Can Turkey curb violence against women and put more women to work?

The Turkish state has belatedly begun to address the shocking level of violence against women, which led to more than 470 women killed in 2019, and woefully low women’s labour-force participation, yet analysts question whether authorities can overcome a deeply patriarchal culture and the Islamist tendencies of the ruling party.

The number of women in Turkey who have been the victim of violence has surged by 50 percent, from 145,000 in 2015 to nearly 220,000 in 2018, according to Interior Ministry data given to main opposition parliamentarian Ömer Fethi Gürer.

On the first day of the year, Turkey announced a slate of new measures to curb violence against women: security personnel will receive sensitivity training, special anti-women violence units will be created within the police and gendarmerie, special courts and local commissions will be created to enforce Turkey’s 2012 women’s protection law, and men convicted of violent crimes will be under constant surveillance via electronic tags.

Elmira Bayrasli, co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted, an advocacy outfit for women in the media, and a lecturer at Bard College and the City University of New York, argued that these measures did not address the core issues; of Turkish women long being forced into traditional roles and the government failing to enforce relevant laws.

“That the government is taking this seriously is positive,” Bayrasli told Ahval in a podcast. “But the reality is the persistence of violence against women in Turkey has been a direct result of the lax enforcement of laws against these men that perpetrate the violence against women.”

A report released last August by the women’s committee of Turkey’s Human Rights Association echoed this view. "One of the reasons why such a large number of women fall victim to violence is the reluctance and even prevention of relevant institutions to implement current laws,” said the report.

In 2011, Turkey became the first signatory to the Istanbul Convention, which aims to combat violence against women. The next year it introduced a strong law to combat domestic violence. But this legislation has largely gone unenforced, in part because Turkish Islamists see the Istanbul Convention and 2012 law as threatening the family.

Bayrasli acknowledged that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) tended to push women to take on the traditional role of mother and loving wife. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been criticised by feminists and progressives for encouraging women to have three children and do their national duty, but she said that was not all he had done.

“He has also protected women and their supposed right to choose whether they want to wear a headscarf and advocated for them to take a more active role, whether it’s in government or civil society,” said Bayrasli.

Still, conservative laws and legal loopholes have left many women exposed. A 2016 draft law, for instance, sought to grant amnesty to rapists who marry their victims, even if they were minors.

The government has repeatedly vowed to crack down on domestic violence, yet regularly acts to curb the voice of women, such as breaking up demonstrations last month and arresting protesters for singing a Turkish version of the Chilean protest song, “A rapist in your path”. Fidan Ataselim, general secretary of the women’s rights platform We Will Stop Femicides, was among those detained, and told Ahval in a podcast that women in Turkey trusted her organisation more than the police and the justice system.

To bring more violent crimes to light, the Interior Ministry has encouraged state governors to work with local leaders, teachers and religious figures to detect incidents of violence against women, even when they are not reported. Bayrasli thinks this approach underscores how women in Turkey are seen as incapable and in need of defending and protecting.

“Having an educator or the local imam monitor the situation rather than having the woman lodge the complaint is again putting the woman in this frame that she is not capable of going out there and making a complaint herself,” she said.

On the second day of 2020, Turkey announced plans to boost women’s participation in the labour force, which at 32 percent is just over half the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of 60 percent. The new measures include flexible working hours, longer leave, remote working options, and expanded day care, as well as entrepreneurship training for women.

Bayrasli welcomed any move that encouraged women to pursue careers, but said the measures failed to address the misogynistic culture in the private sector. The government had considered the issue too narrowly, she said.

“What is an optimal working environment that will include everyone and make people feel they can reach their potential regardless of who they are?” wondered Bayrasli.

Turkey is far from alone in this. Bayrasli said she had met many working women who had returned to Turkey from the West, due to more favourable working conditions, particularly costs. She pointed to Sweden, which regularly ranks at the top in terms of gender equality but has very few women executives and far fewer women entrepreneurs than Turkey, and to Silicon Valley, where she said a male-dominated tech industry had created a toxic environment that alienates women.

“We like to wag our finger and point to Turkey, saying, ‘Look at how terrible things are’,” she said, acknowledging Turkey’s shortcomings. “However, I think it is very important to look at case studies like Sweden or Silicon Valley, where the situation for women isn’t any better.”

There have been some positive signs in the Turkish workplace. Last month, Kayserispor elected Berna Gözbaşı the first chairwoman of a football club in Turkey’s top division. A Turkish parliamentary sub-committee is looking for ways to guide more young women into careers in science, technology and engineering, and Turkey’s first all-women’s university will soon open in Hatay province, in the south.

In regards to stronger law enforcement, women’s groups hailed a Turkish court’s decision last month to sentence the lead defendant to life in prison, and an additional 12 years and six months, for the rape and murder of 23-year-old student Şule Çet, which had initially been ruled a suicide. And this week a court in Hatay sentenced a man to 13 years and six months for an acid attack on a 19-year-old woman, in which she lost an eye.

To Bayrasli, these are baby steps. There will be no major shift within Turkey, she believes, until there is broader acknowledgement of the marginalisation of women all over the world.

“We can’t make this about how a culture is treating its people. We have to make this about how are we treating women across the board and how can we make women more productive, more integrated members of society,” she said. “That is not something we can shame and blame Turkish culture for.”


© Ahval English