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#MeToo movement arrives in Turkey

Pelin Ünker
December 17, 2020

Women in Turkey are sharing their experiences of sexual assault online after a Twitter user accused a prominent writer of sexual assault. Activists say legal protections for women need to be put into practice.

#MeToo movement on social media
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

In early December, a post sent from the anonymous Twitter user "Leyla Salinger" triggered a #MeToo movement in Turkey. In the tweet, the user accused the famous writer Hasan Ali Toptas of sexually harassing her when she was at university. The tweet has inspired other women to make similar accusations against Toptas and other writers and media personalities.

Using the hashtag #UykularınızKaçsın (#MayYouLoseSleep) victims have started to share their experiences of harassment and assault. Some accounts are from years earlier, with victims saying they did not go public with their experiences earlier out of fear and shame.

Though Toptas apologized via Twitter, he said that his apology did not equate with an admission of guilt for the assaults. The publisher Ibrahim Colak, who was also accused of sexual harassment by the "Leyla Salinger" account, also apologized on Twitter before taking his own life. "I did not prepare myself for such an ending. I am ashamed," he wrote.

'Wounds have left behind their scars'

The "Leyla Salinger" account then became the target of threats and has since been deactivated. But women continue to come forward with accounts of sexual harassment. Last weekend, dozens of women's organizations expressed their support for the movement in a joint statement in which they said they would not remain silent on sexual harassment and would stand shoulder to shoulder with women who shared their stories online.

The famous women's rights activist and journalist Melis Alphan posted on Twitter that she had been harassed by a friend of her grandfather's when she was 22. "It is not easy to talk about it," she wrote. "Even after 20 years. In the early days, I could talk about but then I wanted to forget it myself. I felt better after a while. But the wounds have left behind their scars."

Many women have said they find it difficult to talk about similar experiences, often for reasons related to social stigma. Furthermore, activists have criticized the Turkish government for not providing women with adequate protection from violence. The women's rights activist and lawyer Fidan Ataselim said that men who were verbally or physically violent against women could often hide behind their job, position or reputation in society.

Türkei Istanbul | Protest von Frauen gegen Gewalt
Women protest against violence and sexual harassment in Istanbul in NovemberImage: Serkan Ocak/DW

Legislation not implemented

There is a legal framework in place in Turkey for pressing charges when there is a case of sexual harassment. When found guilty, perpetrators can be jailed for between three months and two years. All that is needed for a preliminary investigation is for a woman to make a complaint. Indeed, Toptas complained about this on Twitter: "Wouldn't it be absurd to take everything at face value, just because a woman said it was true?"

But the courts do not have a habit of doing this. According to the Turkish Ministry of Justice, there were 15,842 sexual harassment cases in 2019. In 17% of 3cases, the accused was found not guilty, in 39.7% of cases the perpetrator was sentenced and in almost 25% of cases, the verdict was "postponed," which is roughly the equivalent of a suspended sentence.

Activist and attorney Selin Nakipoglu told DW that this was in keeping with a 2016 amendment of the Turkish penal code, but a violation of the Istanbul Convention, a 2011 Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

Though Turkey was the first country of 34 to ratify the convention in 2012, the treaty has always been considered as a threat to the institution of the family by conservative forces, including members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Activists critical of legal situation

According to amendments made to the legislation in 2016, perpetrators and victims should find a "path to reconciliation." "This includes simple offenses such as insults and threats," said Nakipoglu. "But these [insults and threats] are the type of violence that women are most regularly subjected to."

She added that the "postponement" of verdicts effectively gave the impression to both victims and perpetrators that sexual harassment and violence could continue with impunity, maintaining the status quo.

She also said that many women and children were further traumatized by the way that police dealt with cases of violence and assault. Since investigations sometimes went on for a very long time, victims had the impression that nothing was happening, she explained. "A state should not be allowed to convey such a feeling," she said.

Ataselim was equally critical of the legal situation: "Many men think that if they just wear a tie and utter a few words of regret, they will get away with it in court. And often it's true."