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Turkish women risk peril in demanding their rights.
Protestors face police tear gas and water cannons, courting detention and jail time for demonstrating against the government or in support of issues like LGBT rights. But one group in particular—a countrywide team of roughly 500 dedicated Turkish activists, lawyers and human rights defenders—has refused to keep quiet, catapulting the fight for women’s rights into the spotlight.
— ipek Nazlı Ulu (@ik2_ugur) November 22, 2016
Led by a doctor, the We Will Stop Women’s Murders platform has grown since 2009 into a sprawling network of women nationwide, who often respond within hours to reports of an attack against a woman. They’re known to show up at hospital bedsides, in courtrooms and at family homes offering legal, medical and social services to women and their families.
This is all despite the increasingly authoritarian and Islamist rule in Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party has put up roadblocks to progress since it came into power in 2002. The conservative, Islamist-leaning party has placed considerable focus on the role of women in their homes as mothers and caregivers—not as equal members of society—and has attempted to roll back hard-earned freedoms.
Turkey’s ruling party shocked activists and human rights watchers when it replaced the Ministry for Women and Family with the Ministry of Family and Social Policies in 2011, scrapping women from the ministry’s title entire ly. “This is much more than just a name change and signals a reduced emphasis on women’s rights,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a statement soon after the announcement, warning that the government was taking the spotlight off of women’s rights rather than working to improve them.
Erdogan himself enraged women’s rights activists in 2014 when he infamously claimed that women were “delicate” and not equal to men. “You cannot put women and men on an equal footing,” he said. “It is against nature.” A vocal opponent to abortion, caesarean sections and birth control (which he believes to be treasonous)—he has called on women to have at least three children, arguing that “strong families lead to strong nations.” Women who “reject motherhood” are “deficient,” he said in a June 2016 speech at a women’s organization, prompting more protest from We Will Stop Women’s Mur ders and other activists.
Turkish feminists have challenged the traditional gender roles largely applauded by the government by seeking greater participation in poli tics and the workforce in general. Women are the key to creating a “completely different Turkey,” says Dr. Gulsum Kav, founder of We Will Stop Women’s Murders. Research shows that Kav is correct: Women’s participation in high-level decision making has significant impact on everything from a country’s security to the strength of its civil society.
But for many Turkish women, realities on the ground just seem to be getting worse. This is partly due to the country’s increasingly volatile p litical and security situation, which activists say has only compounded women’s problems as human rights in general are curbed.
Up until recently Turkey was referred to as the “jihadi highway” to and from war-torn Syria. The country’s state of emergency following a bloody coup at tempt on July 15, 2016, has only exacerbated an already tense atmosphere. “Put aside going to a protest—people are scared to even lead their normal daily lives,” Kav lamented.
The failed coup led to tens of thousands of people losing their jobs or ending up behind bars—including business leaders, government officials, security personnel, doctors and academics—often without concrete evidence of ties to the coup plotters. The government sacked around 20,700 Ministry of Education officials and almost 9,000 police officers, and suspended 21,000 private school teachers. Even an organization dedicated to protecting children against early and forced marriage found itself shuttered, much to the horror of activists.
“With each decree, I am hoping and praying to god that our name isn’t on it,” said Ipek Bozkurt, a human rights lawyer who represents women on behalf of the platform. “So far so good, but anything can be expected.”
“It’s definitely getting harder to be an activist,” Bozkurt added. “When bombs explode everywhere, when there are all these bans, it’s difficult to say, ‘Let’s discuss human rights.’ The priority of rights has changed. Unless you have basic human rights [and] unless there is rule of law, it’s difficult to work with other themes like organizing women’s rights issues.”
Women’s lives are often impacted most in times of violence, she added. Murders of women nearly doubled in the month following the failed coup, according to statistics compiled by the platform. Femicide seems to have sky rocketed as a direct result of the violent political upheaval, and with it, murders that were “more barbaric, more monstrous and excuses even more unbelievable than they used to be,” Kav explained.
Despite crippling setbacks, the women of We Will Stop Women’s Murders and their partner organizations and movements have managed to stay determined and vocal on the issues that matter most. The past year alone, they launched protests or other public press conferences and displays of solidarity in 40 cities around the country.
This resistance was a major reason why Turkey withdrew a recent controversial bill brought to Parliament by the ruling party. It would have allowed convicted child rapists currently in jail to go free if they married their victims.
“The dominant feeling I had was anger,” Kav recalled of when she learned of the proposed bill. “And the determination to do whatever was necessary to stop this from happening.”
“This can’t happen—even if we die,” she said.
Members of her organization mobilized immediately and took to social media to voice their opposition to the bill. They gathered information from lawyers and members of Parliament in an attempt to understand what was really happening and how to successfully counter it. The United Nations warned such legislation could promote rape culture where children are not protected. Child marriage is still widespread in certain areas, like in the country’s southeast.
Trending on Twitter, a hashtag meaning “rape cannot be legitimized,” #TecavuzMesrulastirilamaz, quickly gained popularity. Upward of 800,000 people signed an online petition urging Parliament to drop the controversial legislation. “We didn’t sleep for almost three days,” Kav said.
— NAR KadınDayanışması (@narkadindayanis) November 22, 2016
We Will Stop Women’s Murders was key in planning demonstrations, joining thousands of other men and women in Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, to protest the bill, despite facing police intimidation. Many protesters held up bright purple posters—the longtime color of Turkey’s women’s movement.
“Take your hands off of my body!” demonstrators shouted while marching in Istanbul mere days after members of Parliament proposed the bill. “No to a law that whitewashes rape!” Opposition parties and pro-government figures alike voiced their fury. The bill was withdrawn less than a week after the ruling party proposed it. “Frankly, I think the fight that women put up against the bill created hope for the whole society,” Kav said. “There was this feeling that, turns out, if we resist, we can change things.”
The proposed bill’s swift and very public demise was hailed as a resounding success for women’s rights advocates, providing a muchneeded morale boost after years of feeling helpless and ineffective.
“When we fight together, shoulder to shoulder, another world is possible,” Kav added.
This is the first in a series of reports under the Ms. Magazine Women, Peace and Security Initiative to examine how women’s groups are organizing to end violence against women and promote peace and security within their societies.
Sophia Jones is a senior editor and journalist with The Fuller Project for International Reporting.
Pinar Ersoy contributed reporting from Istanbul.