The Increasing Danger Facing Women in Turkey
There was Aylin Sozer in Istanbul, whose former boyfriend slit her throat and then burned her alive.
There was 23-year-old Sule Cet, raped by her boss and tossed from the 20th-floor window of a high rise in Ankara.
And in Denizli Province, there was Sebnem Sirin, 25, whose boyfriend, Furkan Zibinci, slit her throat when she tried to end their relationship. Zibinci was later found to have been previously convicted of six crimes, including sexual abuse.
All were among the more than 300 women killed every year in Turkey — many of them attributed to “suicide,” despite evidence clearly showing they were murdered, usually by a father, husband, boyfriend, or brother.
But when Turkish women sought to celebrate International Women’s Day earlier this month to honor all the victims of femicide — most often perpetrated by relatives, partners, or ex-partners — riot police in Istanbul blocked their way, firing pepper spray and setting off flares among the crowds.
It wasn’t the first time. Since at least 2019, police have clashed with marchers protesting violence against women, though this was the first year that Istanbul outright banned the event. Invoking two laws, Istanbul’s governor said the prohibition was to “protect rights and freedoms and to prevent crime.”
More than 35 people were arrested during last year’s march, most on charges of “insulting the president” in their chants. When they faced trial in December, the judge griped about the focus on the murders of women. “Men also are being killed,” he said. “There are those who say, ‘if ten women are being killed, 20 men are killed.’ Should we also gather to protest?”
He was not alone in making this argument. Indeed, Hulya Atci Nergis, a Member of Parliament for President Erdogan’s ruling AKP party, used last year’s International Women’s Day to complain that women should also bear responsibility for the fact that men kill women. “Men are the ones who are always blamed, but … don’t women have any fault?,” she is quoted as asking, while emphasizing that “more men are killed every year than women.”
Similarly, last year, in referring to International Women’s Day, Mehmet Boynukalin, head imam of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia mosque, attacked the media’s reporting. “The constant emphasis on ‘femicides’ is a slogan-geared media propaganda tool that looks to pit women against men,” he declared on Twitter. In a subsequent statement, he added, “Today, unfortunately, the concepts of women and ‘femicide’ are abused by shedding crocodile tears.”
And so it perhaps was no surprise that Turkish President Erdogan withdrew last July from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence — a treaty ironically known as the Istanbul Treaty, for the city where it was first signed.
The result has been devastating. By the end of the year, the country had marked a record 342 murders of women by men, and 96 reported rapes. (These numbers, it should be noted, are likely understated; other reports showed 410 murders in 2020, and 401 by early December of 2021.)
But then, what could one really expect in a country where, in 2014 — the same year the Istanbul Convention went into effect — Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc pronounced that women should not laugh in public? Or where — that same year — Erdogan declared, “You cannot put men and women on an equal footing. It is against nature.”
Meantime, the reclassification of so many murders as “suicides” poses an additional problem, according to the activist group We Will Stop Femicide Platform. When Ayten Kaya was found hanged in her Diyarbakir home in 2021, officials ruled it a suicide and closed the case — despite significant evidence that she had been killed by her husband. Sule Cet’s 2018 murder was also initially declared a suicide, ignoring evidence of forced sex, a broken neck, and sedatives present in her blood. In this case, however, justice won: the killer was sentenced to life in prison.
But that’s hardly always the case. In 2004, for instance, Osman Calli was convicted in Belgium of killing four women — his wife and his pregnant sister in Ghent, and his ex-wife and her mother in Aalst — in the same night. It was necessary, he had told police, to “cleanse his family’s honor.”
Yet after the Belgian courts sentenced him to life, Calli was allowed to return to Turkey to serve out his sentence in 2013. Three years later, he was a free man. “I am enjoying the sun, the sea, and the beach here,” he reportedly boasted on Belgian television.
Now activists, motivated especially by Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, are focusing on changing the laws, and demanding harsher sentences for men who murder women. For many, it is a cause they fight in memory of women like Ayse Tuba Aslan, who was murdered by her husband in 2019 after having filed 23 complaints with the police attesting to his violence. He was never arrested.
After her death, Aslan’s final petition for help was found in her purse. It read, in part: “Will you protect me after my death?”
Investigative Project on Terrorism Senior Fellow Abigail R. Esman is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Her new book, Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism, was published by Potomac Books in October 2020. Follow her at @abigailesman.