Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan and women

Women in Turkey are standing up for their rights after the brutal murder of a rape victim, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid from Ankara

Al-Ahram Weekly

“He took his belt off and moved towards his wife who cowered trembling in the corner. As he raised the belt to hit her, their baby daughter cried in alarm as she stared at the violence unfolding before her eyes.”

Such scenes, which appear from time to time in Turkish cinema, call attention to the widespread violence and abuse that threatens Turkish women every day. But with the brutal murder of Özgecan Aslan, something snapped, causing women in Anatolian towns and cities to rise up and protest the injustice.

The supposed crime of the 20-year-old Aslan, a university student in Mersin, was that she tried to defend herself against a rapist. The rapist was the driver of the minibus she was taking home after class. She sprayed mace in his face and he stabbed her repeatedly in the stomach and struck her on the head with a metal rod.

He then called his father and brother and the three of them burned the young woman’s body and hid the remains in the woods, thinking that this would conceal the heinous crime. But the remains were discovered two weeks later, drawing attention with unprecedented anger to a taboo subject: violence against women.

The phenomenon has increased under Justice and Development Party (JDP) rule spiralled, the opposition would say exposing the dark underside of Turkish society and casting a shadow over the country’s international reputation, especially in Western countries. Naturally, large sectors of public opinion at home are wondering how that nightmarish phenomenon could still persist.

Nowhere else in the Islamic world have women been endowed with the rights they obtained in Turkey after they shed forever (or so it was thought at the time) the outworn garb of the Ottoman empire in the 1920s, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk freed his country from the despotism of the sultan.

Determined to catapult his country into the 20th century, the founder of modern Turkey looked westward. Ataturk began to replace a corpus of laws that emanated from a religious frame of reference with a new set of laws, sometimes lifted verbatim from Belgian, French and Swiss codes. Turkish women enjoyed a large share of the fruits, being given the same rights and privileges as their European counterparts.

Ataturk established the principle of gender equality in Turkey, at least on paper. Polygamy was banned and the huge barriers that had stood in the way of a woman’s right to sue for divorce were eliminated. Following the death of the founder of the Turkish republic in 1938, government and society continued to move in the same direction.

Women began to participate in public life and soon occupied key government positions. Indeed, Tansu Çiller became the leader of a political party and later, the first female prime minister in Turkish history (1993-1996).

Ironically, Çiller, who headed the secularist True Path (Dogru Yol) Party, joined forces with the Islamist Refah (Welfare) Party headed by Necmettin Erbakan, and together they formed a coalition government in 1996. She served as deputy prime minister and foreign minister in that government, which lasted about a year.

Unfortunately, the spirit of gender equality remained largely restricted to form without substance. Women’s rights and liberties were enshrined in constitutional guarantees and laws, but these, so far, have been unable to penetrate deeply engrained social attitudes and customs towards women.

This applies especially to the conservative heartland of Anatolia (where there was no great outpouring of sympathy for the rape victim in Mersin). It therefore comes as no surprise that this region is a JDP bastion and its wellspring of votes, which would not be the case had that party’s ideology and policies not conformed so well with the prevalent provincial culture and mindset.

This applies in particular to the outlooks and attitudes of JDP founder Recep Tayyip Erdogan who, only a few years ago, hoped to amend the adultery law so as to furnish a husband with some justification for murdering an unfaithful wife caught in flagrante delicto.

The amendment he sought would have reinstated enough legitimacy to “honour killing” to avert a charge of first-degree murder and reduce the penalty for the killing of a wife from life imprisonment to a few years behind bars.

On this occasion, at least, his designs failed. He had a parliamentary majority, but ranged against him was the opposition, an army of NGOs and women’s rights organisations and the EU. But if that project was defeated and “honour killings” remain punishable by the harshest penalties, they continue to exist, presenting one of many obstacles to Turkey’s drive to join the EU.

To compound the problem, the practice has made its way deep into the European continent where there are long-established Turkish communities. While many of the more recent arrivals may cling to the traditional mores and customs of the Anatolian heartland, problems often occur with second- or third-generation youths who were brought up and educated in the cultures and values of the towns and cities of Europe where they were born.

Thus, from time to time headlines blazon the news of a murder or other act of violence committed against a woman on the shores of the Danube or Rhein, and it soon comes to light that the woman was of Turkish origin.

Such incidents galvanised universities and research centres into conducting a series of studies and seminars. On the basis of the alarming results, backed by the views of writers and intellectuals, cautions were issued to the powers that be in Ankara, informing them that it would be wise to address the problem at its roots.

Turkish authorities, especially during the past five years of JDP rule, opted for the opposite course, which favoured traditional paternalistic, authoritarian and male-chauvinist values. The result was to add fuel to the fire, which has long been Erdogan’s style. Only this autumn, after becoming president, he went on record as saying that women could not be treated equally to men.

Earlier, Bulent Arinc, JDP strongman and the current deputy prime minister, said that women should not laugh out loud in public places. Then just last month, the JDP minister of health, Mehmet Muezzinoglu, voiced the view that the best occupation for women was motherhood.

Is it any wonder that sexual harassment and violence against women would increase? Surely it should come as no surprise that families who fear for the safety of their daughters feel that they have no choice but to furnish them with bottles of pepper spray, though this failed to protect the young woman in Mersin from her attacker.

As the chants of thousands of women demonstrators rang throughout the streets and squares of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and other Turkish cities, the pro-government newspaper Sabah charged that “secularists” were to blame.

It was they who encouraged women to wear the short dresses and miniskirts that aroused the male’s apparently uncontrollable lust. The response of dozens of young male activists was to stage marches in which they donned skirts to demonstrate their solidarity with the women of their country.

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