ISTANBUL — Last month, shortly after the charred body of 20-year-old college student Ozgecan Aslan was found in the woods in southern Turkey, Gulsum Kav’s phone started ringing off the hook.
As one of the most prominent women’s activists in the country, this 44-year-old doctor investigates every murder of a woman in Turkey. Last year there were nearly 300.
As chief spokeswoman for the organization she co-founded, We Will Stop Women Murders, Gulsum is on the lookout for faked accidents, false suicides, and honor killings. In a country where judges and police often shrug off crimes against women, she uses media and protests to ensure that the police investigate women’s deaths, and the men don’t negotiate reduced sentences. And she defends the dead against a common charge in court: that she provoked the man, either in her clothes or her actions, and somehow deserved to be killed.
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Ozgecan’s case was as horrific as it was tragic. She was one of the last passengers on a minibus when the driver took her into the woods and allegedly attacked her. She was stabbed repeatedly, and her hands were cut off. The driver is accused of recruiting his father and a friend to help hide her body.
Gulsum and her network of several hundred volunteers began notifying media, tweeting to their tens of thousands of followers, and organizing protests. This time, the crime struck a nerve. Within days, the country rallied together in their grief. Ozgecan’s name would be tweeted 4 million times, and almost every international news outlet around the world would cover the protests that swept across Turkey.
What’s more, the Turkish hashtag “sendanlat” or “share your story” was stacking up hundreds of thousands of accounts of other women being harassed and abused and refusing to remain silent.
Many say this is a watershed moment in Turkey’s fight for women’s rights, and attribute the raised awareness in large part to the work of Gulsum and her network.
“Women murders used to be on the back pages,” says Melda Onur, a female Turkish parliamentarian who drafted a bill for women with the group. “Now, it’s on the front page, and it’s all because of them. They were a small group in the beginning, but they’ve made huge noise.”
Across Turkey, the protests continued into this week, as men wearing miniskirts have joined to counter early criticism that Ozgecan Aslan invited the attack with her clothing. We Will Stop Woman Murder Platform has received more than 1,000 applications to join. In dozens of media interviews, they are calling for legislation ending loopholes that allow sentence reductions for murderers of women. They’ve called for the government’s chief woman’s advocate to resign, and the president to stop what she sees as chauvinistic comments about women.
“We established a crisis desk. We’re not sleeping, we’re awake for three days, the whole society is awake for three days,” says Gulsum, her black, wavy hair pulled back as she looked exhausted. “We’re determined about this subject, we won’t stop our fight until we stop this.”
Gulsum and her friends started the We Will Stop Women Murders platform in 2010 after a 17-year-old girl was murdered by her boyfriend, and leading politicians blamed her for being out at night and having a boyfriend. Their rise in popularity has been in part fueled by the pivot in political rhetoric of Turkey’s main AKP party from secular, Europe-leaning to conservative Muslim. Many say women’s rights are backsliding as the president embraces Islamic rhetoric.
Yet, anger and resentment among Turkey’s women stretches back more than 30 years. Since the late 1980s, a strong effort to raise awareness about domestic violence successfully led to some of the most progressive anti-domestic violence legislation among Middle Eastern countries, many of which have effectively no domestic violence laws at all.
In Turkey, most activists trace the women’s movement back to a horrific case in 1987, when a pregnant woman was beaten by her husband in Ankara and the judge refused to grant them a divorce due to “Turkish tradition,” saying “a woman should have a baby in the belly and a stick on her back.” That sparked a nationwide protest movement.
Women took to the streets for the first time, launching a campaign: “No beating is justified.” Then, most newspapers refused to cover the topic, and when they did, referred dismissively to feminists as extremists. This reflected a widely held perception of women as second-class citizens that was being challenged not only in Turkey but across Europe and the U.S., where domestic violence laws wouldn’t come into effect until the early 1990s.
By the 2000s, as Turkish politicians vied to gain entry to the European Union, Turkey accelerated its support of women’s rights. In 2004, 40 more amendments were added giving rights to women, including language against honor killings, criminalizing marital rape, and eliminating the ability of a rapist to reduce his sentence by marrying his victim—a practice still legal in many countries in the Middle East.
Even as legislative victories stacked up, domestic violence incidents only increased. In 2011, the Turkish justice minister announced that the number of women murdered had leapt from 66 in 2002 to 956 in 2011—a 1,400% increase. Since the firestorm that erupted, the government has refused to issue solid figures, and most women’s organizations say the numbers are about 300 a year.
“If a big massacre of men occurred, and men were killed at the same rate as women in this country, the world would stand up. It happens bit by bit but when you add it up, it’s a massacre,” said Nevin Cerav, a Turkish journalist and women’s rights activist.
Have domestic violence laws led to more violence? Professor Ayse Gul Altinay, a professor at Sabanci University, believes that may be the case. In a 2007 study she conducted, nine out of 10 women no longer see domestic violence against women as acceptable—a large increase from 20 years earlier when women internalized blame for the violence. However, seven out of 10 women reported they still need permission to visit their families.
“They still live under the full control of their husbands,” Altinay said.
The Ankara representative of Stop Women Murders Platform, Aysen Ece Kavas, has also seen this.
“Women homicides are increasing because women are now fighting,” says Aysen. “They don’t think anymore that ‘My husband can use violence, he can beat me.’ They are revolting; unfortunately many of them are killed because of it.”
Aysen has seen this first hand. After meeting her in a café in Ankara, we drove an hour outside the city to the industrial suburbs with snowy Anatolian mountains in the distance to meet with Arzu Boztas, 28, a housewife and farmer shot six times by her husband for asking for a divorce.
Propped up in bed, a bandana around her head, and blankets covering the stumps where her legs used to be, Arzu tells us how she was forced into marriage at 14, and has been pregnant almost continuously since, bearing six children plus a miscarriage. Throughout, her husband has abused her. After he raped another woman, who he has since tried to marry, she demanded a divorce.
“He shot me because I tried to leave him,” she says, holding back tears, her swollen arms lying at her side.
Both Aysen and Arzu want her the husband to receive a tough sentence, but they may have to fight in court for it. Judges are given great discretion in sentencing in domestic violence cases, and Arzu says her husband had crafted his crime with the intention of appealing for a low sentence.
“He doesn’t expect a high penalty for this,” Arzu said to Aysen, tears on her cheeks.
“He will pay a high penalty,” Aysen replies. “He will have to. We will not be quiet. We will make a lot of noise.”