Violence in Turkey: A New Film Champions Women Activists

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Maltepe Municipality / UN Women
On November 25, 2014, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, 27 buildings across Istanbul were illuminated in orange to launch the 16 Days of Activism campaign to stop violence against women in the country. Here, activists hold a special ceremony to light the historic Maiden Tower.

YOZGAT, TURKEY – One of the last things that Arzu Boztas’s husband said to her before he shot her was, “I won’t kill you. I’ll just make you crawl.” He then shot his wife and the mother of his children six times in the arms and legs. When he went to trial, he argued that she had provoked him.

For many men in Turkey, that is enough of a winning argument. For years now, women’s rights groups have been battling judges who, despite Turkey’s strong laws, still have discretion in sentencing and let male abusers off lightly. Many in the country’s more patriarchal and conservative regions are swayed by arguments that a woman tarnished her honor or disrespected her husband.

“Judges are finding ridiculous and unbelievable reasons to reduce the punishments for murderers,” says Gulsum Kav of We Will Stop Women Murders, an activist group that has been working to pass bills in Turkey’s parliament that will serve to protect and seek justice for women.

And now, these women’s groups have another obstacle in their way. In early November, the conservative ruling party won re-election, lowering women’s presence in parliament to only 15 percent and fomenting worry about the future of women’s rights in Turkey. The political party has increasingly been garnering voters on the back of misogynistic and patriarchal rhetoric that includes forbidding women to laugh in public and shaming women who go out while pregnant. Advocates say this absurdly sexist mentality has fueled a steady increase in violence against women.

This story, and others, are part of a documentary film in the works by 30-year-old, BAFTA-nominated British filmmaker Chloe Fairweather and The Fuller Project for International Reporting, which follows the lives of two Turkish women beaten within an inch of their lives by their husbands, and their battle for justice with the help of Gulsum Kav and her team. The film joins a growing movement of efforts, by journalists and activists, to expose violence against women in Turkey and the government’s inaction in these cases.

In the last year, protests led by women’s groups have brought tens of thousands of men and women to the streets across the country. The activists stand in front of courthouses, visit with victims in hospital, and travel by busloads to the Turkish capital of Ankara to support female lawmakers in defending women.

Turkish women journalists are also calling attention to the problem, with articles and columns in national publications. “What kind of precedent is set when a woman—soon to become a murder victim—seeks help, fearing for her life and government officials joke, ‘Do not worry, the worst is you will die.’?” asked Turkish journalist Pinar Tremblay in a recent column for Al-Monitor.

From January to November, 2015, 212 women were murdered in Turkey. In 2014, the total count stood at almost 300, which was a 30 percent increase from the female homicides reported in 2013.

Presently, a bill is sitting with the Turkish Ministry of Justice while activists like Gulsum Kav continue to battle tirelessly to change both the law and a culture in which women are often marginalized. Drafted by the Ministry of Family and Social Policies, the bill revises a disturbing law in the Turkish penal code that supports mild sentences for men who have harmed, raped, or murdered women. If passed, it will abolish sentence reductions based on “good behavior” during trial or “unjust provocation” by their partners.

“These women are killed because their perpetrators know that they are not going to get that long imprisonment,” said Ipek Bozkurt, an Istanbul-based lawyer who has worked on dozens of domestic violence cases.

Equally important to changing the law is changing the culture, and that is where activists hope media can play a persuasive role. The laissez faire attitude by many in Turkey towards violence against women was on display in 2014, when a popular Turkish dating show included a 62-year-old “bachelor” who had served time for killing two women in the past, including his wife.

Only after an outcry from women’s groups did the show issue an apology.