ISTANBUL — The brutal murder of a 20-year-old university student has horrified Turkey, with protesters filling the streets and politicians discussing the return of the death penalty for her killer. But divisions about the role of women in society remain as deep as ever in this conservative Muslim country, and, sadly, a concerted effort to stop the killing of hundreds of women by men every year is unlikely to emerge.
On February 11, Ozgecan Aslan, a psychology student from the southern Turkish city of Tarsus, took a minibus to go home from the university city of Mersin. When she did not arrive there, her parents called the police. Aslan’s charred body was found several days later in a valley near a picnic area close to a highway linking Tarsus to the capital Ankara.
Police were led to the body by the driver of the minibus, Suphi Altindoken, after they found blood stains and Aslan’s hat in his vehicle. According to news reports, Altindoken told police he had tried to rape the young woman, who was the only passenger left on the bus, and stabbed her with a knife when she fought him with pepper spray and scratched his face with her fingernails.
After using the knife, Altindoken reportedly hit Aslan on the head with an iron bar to make sure she was dead and cut off her hands to destroy DNA evidence of his skin under her fingernails. He then unloaded the body near the picnic area and burned it with the help of his father and a friend.
As the three men were put in pre-trial detention, women rights activists and other protesters took to Turkey’s streets by the thousands and politicians called for the most severe punishment for the accused. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent his two daughters Esra and Sumeyye to see the Aslan family and called the suspected killer “a villain.” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu vowed to “break the hands” of all men who harassed women, while Economics Minister Nihat Zeybekci suggested Turkey should re-introduce the death penalty, scrapped last decade to improve the country’s chance to became a member of the European Union.
During his tenure as prime minister between 2003 and his move to the presidency last year, Erdogan introduced tougher sentences for rapists and changed laws that had enabled courts to show leniency towards men accused of killing their wives with the argument that the killers had somehow been provoked by their victims. Ankara also improved chances for women to receive police protection when under threat from a violent husband or partner.
But the Erdogan government failed to stop the increase of cases of deadly cases of domestic violence. Bianet.org, a website funded by European institutions that tracks cases of violence against women, says 281 women in Turkey were killed by their husbands, ex-husbands, partners or family members last year alone, which amounts to more than five victims every week. Since 2010, Bianet has counted 1,134 cases.
Women’s rights activists say the government is not tackling root causes of the violence, like a trend favoring male dominance in society. As a matter of fact, Erdogan stands accused of being a macho himself, albeit one driven by religious motives.
Last November, Erdogan said men and women could never be equal and stressed that Islam saw women primarily in their role as mothers. In a speech following Aslan’s murder, he repeated his view that, “Allah has entrusted women to men” for protection, a position criticized by feminists as an insult to women because it implied male superiority. Erdogan shot back by saying feminists “have nothing to do with our faith and our culture”.
Erdogan’s demand that every Turkish family should have at least three children has also angered activists. Health Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu, a member of Erdogan’s Islamic-conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), said earlier this year that women “should seek no career except for the career of motherhood.”
Government critics say that kind of discourse makes it difficult to deal with the social issues behind the violence and other problems that women face. Only 29 per cent of women in Turkey have a job, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), far below the OECD average of 57 per cent. Reluctance by thousands of Turkish families to send girls to school is another disadvantage. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says one out of five women in Turkey is illiterate, as opposed to one out of ten men. While almost all Turkish boys are sent to school, about 8 percent of girls are not.
Following Aslan’s murder, Prime Minister Davutoglu said the case was a watershed and that his government would begin to address the “mentality problem” behind the wave of violence against women in his country. Davutoglu did not give details, but Mustafa Akyol, a columnist specializing in political Islam, suggested the government should look at cultural factors. “This is a deeply patriarchal nation in which many men feel entitled to dominate women,“ Akyol wrote in the English-language newspaper Hurriyet Daily News on Wednesday. “While punishing the monsters among us in the heaviest terms, we also need a national soul-searching to eradicate the culture that helps breed them.”
But there are few signs so far of the conversation that Akyol wants Turkey to have. Following the Aslan murder, some pundits in the pro-government press criticized women coming forward with experiences of sexual harassment in a Twitter campaign called #sendeanlat, or tell your story, advising them to “shut up and see a doctor.” In a reference to Aslan, who dressed in a Western style and did not cover her hair with the Islamic veil, Nihat Dogan, a popular singer known as an AKP supporter, said women in miniskirts should not complain of being harassed by “perverts stripped of moral values by the secular system.”