and structures in place are skewed in a way that shows Turkey has a long way to go.
With a majority of the 300 murders of women in Turkey last year stemming from requests for divorce or separation, the media has taken note. A new observational documentary titled Dying to Divorce by Chloe Fairweather, Tigerlilly Films and The Fuller Project for International Reporting that premiers this fall aims to serve as an educational tool raising the awareness of an international audience to this shocking phenomenon.
Unfortunately there are times when it is simply the husband’s word against the wife’s word. Women’s rights advocates “complain that sometimes a woman’s death is not even investigated because the husband claims it’s a suicide or an accident, and the police look the other way.” Honor killings are another example of how men truly hold the power in Turkish family relations. It is seen as the woman’s fault for being promiscuous so charges are rarely filed and men, once again, are literally getting away with murder.
The European Court of Human Rights has weighed in on the matter and found that “discriminatory judicial passivity in Turkey created a climate that was conducive to domestic violence.” If any progress is to be made, the judicial system needs a major makeover with judges abiding by and enforcing the rule of the law, not simply regarding it as up for interpretation. The only way that this will happen is if there is a broader shift in attitude towards women throughout Turkish society.
When Ozgecen Aslan was brutally assaulted and murdered in southern Turkey earlier this year, word spread like wildfire via social media. Her senseless death struck a chord inciting protests across the country and an online petition garnered nearly a million signatures asking for harsher punishment against her attackers. Social media played a pivotal role in sharing Ozgecen’s story and empowered men and women in Turkey and the world to use the hashtag #OzgecenAslan in calling for reforms. Breaking from the norm, and as a show of defiance, women carried her casket which the victim’s mother claimed provided little comfort but struck me as a significant. 
Ultimately, Turkey’s president even weighed in on the conversation, vowing “the heaviest penalty” for the accused. While we cannot confirm that it was only because of the media storm that the president chimed in, it is highly likely that is the case as few of the 300 murders of women in Turkey last year gained much if any media and political attention. It is also an example of political expediency. While the case of Ozgecen Aslan gained incredible attention and her perpetrator will likely face a much harsher punishment than is common in these types of killings, what happens when the media dies down and there is no public outcry?
The murder of Ozgecen Aslan and the public spotlight shone on her death led to the reexamination of two bills introduced by female legislators meant to “remove the ability of judges to grant sentence reductions”. Even with such a huge outcry surrounding her death, there was still a fear that the murderer’s sentence would, like many similar cases, be significantly reduced due to his claims that he was acting in self-defense despite being alone with her in a passenger minibus. The Ministry of Family and Social Policies (formerly the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs) has drafted a new set of regulations to amend the law that allows for sentence reductions following Ozgecen’s death. As of July 2015, they are working with the Ministry of Justice on finalizing the regulations before presenting the bill to Parliament. This demonstrates progress against “femicide” as the issue continues to escalate but adoption and implementation is the true test.
I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment shared in the New York Times op-ed: “If the government is serious about acting to stop violence against women, rather than simply responding to a spike in social media attention, it should support the bills.” It should be noted that currently only 17 percent of Turkey’s parliamentarians are women. Further, almost half of Turkey’s cities have no female representation.
The services available to survivors of sexual assault are an improvement over previous conditions (before the adoption of Law No. 6284) but are by no means sufficient. There are currently 3,365 beds available to women in shelters across the country, an inadequate amount considering Turkey is a country of 76 million people and the Council of Europe recommends one “family place” be available per 7,500 to 10,000 people.
According to Al Jazeera, one of the reasons Ozgecen’s death galvanized action in a way that many other murders of innocent women who are sexually assaulted do not is because she fought back, pepper spraying the minibus driver when he tried to rape her. Unfortunately her action was not enough to save her life, but it has led to many more women learning self-defense as they feel they cannot trust the government to protect them. Recognizing that physical might is not a solution in and of itself, Pinar Ilkarracan of Women for Women’s Human Rights said “It’s a matter of empowering women. If a woman has the ability and the capacity in terms of economic, psychological, social…to leave their husband, she can stop the violence.”
An attendee of a recent shooting class, who posted pictures of herself on social media holding a gun, makes the case that “if prosecutors and jewllery-sellers are allowed to have guns for self-defence, threatened women should have them too.”
Another social media moment that bore a hashtag was when Aylin Nazliaka, a parliamentarian for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) went to the courthouse to fight against an Islamic scholar who voiced support for arranging child marriages as well as asserting that women who work outside the home are asking for their husbands to be unfaithful. Social media was there to support Cilem Dogan after she shot her estranged husband six times in the chest in self-defense. She became a social media icon and was recognized as a hero among Turkish feminists for defending herself from a violent attack.
