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Domestic violence in Turkey reaches boiling point

Sertan SandersonJuly 11, 2015

A series of violent attacks against women in Turkey has put the entire country on edge - with little hope for change. Could one woman's act of defiance begin to challenge an established culture of patriarchy?

Women protesting the murder of Ozgecan Aslan
Protests were held after the violent murder of Ozgecan Aslan across Turkey earlier in 2015Image: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS.com

Turkish authorities arrested a 28-year-old woman in the southeastern city of Adana earlier this week after her uncommon crime sparked a great deal of public interest - and even some admiration.

Cilem Karabulut turned herself in to the police and admitted to killing her husband, Hasan, aged 33, with his handgun. But Karabulut insisted that she was defending her "honor;" the husband had allegedly beaten, drugged and abused her. Furthermore, Karabulut claimed that he had also tried to force her into prostitution.

Soon the Turkish press descended on Adana and focused Karabulut's defiant attitude toward the crime. "It shouldn't only be women who do all of the dying here. It's time for men to do some dying, too," she said in regards to the escalating violence against women in the country.

Honor killings - no longer for men only

Karabulut set a precedent when she defended the murder by referring to the importance of her honor, as so-called "honor killings" had so far been considered reserved only for men murdering women. Leyla Kaya, the women's commissioner for the Association for Human Rights (IHD), described Karabulut's act as "quite unusual."

"To be honest, it’s rare that you come across a story like this in Turkey," she said. "But remember that more than 150 women have been killed by their husbands, fathers or brothers so far this year alone. Cilem Karabulut could have easily been another number in that statistic. She acted first and killed her husband instead."

No real safeguards to protect women

Kaya explained that she was no stranger to such tragic cases, detailing how she would spend days on end glued to courtroom doors in Turkey because several judges would no longer allow her association to document the trials.

"They’ve barred us from the courts because they don't want to hear the truth about the fact that the government provides no real mechanism to stop violence against women," she said. "As an association, we demand the highest possible conviction in these cases and what do we get? Murderers walk off scot-free. They are literally roaming among us. What kind of future do we have to look forward to under these circumstances?"

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has openly admitted that he finds it 'unnatural' to consider men and women equalImage: Reuters/M. Sezer

Other feminists regard the future as similarly bleak. Arzu Toker, a journalist and writer in Germany who co-founded an association for people who have renounced Islam, said the growing influence of extremist movements in her native Turkey has left many women little choice but to accept the subservient role they are given.

"I'm not at all surprised that these women are beginning to fight back now," Toker told DW. "Violence creates further violence. If anything, I would expect to see more of this sort of thing in the future."

The case of Ozgecan Aslan

Many in Turkey are indeed starting to take matters into their own hands - albeit in less violent ways than Karabulut. Many women and men have taken to the street together since the February murder of Ozgecan Aslan, a university student who was killed during an attempted rape.

Some men even donned skirts in public demonstrations to show their solidarity with women. Championed by opposition parties, an online petition for a bill designed to curb violence against women managed to attract over a million signatures. It is to be named after Aslan.

Men wearing miniskirts in protest of the murder of Ozgecan Aslan
Protests earlier in 2015 attracted men wearing skirts and dresses in defiance of traditional gender rolesImage: Reuters/Murad Sezer

But the courage Aslan's parents showed by stepping forward and exposing all details of the crime committed against their daughter is rare, Toker said.

"There are countless cases like Ozgecan's, where the family decides to hide all of the evidence instead because rape goes against their honor," she said, emphasizing that individual cases like Aslan and Karabulut's would not slow rampant violence against women in Turkey.

"Just look at the statistics. They speak for themselves. More women are killed today than ten years ago, or even five years ago," Toker said.

Infografic: Female murder victims of domestic violence in Turkey

Kaya of the Association for Human Rights agreed that she had not witnessed any improvement to the plight of Turkish women.

"Women are still treated as invisible or as second-class citizens at best - being a woman is a never-ending struggle in Turkey," she said. "Even when all we do is to stay at home quietly raising our children we are part of that struggle. If we turn that inner struggle to the fore, like with all of these protests, we begin to see some level of success."

Whether Karabulut's case can contribute to changing attitudes in Turkey remains to be seen. For her part, Karabulut seems ready for whatever the future might hold. Giving the thumbs up to photographers as she was being accompanied to jail, she proudly displayed a T-shirt that read, "Dear Past, thanks for all the lessons. Dear Future, I am ready."