Number of Turkish women killed after filing for divorce on the rise

Muhterem Göçmen (31) could not sleep that night, but the next day she still went to work. She knew the hair salon was very busy on Fridays, but her 14-year-old niece had recently started to work there too, so she would not be alone.

The morning of June 28, 2013, Göçmen played music on her phone as she walked, sharing the headphones with her niece, to the small salon in Istanbul’s Etiler neighbourhood. Then the voice of her estranged husband called out: “Pray, because today is your last day.”

In the last month, women across the world have spoken out in huge numbers to share their stories of sexual violence on social media using the hashtag #MeToo to highlight the scale of the problem. But many women in Turkey feel powerless and the number killed appears to be rising.

Since the beginning of 2017, at least 239 women have been killed by a man in Turkey, according to a data project by Turkish journalist Ceyda Ulukaya. The government does not publish official data on such crimes, so in 2015 Ulukaya decided to start mapping all the femicide cases from media reports.

Like Göçmen, many of the women were killed by their husbands after they filed for divorce. Since 2010, at least 230 were murdered despite requests for protection. Göçmen was also one of them.

The main reason behind the growing numbers, campaigners say, is the failure to implement to laws to protect women. In 2012, the Turkish government passed Law 6284 aimed at preventing violence against women. In 2011, it also signed the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating domestic violence.

“That’s why we see a decrease in the number of deaths in 2012, because the government took action on this matter. But now they say that this law destroys the family,” said Gülsüm Kav, director and founder of the We Will Stop Femicide Platform.

The group, created in 2010, offers victims and their families legal assistance and collects data on femicides on a monthly basis. “Every year we ask the government for reports about the issue. They never respond,” Kav said.

After Göçmen was killed, the platform offered support to her family. Her sister, Çiğdem Evcil, has since joined the group, hoping to help other women before it is too late.

Göçmen fell in love when she was 18, and eloped to the mid-western city of Eskişehir to marry. The violence started soon after. She tried to leave her husband many times, but his family intervened. They promised he would change, her relatives said, but the abuse continued and he drank away all the money she made.

By February 2013, she had had enough. She called home and asked her brother to buy three tickets to Istanbul for her and her two children. In March, she filed for divorce and obtained a restraining order barring her husband from coming within 100 metres of her.  

“After that, he went crazy,” her sister Evcil said, lighting up another cigarette. And despite the legal protection, Göçmen still was not safe.

“The number of deaths is increasing every year because the government does not comply with the legal requirements,” said Kav. “They are even going backwards.”

More conservative attitudes towards women are reinforced by the government. In recent years, Turkish leaders have expressed opposition to contraceptives, calling women to have at least three children, or better still, four or five. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also said women are not equal to men, and that a childless woman is “incomplete”. In 2014, Turkey’s deputy prime minister said women should not laugh out loud in public.

“They don’t want women to wake up. They want women to stay at home, cooking and serving their husbands, taking care of the children,” said Zozan Özgökçe, activist and founder of VAKAD, a women’s association in the eastern city of Van.

Like other organisations of its kind, VAKAD was closed down by the government under state of emergency powers after the July 2016 failed coup. Authorities said it had links with Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) armed separatists.

“They took all our documents. Why? No one in our organisation had anything to do with the PKK ever,” Özgökçe said. “It is just an excuse.”

Journalist Ulukaya said the government was looking into measures to reduce divorce numbers in the name of what it sees as family integrity. Before filing for divorce, she said couples will have to go through counselling and alimony will be limited to a maximum of 10 years.

Another problem Özgökçe said is that there is no support for women who suffer from violence. Even at the shelters there is no economic support. “Also, in some cases, they separate the children, and women don’t want that, so they don’t ask for help,” she said.

Göçmen’s husband repeatedly defied the restraining order against him and beat her again, but she refused to go back to him.

The day before he killed her, Göçmen’s husband went to the hair salon where she worked. Her boss called the police and they arrested him. “They told us he would stay in jail for 10 days but, while I was at the police station with Muhterem, he called me,” said her sister. “The judge said that that day, he hadn’t beaten her, so he let him go.

“When we knew he was out, we were very scared. We asked the police for protection, but they said that there weren’t enough officers,” Evcil said, reaching for a tissue to wipe away a tear.

They went home. “Neither of us slept that night. We were terrified,” she said.

The following day, Göçmen left for work, but her niece was worried about a threatening phone call, Evcil said. “She told my daughter it either was just another idle threat, or things were going to happen anyway. She was tired”.

Evcil called her sister 16 times that morning. “Eventually she was annoyed by my calls. I told her I could feel something was wrong and asked her to come back home.” But she did not. “I drove my mum to the doctor that morning. Two minutes after we arrived, someone called to said that Muhterem was hurt, but stable.”

The family rushed to the hair salon, but were not allowed to enter. They were told Göçmen had sustained a minor injury, but when Evcil saw her daughter being carried out of the salon in shock, she knew something very bad had happened. Her sister had been stabbed eight times.

Afterwards, her killer fled to Eskişehir and tried to kill himself with rat poison. His brother turned him into the police.

The family asked for a sentence of aggravated life imprisonment to make sure that he would never get out. Instead, he was condemned to life imprisonment. “He is supposed to be in jail for at least 36 years, but there are amnesties all the time,” said Evcil.

In other cases, men who have killed their wives often get reduced sentences on the grounds of unjust provocation, said Ulukaya.

“We live in a chauvinist society, under a chauvinist government,” Evcil said. “More women are aware of their rights, but we don’t know where the government is going.”

“Sadly,” said Kav. “There is a correlation between conservativism and violence.”

Kav’s We Will Stop Femicides Platform believes there are at least four steps to be taken; to raise a society where such events have no place; to take the necessary measures to stop violence; to lead by example, by protecting the women and prosecuting crimes; and lastly, to empower women in all aspects of life.