Crackdown on women’s protests shows gap between Turkish government words and deeds

Turkish authorities said the lyrics of a song protesting rape by Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis constituted a crime and riot police have broken groups of hundreds of women across the country gathering to perform the song and dance “A Rapist in Your Path” protest that has swept the world.

The crackdown highlights the gulf between the Islamist government’s pledge to crack down on violence against women, and its actions. 

At least 430 women have been killed by men in Turkey so far this year. Over the last decade the number of femicide incidents rose in every year except 2011, the year Turkey became the first signatory of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, dubbed the Istanbul Convention, according to data compiled by the We Will Stop Femicide Platform.

Fidan Ataselim, the general secretary of the platform, told Ahval in a podcast that there were other alarming issues in addition to the increasing number of murders. 

“Some women are now being tortured before being killed,” she said. “As another result of the failure to stop femicides, suspicious deaths of women have been increasing.”

One example is the death of Şule Çet, a 23-year-old student, who fell from the 20th storey of her boss’s office in an Ankara skyscraper in May 2018. Her death was initially dismissed as suicide. But after months of campaigning by Çet’s friends, the two men she was with that night – her boss and one of his friends – were charged with her rape and murder. Their trial ended this month with the two men being given life sentences.

“They are trying make suspicious some murders whose perpetrators are obvious,” Ataselim said. “Recently we are trying to prove that the death of Aysun Yıldırım, who, similar to Şule Çet, was found dead after falling from the 3rd storey of her office building, was in fact murder,” she said. Yıldırım’s death was also judged to be suicide, but Ataselim’s platform managed to persuade prosecutors to reopen to case on the grounds of new evidence, including the DNA of a potential perpetrator. 

It was against this backdrop of violence that hundreds of women gathered in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district on Dec. 9 to perform the Turkish version of "A Rapist in Your Path”. But police dispersed the protest and seven demonstrators were arrested. Istanbul’s Governor’s Office said in a statement the song included lyrics that constituted elements of crime. 

Ataselim was among the protesters arrested that day. She was freed after one night in detention and gave a powerful speech in front of the court after she was released, though banned from travelling abroad. 

“Women are trusting us more than you,” she said, referring to the authorities. “Are you aware of that?”

The Turkish version of Las Tesis was created by Women’s Assemblies, a nationwide network of women organised in every province, and sometimes at district level in major cities such as Istanbul and Ankara. The song was translated into Turkish and activists added the words “resisting women everywhere around the world, you will never walk alone”. 

Ataselim said she and the other women arrested were handcuffed as they were taken into custody in contrast to the treatment of some of the perpetrators of violence against women. In early December, 20-year old Ceren Özdemir, was stabbed to death in front of her home in the Black Sea province of Ordu. Her killer, Özgür Arduç, who had escaped from prison, was not handcuffed as he was arrested, and injured two policemen in the police car as he was being taken away. He later confessed to the killing. 

But such incidents do not mean that Turkey’s women’s rights groups are losing ground. Activists have been saying for years that the legal framework in Turkey, the Istanbul Convention and the Law No. 6248 on the Prevention of Violence against Women and the Protection of the Family, would provide sufficient protection for women if they were effectively implemented. But both the convention and the law, as well as alimony rights, have been attacked by pro-government media that say they destroy families.

The government remained quiet however until the murder of Emine Bulut, who was stabbed by her ex-husband in front of their daughter and customers at a café in Kırıkkale province, central Turkey, on Aug. 18. Footage of the killing circulated on social media, sparking an outcry and her last words, “I don’t want to die,” became a rallying cry for women protesters.

Bulut’s murder pushed the Ministry of Justice to issue a circular regulating procedures for investigations into murders of women. The circular was criticised by some for repeating the existing rules, but Ataselim said it showed authorities had been forced to act due to pressure from the women’s rights movement. 

The document, now called the Emine Bulut circular, was issued at a time when police were breaking up Las Tesis protests across the country, including in the capital Ankara, the Aegean city of Izmir, Antalya on the south coast, and even in the central, highly conservative province of Konya. 

Women lawmakers from the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) also replicated the protest in the parliament.

“The fact that Turkey is the only country where authorities cannot tolerate the Las Tesis performance is evidence of hypocrisy regarding policies on women,” Ataselim said. “And the fact that Las Tesis performances have been continuing and spreading across the country despite the risk of detention means a lot.”

© Ahval English