With rising death rates and an ineffective government response, women in Turkey are taking matters into their own hands.
“In the past we used to read about traffic deaths. Now, news reports start with how many women have been killed,” says Yakin Erturk, a Turkish sociologist at Middle East Technical University in Ankara and the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women.
Last year, at least 281 women were killed by men in Turkey, an increase of 30 percent from the previous year. Most of the individuals were romantically linked. According to police reports, 118,014 women were assaulted by their partners that year, but since so many abused women don’t go to the police, the real numbers are likely far higher.
Out of sheer desperation and impatience with what many see as the Turkish government’s failure to protect women, there is a growing base of women who feel the need to protect themselves. Several organisations, including Istanbul-based Sefkat-Der, are supporting them.
“We’re not saying chase after people who threaten you, find them and kill them,” says Hayrettin Bulan, head of civil society organisation Sefkat-Der. “We’re just saying if they attack you, protect yourself.”
Sefkat-Der is trying to provide free shooting and martial arts classes to women in Turkey.
“We should learn to defend ourselves instead of dying,” says 47-year-old Ayse Tukrukcu, who attended Sefkat-Der’s first shooting class in Istanbul on March 8, Women’s Day. Tukrukcu isn’t happy that such radical measures are necessary, but says women in Turkey have little choice.
“We’re running away from men,” she says. “Sometimes from our fathers, our brothers, our husbands, or a stranger on the street. Either way, we always see violence against women.”
It's a matter of empowering women. If a woman has the ability and the capacity in terms of economic, psychological, social, etc, to leave their husband, she can stop the violence.
Over 17,000 women applied for police protection against abusive spouses in 2014, according to a report from the Ministry of Family and Social Policies, but dozens of them were still killed.
Bulan says authorities sometimes don’t take women’s claims seriously, and when they’re called, often don’t show up until it’s too late.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 42 percent of Turkish women have been beaten by an intimate partner, though Bulan thinks the figure is actually far higher.
Tukrukcu herself was raped by her uncle when she was nine, has been beaten repeatedly, and was sold to brothels where she worked for 11 years.
But these initiatives of fighting violence with violence, especially through shooting classes, are making some uncomfortable.
“I’m terrified,” says Erturk. “This is not the way to go. Yes, women should be able to defend themselves, but not by resorting to violence. Are we promoting a gun culture in this country?”
Pinar Ilkarracan, co-founder of Women for Women’s Human Rights, says physical power isn’t the solution: “It’s a matter of empowering women. If a woman has the ability and the capacity in terms of economic, psychological, social, etc, to leave their husband, she can stop the violence,” she says.
Many women’s rights activists say the heart of the problem is gender inequality and patriarchy. Turkey ranked 125th out of 142 countries in the World Economic Forum’s latest Gender Gap Report. Less than one-third of Turkish women earn an income, and few women hold top positions of power.
According to a 2013 survey, over one-third of Turkish men think hitting their romantic partners is “occasionally necessary”, with many citing discipline as a principle that may necessitate such violence.
Bulan agrees with the need to end gender inequality. He acknowledges that self-defence is only one small part of the solution, but says for the time being it’s an unfortunate requirement. “Of course we should educate people, but until this education comes, women should protect themselves any way they can,” he says.
The murder of 19-year-old Ozgecan Aslan in February created a massive outcry across the country. One of the reasons her case became so galvanising was that Aslan fought back. She pepper-sprayed her minibus driver when he tried to rape her. “We aren’t mourning, we’re rebelling,” became one of the popular slogans following her murder.
“What if Ozgecan had a gun?” Bulan ponders, noting that pepper-spray only works if you can run away, which she couldn’t do since she was trapped in the minibus.
“If the state isn’t there, you have to protect yourself,” says 33-year-old Turkan Uruk, another attendee of the shooting class.
Many desperate women in Turkey have even killed their abusive romantic partners. In February, two women in separate cases who strangled their husbands to death were cleared of homicide charges, the courts in both cases ruling that the women had acted in self-defence.
“If someone is trying to kill you, you have a right to self-defence,” Uruk says. “Of course no one should die, but if someone has to, it shouldn’t be the abuse victim.”
The shooting classes, which were covered by several local media outlets, are more symbolic and psychological than practical. Buying a gun legally in Turkey is very difficult, and none of the women actually own firearms.
“It gives us a feeling of strength and security, but most importantly it creates a perception [of strength],” says Uruk, who enthusiastically shares pictures of herself holding a gun on social media.
Uruk is glad it’s hard to get a gun in Turkey, but thinks an exception should be made for targeted women. She says if prosecutors and jewellery-sellers are allowed to have guns for self-defence, threatened women should have them too.
Experts say that legislative reforms made during the early years of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were helpful, but AKP politicians’ rhetoric amounts to what Ilkarracan calls “a very clear attack on gender equality”.
In January, Health Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu said: “The most important career for women is motherhood.” Last year, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc encouraged women to refrain from laughing in public, protect their chastity and not be “inviting” in their behaviour.
“We hear nothing but misogynist statements with respect to gender relationships. This only encourages those who are prone to violating women’s rights,” Erturk says. She says the government is being hostile towards independent women’s rights organisations and is refusing to work with them.
But journalist Ceren Kenar says women’s rights have advanced more under the AKP than any other government. Divorce was made easier, women’s rights in the workplace were increased, the headscarf ban in state institutions including universities was lifted or relaxed, and a new penal code free of patriarchal language, which criminalised marital rape and increased penalties for sexual crimes, was introduced.
“With this government, there’s been important legal and economic changes,” Kenar says. “Women’s position has been elevated in society.”
The next step, according to Erturk, is not only protection of women, but “actively supporting women’s empowerment at all phases”. The focus should be on the prevention of domestic violence through robust programmes such as job creation, childcare services, and supporting and engaging with women’s organisations.
“Since the 1980s, the women’s movement has been getting stronger and stronger,” says Erturk. “We’re here to fight, whatever it takes.”