Is conservatism beating women’s rights?

By Yörük Bahçeli

The legal chaos that has resulted from the multiple arrests and releases of an assailant who attacked a young nurse for wearing shorts demonstrates the deep-seated inconsistencies survivors of gender-based violence face in Turkish courts.

Ayşegül Terzi's attacker Abdullah Çakıroğlu shortly before his initial release on September 18. Source: Bianet

Ayşegül Terzi’s attacker Abdullah Çakıroğlu shortly before his initial release on September 18. Source: Bianet

Ayşegül Terzi, 23, was attacked on a bus by Abdullah Çakıroğlu, 35, for wearing shorts in public on September 12. The assailant reportedly shouted ‘those who wear shorts must die’ before kicking Terzi and leaving her with extreme facial bruising. After his arrest, the assailant said he attacked Terzi because she was not dressed ‘properly’; claiming that he “beat people whose outfits I do not like’, and called on the state to punish those who dress ‘inappropriately’.

Çakıroğlu was then released on September 18 after the prosecutor decided that the attack only constituted ‘acute bodily harm’, which carries a maximum sentence of two years, making him eligible for bail.

But speaking to journalists after his release, Çakıroğlu said, “friends, everything is under control. Everything happened according to Islamic law,” in a comment that sparked outrage on social media.

Çakıroğlu was rearrested shortly after on the additional charges of inciting animosity among the people, and violating Terzi’s right to freedom of belief and conviction. Yet, in another bizarre twist, the assailant was again released on bail on Wednesday, only to be rearrested on Saturday following Terzi’s lawyers’ successful appeal.

Why is the law not being applied?

Upon the assailant’s initial release, Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ responded to growing public discontent by announcing changes to the way such cases would be handled in the future. Turkish dailies reported that the penal code would be amended to exempt crimes against ‘bodily inviolability’ from the bail requirement for crimes subject to maximum sentences of up to two years.

While the amendment has been welcomed as a positive step towards creating a simpler mechanism to prosecute perpetrators of assault, the move seems to overlook several legal mechanisms that already exist in Turkey.

First, the prosecutor could have deemed the assault a case of ‘violence against women’, which Turkish law identifies as violent behaviour that “is applied to women only because they are women, or causes the violation of women’s human rights due to sex-based discrimination that affects women.”

Understood under these terms, the prosecutor could have insisted on measures such as a restraining order, treatment, a ban on carrying arms and most importantly, the requirement that Çakıroğlu wear an electronic tag to prevent further assaults.

Following his rearrest, Çakıroğlu was charged on grounds of assault, limiting Terzi’s freedom of conviction, and defamation, but was released in anticipation of further evidence likely to demonstrate his mental illness. The court also ruled to provide protection for Terzi.

Terzi’s lawyers, whose successful appeal to the decision led to Çakıroğlu’s rearrest, said the court provided no reason for his release and the judge did not justify the connection between the assault and Çakıroğlu’s mental illness, stating that there were no grounds for exemption from criminal liability.

In a statement following the assailant’s release on bail, the Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız Platformu (We Will Stop Femicide Platform) group said that mental illness was frequently presented as an excuse to downplay gender-based violence and cases of femicide in courts.

“The defendant stating ‘my mental health is not intact’ is a lie and something we face in all femicides. Even if his mental health was not normal, like in our other cases, as long as he is treated and (the treatment) tracked, he cannot be exempted from sentencing,’ representative Gülsüm Kav argued in a written statement.

According to the Turkish penal code, convicts who have committed crimes as a result of mental illness are placed in a mental health institution as a protective measure. Yet Kav said the decision was political in the case of Çakıroğlu’s release on bail, referring to statements made by government officials in the aftermath of the attack.

Government statements unconducive

Following the outrage sparked by Çakıroğlu’s initial release, Prime Minister Binalı Yıldırım stated that what Çakıroğlu did “is not something a normal person would do.” But he added that Çakıroğlu could have “mumbled” his dislike of Terzi’s outfit instead of attacking her.

Yıldırım’s comments were followed by Youth and Sport Minister, Akif Çağatay Kılıç. At the opening ceremony of a regional branch of the pro-government Women and Democracy Association (KADEM), Kılıç said, “we are not saying, ‘women and men are equal in all issues. However, we are saying that they are equal before the law regarding their rights. They have the same rights in terms of contributing to society. They have equal opportunities,”

Similar controversial statements from the ruling party have littered Turkish news in recent years, most notably from President Erdoğan, who has repeatedly stressed that he does not believe in gender equality and emphasises women’s roles as mothers.