Men also used social media in the fight for women’s rights, with a particularly newsworthy initiative after Ozgecen’s murder. In fact, their efforts went viral. The most striking picture to me was a man in a miniskirt holding his little girl’s hand and holding his baby girl in a snuggly. The argument that women who dress or act a certain way invites men to sexually harass them was turned on its head through this protest of men in miniskirts and the use of social media allowed men to show their outrage over the crime and their solidarity around women’s rights. As demonstrated through the miniskirt march, while men are often times the perpetrators of heinous sexual crimes, they can also play an integral role in the solution. As exemplified by global campaigns like He For She and the White Ribbon Campaign, some men are standing up for women’s rights as human rights like never before.
I was keen to meet with Kimse Yok Mu, an international nonprofit humanitarian aid and development organization that prides itself on eliminating social inequalities and accepting people from all races, genders and religions on the Rumi Forum trip. I learned that human dignity is the basic underlying principle that drives their work – and whether you are male or female, Kurdish or Turkish, young or old, they fundamentally believe that every single person deserves respect.
With an extensive network of volunteers in Turkey, around 45,000, these principles are spreading and taking root. It is interesting to note that Kimse Yok Mu does not appear to have a dedicated program line focusing on gender. If you look at the U.S. Agency for International Development for example, they have gender programs in 80 countries. In addition to having explicit programs, it is increasingly recognized that gender needs to be integrated into all aspects of development projects, from the early program design phase to implementation and evaluation.
I did ask about the role of gender in their programing and Osman Genis, the media relations officer who spoke with us said that their work in health services, particularly around clean water wells, really transforms the lives of girls because they spend most of their lives carrying water preventing them from going to school. Kimse Yok Mu also has programs that help women acquire skills through vocational training which is important for their economic empowerment.
But the work of one NGO is not enough, especially when the country in which it is operating in has political leadership at odds with the core ideals that they embody.
When Bulent Arinc, the deputy prime minister of Turkey said that women should be chaste and claimed that they should not laugh in public, social media was yet again the channel in which women and men turned to express their disbelief and come together to decry this sexist idea. Hundreds of women posted photos of themselves laughing using two main hashtags which trended on Twitter: #direnkahkaha which translates to resist laughter and #direnkadin which translates to resist women. One man, in an expression of solidarity, tweeted “The men of a country in which women are not allowed to laugh are cowards.” It is this type of collective action that will, with sustained pressure and global attention, hopefully lead to change. Not only did ordinary citizens in Turkey and around the world join the social media outcry, but so did the main opposition to Erdogan in the presidential election who tweeted “More than anything else, our country needs women to smile and to hear everybody’s laughter.” This demonstrates the influence that social media and media writ large can have on politics and vice versa. The hashtag ultimately climbed to the top 10 world trends on Twitter.
While Ozgecen’s death shone a limelight on the troubling issues Turkey’s society is facing, the attention faded all too fast, and without sustained public pressure, lawmakers and assailants will not be held accountable.
Media, and particularly social media, is to thank for the most recent surge of attention around violence against women in Turkey, raising the profile of this epidemic to a whole new level. According to the BBC, social media “came into its own in the summer of 2013, as a place to communicate and disseminate information during the Gezi Park protest.” It has been an important tool for a country whose civil society is still very young. Interestingly, the word “advocacy” doesn’t even exist in Turkish vocabulary and it is not seen as appropriate for government and civil society to come together to have a conversation about how to approach an issue, according to Ayse Dilek Ertukel, the country director for the National Democratic Institute. The idea of entering into a constructive dialogue with government and having a policy objective is really just beginning to take root.
Erdogen’s authoritarian tendencies and paranoia, starting in earnest after the December 17th corruption investigation, has driven new levels of media censorship and blackouts of social media channels are happening at a greater frequency than any time in the recent past. With the head of Zaman, a major newspaper in Turkey, in jail, other journalists we met with spoke quietly, their heads on a swivel, alert to their surroundings and carefully watching their words. This being the case, it is no surprise that social media has become the alternative to the pro-government mainstream media. President Erdogan is quoted as saying “social media is the worst menace to society” and he has vowed to “eradicate” the platforms.
For all the good social media has done to empower ordinary citizens and activists, it is not a means to hold the government accountable in and of itself – its limitations must be recognized. News coverage of the recent terrorist attacks in Ankara were censored, with social media sites blacked out on Turkcell and TTNET. Any time censorship occurs there is reason for criticism, but this outage is just the latest in a string of increasingly frequent outages in Turkey. With men and women turning to social media to publicize their disdain for Turkey’s inequalities, one has to wonder when the next outage will occur, aiming to disrupt any momentum garnered by civil society and advocates for equality.
While violence against women is a rampant problem, it is not the only issue affecting women in Turkey. According to the World Economic Forum, there are large gaps in health, politics, education and economics in the country. In a study that looks at gender roles in Turkish households, the authors conclude that there is a huge disparity in household chores between men and women. Cultural norms around the role of women in the household are deeply embedded which makes shifts in attitude about the role of women, beyond being service providers, difficult to embrace. The other interesting finding in “The Unseen Labor of Women Second Shift” by Dr. Suna Basak, Sevgi Kingir and Sehnaz Yasar is that higher education levels for women translate into lesser involvement in domestic tasks making the case for education all the more critical. Alternatively, a lack of education cements a woman’s role as housekeeper, limiting her opportunities for economic empowerment and entrenching the notion that she will be dependent on her husband. Not surprisingly, women with higher levels of education have a higher rate of unemployment than men with higher levels of education signaling either that “employers do not think that hiring women is as profitable as hiring men” or that a woman’s place is at home.
