Is Turkey ready for its #MeToo moment?

When one of Turkey’s biggest pop stars filed abuse charges against her famous actor boyfriend in Istanbul late last year, it set off a media frenzy and sparked a long-awaited national debate about violence against women, according to the Washington Post.

News outlets ran photos of Sıla Gençoğlu’s bruises, along with a doctor’s report and the panicked text messages of a neighbour who said she heard the beating. Gençoğlu posted an Instagram message, which has since garnered more than 920,000 likes, that “gave a voice to the large percentage of Turkish women who do not report abuse and provided a model, she hoped, of how to fight back,” the Post reported on Tuesday.   

“It is not easy to go out on the street and yell, ‘I have been abused’,” Gençoğlu wrote. “I am going to use the rights given to me by the law.”  

Gençoğlu’s boyfriend, Ahmet Kural, a well-known comedic actor, denies the accusations. When the trial starts in two weeks, it will be a high-profile test of landmark legislation introduced seven years ago to better protect women and children from abuse.   

“Though the law has provided survivors with greater rights, there have been numerous problems with how it’s been carried out, including a lack of reliable data on its effectiveness and a reticence by Turkey’s judiciary to punish men for abuse, according to women’s advocacy groups and a European experts’ panel,” said the Post. “The law has also been undermined because of a years-long, countervailing effort by the Islamist-led government to reinforce traditional roles for women in society, women’s rights groups say.”

Last year, 440 women were killed by men across Turkey, most by their partners or male relatives, according to the women’s rights group We Will Stop Femicide. Societal pressure to keep a family together and notions of honour often prevent women from reporting abuse, according to Tuba Torun, an activist with the group. Nearly 90 percent of domestic violence survivors in Turkey do not contact authorities, according to a major government-funded report published in 2015.  

Gençoğlu’s impact on the public debate is already clear, according to Torun. “One Sıla incident brought the attention to domestic violence we have been working on for years,” she said. “She brought so much volume to the issue.”

Gençoğlu said the abuse occurred at Kural’s apartment in late October, where she said he dragged her along the floor, hitting and kicking her multiple times. A young woman next door heard the violence and texted her boyfriend at 4 a.m.

“Ahmet Kural is beating a woman in his home. It’s really bad,” she wrote. “I’m really scared.” The witness said she heard Kural say: “I’m going to kill you.”

Within days, Gençoğlu’s Instagram post about the alleged assault had spread on Turkish social media, shared by leading celebrities and Gençoğlu fans. Turkish bank Yapı Kredi severed its relationship with Kural, who had been the face of its advertising campaign. As Kural’s lawyer spoke outside an Istanbul courthouse in November, the actor was met with jeers.

Rezan Epözdemir, Gençoğlu’s attorney, expressed optimism that the harsh reaction to Kural was part of a changing tide in Turkey but said that maintaining momentum was critical.

“As a woman who has experienced violence, as an artist that is known by the public, she could have kept silent,” Epözdemir said. “Ultimately, that would have been the easiest thing to do. She didn’t have to go after legal remedies. She didn’t have to put her career at risk.”

Support for Gençoğlu has not been unanimous. One news anchor, trying to cast doubt on her testimony, aired a questionable video of Gençoğlu with her friends the day after the alleged assault, where the pop star is seen singing.

Pro-government news outlets criticised Turkey’s minister of labour, social services and family after she called Gençoğlu to console her and offer her approval for speaking out. An interview with Kural published by the pro-government Sabah newspaper presented him as misunderstood. “Can the man who makes all of Turkey laugh be this bad?” a reporter asked the actor.   

In 2011, Turkey’s government was the first to sign the Istanbul Convention, a European initiative to combat violence against women and ensure equal legal protections across the continent. There was pushback from conservatives, with some commentators referring to it as the home-wrecking law or as part of a Western plot to damage Turkish notions of family.

An independent European monitoring group reported that a “lack of any reliable official data fuels the perception that the authorities might not be willing to take the matter seriously enough and to face their responsibilities openly”, said the Post.

So it is up to independent outlets and groups, such as the anti-femicide platform, to keep a tally, a task that has become more difficult as Turkey’s government has cracked down in recent years on civil society.

Turkish women have faced increasing violence as their mobility and financial independence has grown. “Men’s inability to accept women taking their destiny in their own hands, for example when they apply for a divorce, ranks among the first reasons invoked to justify gender-based killings of women,” the European monitor said.