Critics have argued that Yıldırım’s statement in particular justifies public shaming of women’s appearance by men, thereby violating the rights of women and encouraging future attacks on them. The We Will Stop Femicide Platform organized protests in 14 cities in reaction to Yıldırım’s words.

Pointing to data they released for the month of September, the organisation said that 20 women had been victims of sexual violence since Yıldırım’s statement. Their findings demonstrated that ‘making decisions about their own lives’ was the most prevalent reason for incidents resulting in murder, accounting for 34 per cent of cases.

While so called ‘difference feminists’ have taken issue with a certain understanding of equality, in what became known as the ‘equality-versus-difference debate’, their questioning of how equality is defined differs from the essentialist assumptions on which the AKP bases its own rejection of gender equality.

Taking gender violence seriously

Statements from leading politicians seem to run counter to the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention, which seeks to combat violence against women, of which Turkey is a signatory .

In differentiating between legal and other forms of equality, and justifying the disapproval of women’s lifestyle choices by men, government officials fail to recognise that the realisation of “de jure and de facto equality between women and men is a key element in the prevention of violence against women”, a core understanding upheld by the convention.

With officials claiming that they only recognize legal equality, it is unclear how the AKP government will successfully work to eliminate ‘all forms of discrimination against women and promote substantive equality between women and men,’ as required by Turkey’s commitments under the agreement.

This comes at a time of growing violence against women, with AKP officials themselves admitting that the femicide rate increased by 1,400 per cent between 2003 and 2009, essentially the time period in which the party consolidated its power.

The government has failed to tackle this issue head on, seemingly focusing instead on issues such as ‘strengthening marriages’. A parliamentary Divorce Commission, set up for this purpose, put out a report recommending the legal age of marriage be lowered from 18 to 15, and suggesting adults engaged in sex (or rape) with minors – aged under 15 – to be released on parole if they remain married to the once-minor for five years.

The same report also recommended an amendment to the law on preventing violence against women that critics say would limit protective measures such as shelter and police protection orders, as well as legal and psychological assistance.

Conservative policies sacrifice women’s rights

Women’s organisations have repeatedly criticized the government for imposing what they see as its own political agenda, at the expense of women, by seeking to preserve marriages rather than protecting women’s rights. Activists say the government perpetuates its conservative policies through the Family and Social Policies Ministry, which replaced the Women and Family Affairs ministry in 2011.

“Under so-called counselling services, what they actually do is carry out meetings or seminars on marriage where ‘experts’ advise women to be obedient and tolerate husbands’ anger and even violence,” Sakine Günel, a spokeswoman for the pro-choice, Kürtaj Haktır Karar Kadınların group (Abortion is a Right – the Decision Belongs to Women), told Independent Turkey.

Günel said government affiliated NGOs, who act as substitutes for counselling services and shelters run by women’s groups, work to reconcile spouses and encourage women to return to abusive husbands.

“Instead of providing protection and legal counselling, such institutions try to mediate between women and men in order to make sure the marriage stays intact and the women remain passive and compliant.”

At one talk on violence run by the municipality of Istanbul, at a Lifelong Learning Centre, Günel said she witnessed a psychologist justifying male aggression against women.

”The psychologists who was giving the talk was saying that by their nature men are aggressive and hot-headed, and because of the testosterone in their bodies they have a tendency to engage in violent behaviour or throw temper tantrums,” she said.

“She was advising the women listening to the talk to be tolerant, forgiving and amiable, since it is in their nature to be compassionate, motherly and calm. By doing so, she was saying, women will be able to maintain the peace at home,” Günel argued.

Data from the We Will Stop Femicide Platform showed that only 3 per cent of femicide victims in the month of September were identified as under state protection. A total of 35 died, and an additional 44 women were identified as victims of sexual violence. Last November, the Family and Social Affairs Ministry admitted that the state has not conducted research focused on femicide, however research puts the total number for 2015 at 303.

Against a background of growing violence against women, statements made by government officials like Prime Minister Yıldırım and Minister Kılınç are a disappointing reminder of how women’s rights are compromised in an effort to further a conservative agenda. It remains unclear how the legal system could function effectively when women’s autonomy is regularly downplayed publicly.

Legal changes such as the recent amendment to the law on assault will make little difference to the reality faced by women in Turkey so long as conservatism continues to trump women’s rights and safety.

 

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