A group of women supporting the HDP party turned their backs on the President in protest as his campaign bus passed less than a week before the recent elections. Erdogan’s response was to make indecent remarks about the women, insulting them and women across Turkey. Instead of idly standing by, women began posting photos of their backs to Twitter using the hashtag #sirtimizidonouyoruz which translates to “we’re turning our backs.” Instead of Erodgan’s sexist remarks being limited to the small group of people who were present, social media allowed for word to spread rapidly and it became the third top-trending hashtag. The AKP established a digital office and produced droves of content in the lead up to the election, but the organic grassroots messages resonate far more than the propaganda being pushed out by any one party.
The prevalence of child brides is also alarming and an impediment to achieving any semblance of equality. A child bride is in essence a slave to her husband, often times many decades older than she is, and has no chance to receive an education essential in opening her eyes to the role she would play in an equal society. Instead she is raised believing that her place in the world is to be serving her husband, also meaning her children will grow up in a household that is perpetuating the same backwards ideology. The patriarchal value system deeply embedded in Turkish culture and gender norms, while being broken in many parts of the world today, remains strongly intact in Turkey today.
Given the ongoing crisis in Syria and that influx of refugees in Turkey, child marriages are on the rise. According to Girls Not Brides, “child marriage increases dramatically in emergencies due to increased poverty levels and a need to reduce household expenditure as well as parents wanting to protect their daughter’s honor and avoid sexual harassment and violence in an increasingly fragile environment.” While the parent’s intentions may be born out of fear that their daughter will experience sexual harassment or violence if she is not married, they are unintentionally subjecting and committing her to those exact conditions through forced marriage.
Millions of Syrians have and continue to seek refuge in Turkey and the surrounding countries. While staying in their country is a death sentence, leaving is not easy or painless either. Human trafficking disproportionately affects women and children and as the situation becomes more desperate, those that are out to prey on the vulnerable have increasing opportunities to do so. Access to essential health services are often disrupted as a result of forced displacement, increasing the vulnerability of women and girls. Further, “women and girls remain refugees or displaced for longer periods of time without status and are more vulnerable at every stage of displacement compared to men.”
The horrific images of Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore in September marked a turning point in the media attention surrounding the crisis. When photographs of his lifeless body spread across social networks, the world finally paid attention. Instead of turning a blind eye to yet another boat disaster, people worldwide started to truly grasp the magnitude of the problem at stake and the human element. For the lucky children who survive the journey, if and when they can return and resume some semblance of normalcy remains in question. Many children have to drop out of school because of the war. If and when they can return to school, it is likely that boys’ school fees will be paid first, leaving girls at home, falling further behind.
In talking with Engin Sag, the chief of news at STV or the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group, and Seniha Sungur, the reporter at the foreign news desk, I learned that their network has a soap opera called “Child Bride” and this allows for the characters to talk about the challenges pertaining to child marriage through an entertainment lens. Shining a light on the domino effects that child marriage has on its victims through a television show is no small task and hopefully over time this type of programming will help contribute toward decreased rates of child marriage. As opposition media, they take their role as the dissenting voice very seriously and they see the oppression by the current government as affecting everyone which has allowed for a more united front. Marginalized groups are starting to find common ground and they are collectively working towards improving their democracy.
STV also has programming that focuses on the living standards of women in Turkey. They have honed in on the displaced women coming from war zones, the more than 100,000 refugee babies that have been born in Turkey since they migrated and the problems they face. They said they report on violence against women in their news coverage and also produce documentaries and news specials looking at what can be done to improve the situation and bring light to the issues at hand.
With a mere week until Election Day when we left Turkey, I felt the excitement and nervous energy in the air. When we asked people we met with which party best represented minorities and women’s rights, we consistently heard HDP. We learned that the CHP has made a much more aggressive push toward women recently, but they should have started sooner.
We also hear that the AKP has a much bigger following among women than other parties. The quota system allows for 30% of women in the party, but just because there is space carved out for them does not mean they are empowered. I was encouraged to read that Dilek Deniz, a young member of the AKP women’s branch believes that educating men about violence against women is an important part of the equation. While the last year has seen what appears to be a large increase in domestic violence in the news, Deniz credits the more open public discourse for increased reporting of these crimes.
Regardless of which party is in office, it is critically important for there to be a renewed commitment to truly tackling violence against women and the inequality that persists throughout all aspects of Turkish life. The time for rhetoric is over. The time for action is now.
 Turkish Review, Vol 4, Issue 6, Nov-Dec 2014 “Good on paper, poor in practice: combating gender violence in Turkey”