Turkey: Epidemic of Murders of Women Seeking Divorce

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A new kind of honor violence against women has emerged in Turkey: the murdering of women seeking divorce from their husbands.

Last month on an Istanbul street, Hulya Cadirci, a 28-year old mother in the middle of divorce proceedings, was stabbed to death by her 40-year old husband in front of their child. Hulya’s murder is the latest in the 287 cases that have been documented by a Turkish human rights and advocacy group “We Will Stop Women Murders.”

Many of these cases were women seeking divorces; most were murdered in honor crimes by husbands or family members.

The numbers are already up from last year’s, when the group documented 238 such cases, including that of Muhterem Gocmen, a 30-year old mother of two seeking a divorce from here abusive husband Serdar.

In broad daylight, Serdar walked into the hair salon where Muhterem was working and stabbed her to death. Two days previously, Serdar had beaten up Muhterem in a café. The day before the murder, despite a restraining order, Serdar had threatened his wife. Police were called, yet Serdar was let free by them. It only took Serdar five seconds with a kitchen knife to murder Muhterem the next day.

During the course of their marriage, Muhterem had endured a miscarriage after being thrown down a flight of stairs by Serdar, threats from Serdar’s family and months of being denied outside contact while being abused and held hostage her husband.

“We have passed the phase of traditional honor killings,” said Gulsum Kav, a medical ethics doctor in Istanbul who founded "We Will Stop Women Murders." “Now we are facing modern murder. Women want a divorce, and the families aren’t adjusted to it.”

Even though Turkey has a reputation as a modern country, rights activists charge that in the years since 2003, when the Islamist AKP party came into power, violence against women has skyrocketed. According to the Turkish Ministry of Justice, from 2003 until 2010, there was a 1,400 percent increase in the number of murders of women.

“The AKP government came under harsh criticism after the release of this information, so in a last-ditch effort to save its reputation, [after 2010] it started altering the numbers,” charges Pinar Tremblay, a Turkish journalist and visiting scholar of political science at California State Polytechnic University.

Tremblay quotes Hulya Gulbahar, a lawyer and a women's rights activist and one of the founders and former head of the Association for Supporting Women Candidates in Politics, explained how, after the embarrassing “1,400 percent headline,” the government simply did not report on thousands of women who were murdered. More accurate numbers can be found merely by adding up the number of women murdered as reported in the news, she says.

“No one can argue violence against women has become a norm in contemporary Turkey,” Tremblay writes. The question is, she asks, why have the numbers increased so dramatically in contemporary Turkey?

Tremblay points to three factors: First, although the value of women in Turkish society has always been low, she says, it has sunk even lower in the past 10 years.

Data from the World Economic Forum, showed that in 2013, Turkey ranked 127th among 136 countries in the gender gap index of “economic participation.” Tremblay cites research which shows that as education and economic independence of women increases, they are subjected to less domestic violence.

Conversely, women who live in societies like Turkey where this “gender gap” is wide, are subjected to greater violence at the hands of their husbands, fathers, father-in-laws, brothers and even sons and grandsons.

The second factor, says Tremblay, is the concept of honor. Turkish society traditionally blames the woman for a variety of “crimes,” from refusing to marry a man chosen by the family to asking for a divorce, even from an abusive husband.

“Honor is a fragile and versatile concept for Turkish men … Social pressure is an undeniable factor that contributes to honor killings … internal family dynamics force a male member to step up and clean the family name,” says Tremblay.

In fact, Turkey is now ranked as one of the worst countries to be a womanForty percent of Turkish women experience some form of physical violence in their lives, a rate much higher than that in Europe or the U.S. 

The third factor is leniency in punishment for honor violence. According to the penal code, “if there were motives involving honor, passion or family privacy, then the sentence can be easily reduced," says Tremblay.

"If the murderer behaves properly, he can receive amnesty in a year or two. This leniency feeds from the fact that a woman’s life is worthless in Turkey and encourages other murderers. Indeed, there have been police reports that perpetrators have Googled possible punishments they might receive before killing their woman,” she added.

Although Tremblay says that changing the penal code alone will not solve the problem, she contends it could be a deterrence in a significant number of cases.

Already in the first half of this year, murders of women increased close to 47 percent from the same period last year, revealed Aylin Nazl?aka, a member of the parliament from the Republican People's Party (CHP), the main opposition party.  

Tellingly, Nazliaka came under fire from Ankara’s Islamist mayor Melih Gokcek after she criticized TV hostess Seda Sayan for bringing on her “Bachelor” show the “eligible” Sefer Calinak.

Calinak had murdered his two previous wives and was now searching for a new wife. He spent four and a half years in prison for the first murder and six years for the second.

While introducing him, hostess Sayan asked, “Have you ever seen a murderer with such a smiling face?” Laughs and cheers emanated from the studio audience.

Sayan threatened Nazliaka after the MP lambasted her. Ankara’s mayor praised Sayan for making the threats against Nazliaka.

A scary response from the man in charge of Turkey’s capital.


Watch the trailer of 'Honor Diaries,' which breaks the silence on honor violence. 

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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