Published: 25 February 2015
Author: Tayfun Hatipoglu
The gruesome sexual assault and murder of Ozgecan Aslan, a 20-year-old female psychology student has sparked off a nationwide protest movement against the violent treatment of women in Turkey.
Ozgecan was travelling on a public minibus in the south central city of Mersin two weeks ago, when according to confessions by two of the suspects involved, she was targeted by the driver as the last passenger left on board. The driver then left the normal route despite Ozgecan’s protests and drove to a remote place. When he tried to rape her she bravely fought back scratching his face and using a pepper spray on him. In response the driver stabbed the girl several times and finally finished her off with an iron pipe. Then apparently the driver cut off the student’s fingers fearing that the police might find his DNA under her nails.
As if this wasn’t bad enough we are informed that the killer drove the vehicle back home where he persuaded his father and a friend to help him dispose of the body which they did by burning and burying it. Fortunately, the military police who had been alerted to the girl’s disappearance stopped the minibus when it was returning and discovered some of the student’s blood and clothing inside.
This case has many parallels with the rape and murder of a young woman just over two years ago on a public bus in Delhi which sparked off mass protests all over India. And in this case too the Mersin murder has ignited demonstrations and anger throughout Turkey.
Explosion of Protest
As the grisly details of the murder emerged angry groups of women vented their fury at this and other examples of the increasing violence being experienced by women in Turkey. The dead student’s funeral in Tarsus was attended by 5000 women who ignored the instructions of the Imam and carried the coffin themselves. Large spontaneous demonstrations of women took place in many cities across the country. Such was the public outcry, among both men and women, all the top political leaders of the country had to individually contact the student’s family and to promise to address the causes that lie behind the incident.
The extreme level of outrage at the murder was because it was not an isolated case but part of an endemic problem in the country. As Yasemin Yücel, from the local Education trade union explained: “Five women are killed daily in Turkey”. She accused the government of encouraging the murder of women by promoting a male-dominant rhetoric.
Sezgin Tanrıkulu, one of the leaders of the main opposition party, pointed out in parliament that since the governing AK Party had been elected in 2002 there had been a 400 percent increase in the incidences of sexual assault and rape of women, and a 1,400 percent increase in the number of women killed.
As if to confirm the widespread extent of the problem, just days after the Mersin murder a 28-year-old woman was stabbed to death by her husband in the South East, while a woman in the north of Turkey was attacked after walking home from her work shirt. Fortunately, with all the publicity about the murder in Mersin she was carrying a knife which she used to fight off her attacker. He was subsequently captured when he presented himself to a local hospital for the knife wounds. Then in the Southern city of Antalya a young woman fought off an attack by a stranger while his friend looked on and laughed and mocked him for being unable to subdue such a lightweight girl.
A Culture That Encourages Violence Against Women
Assaults on women have long been an ingrained problem in Turkey, ranging from domestic violence at one end of the spectrum to rape and murder at the other. In the case of the infamous honour killings where women are killed for daring to choose partners against the wishes of their family, some progress has been made. But too often other cases of violence against women in Turkey have not been pursued properly by the police and / or the perpetrators have been given light sentences by the judiciary.
Moreover, the propaganda and mentality of the current pro-islamic government is making things worse, not better. For example, last November President Erdoğan who totally dominates the government publicly declared that women were not equal to men and has urged a range of retrogressive measures including supporting further restrictions on abortion and urging women to have at least three children.
The problem is not just restricted to government leaders. Their supporters in the media and cultural fields echo the same reactionary prejudices. One prominent columnist from a pro-government newspaper responded to the Mersin killing by writing: “If you, day and night, scream for sexual freedom, individualism, careerism and egoism, this is the end result.”
Meanwhile, the pop singer Nihat Doğan tweeted that “women wearing miniskirts and getting naked don’t have the right to make a fuss when they’re harassed by perverts deprived of morals due to the secular system.”
Such peverse reactions have only fuelled the anger of Turkish women further with an avalanche of social media messages coming from women telling of their own experiences of assault and rape. Traditionally, in Turkey women tended to keep quiet about such experiences so this a major development.
Turkey Not Alone
However, it would be a major mistake to pose this as mainly a problem for “backward” or “islamic” countries like Turkey. As major studies have shown this is a world-wide issue equally affecting the richer and supposedly more “enlightened” countries of North America and Europe. For example, the statistics of sexual assault in America with estimates of a rape every two minutes, have been been added to by recent revelations of the scale of the problem at US universities where one might think more “educated” attitudes would prevail.
In Europe, last year’s survey by the EU of 42,000 women and their experiences of physical, sexual and psychological violence revealed shocking statistics on the widespread nature of the problem with one in three women reporting some form of physical or sexual abuse since the age of 15. As the report demonstrated there “is a picture of extensive abuse that affects many women’s lives but is systematically underreported to the authorities.” http://fra.europa.eu/en/publication/2014/violence-against-women-eu-wide-survey-main-results-report
This is not a situation that is inevitable. It can and must be combated. Towards this end, and as a result of determined efforts by feminists who have long sought to end the silence on this problem and to tackle it head on, at the end of last year we saw the ratification by enough European countries of the new Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. This Convention is a very radical and progressive charter to fight violence against women (see below) which offers women and all who support their interests the chance to demand major changes in the laws of each European country which are now legally obligated to introduce the measures of the Convention. Just as important we can now demand changes to the procedures and daily practice of all social institutions in order to regularly monitor the problem, effectively combat and punish abuse, and take serious measures to prevent it.
Legal Changes Not Enough
The adoption by nearly 40 countries of such an advanced Convention can only be the beginning. The fact that it was adopted in Istanbul and that the Turkish government was the first to formally adopt it contrasts spectacularly with the violence against women going on in Turkey today and the backward reaction of the same government towards women. As Ms Elda Moreno, the Council of Europe’s former Head of Gender Equality and Human Dignity, acknowledged, the ability of the Istanbul Convention to stop impunity depends greatly “on how governments, parliaments, experts and civil society are going to use it.”
In addition to stiffening laws against violence on women, we need to start to change male behaviour at all levels of society starting with the way that boys and young men are encouraged from an early age to exploit girls and women without regard to their feelings or needs. The barrier here is that we don’t democratically control the schools, services, workplaces or media which constantly reinforce reactionary attitudes and behaviour towards women. Without such control we can only go so far in tackling the issues involved. As with so many other problems under capitalism we desperately need to replace this system which is based on capitalist exploitation and division with a democratic socialist society in which women and men can consciously work to overcome these problems and move forward together in solidarity and respect.
System Change Not an Excuse for Inaction
On the other hand, there has been a tendency in the past for some socialists to view attempts to change things within capitalism as reformist, or naïve and pointless. Rather they believe that to overcome sexism all we need to do is overthrow the current system and all problems will be solved in the promised land. In practice, such attitudes becomes a silent excuse for doing nothing on this issue.
Indeed, such a passive view would be tantamount to arguing that we cannot achieve any victories now, that all individual struggles are a waste of time, and that all our energies must be solely devoted towards the revolution and nothing else.
In contrast, we need to fight now to combat violence against women at the same time as striving to replace the capitalist system that in practice encourages it.