World·CBC IN ISTANBUL

'He always said he was going to kill her': Turkish laws protecting women are often ignored

There is no shortage of laws protecting women in Turkey, activists say. But amid horrifying violence against women, the problem is getting lawyers and judges to apply them.

Istanbul lawyer says training of 4,000 colleagues critical to understanding the importance of equality

Zekiye Kaya holds a picture of her murdered mother, Halide Ozpolat. (Nil Köksal/CBC)

Aydeniz Alisbah Tuskan doesn't really need reminders, but her bulletin board is plastered with the headlines anyway: rape, murder, domestic violence in Turkey and the ongoing battle to ensure the abusers, rapists and killers are punished.

She doesn't just see victims in those articles — she sees a disturbing shift.

"We're seeing a return to some backward thinking," Tuskan says.

As a lawyer and board member of Istanbul's Bar Association, she's been around long enough to track the progress and the backsliding. There is no shortage of laws protecting women in Turkey, she points out. Many have been in the books since 1926.

"Women and men are equal citizens. Many rights were given [to women] when the republic was founded. Marriage, divorce, equality."

The problem is getting lawyers and judges to apply them.

So she's part of the push at the Istanbul Bar Association, six years in the making, to train roughly 4,000 lawyers specifically in the area of violence against women.

"This training is critical," she says. "Many lawyers aren't versed in the laws. It's about understanding the importance of women's rights and equality."
Lawyer Aydeniz Alisbah Tuskan in her Istanbul office, surrounded by headlines about violence against women. (CBC)

"Even the name of the minister responsible for women has changed to the Minister of Family and Social Politics," she adds.

"So a woman equals family, she's valued based on her place in a family. We believe this is a political view and we believe it is wrong."

Women without children 'incomplete'

Sevgi Gulseren is shivering at a weekend rally in Istanbul's Kadikoy neighbourhood. Despite the cold, she takes off her coat to show the tattoo on her arm. It's a detailed image of her daughter's face.

Gulseren says her daughter's boyfriend killed her last April.

She has words for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader she says she can no longer support, who last year said women who don't have children are "lacking" and "incomplete."

She is now a mother without a child and blames Turkey's leaders for not doing more to protect women. 

"I want to know what side they're on. Why aren't they speaking up?"

Zekiye Kaya is at the same rally put on by the group We Will Stop Femicide, holding up her mother's photo, hoping someone is listening.

Kaya says she and her siblings stood up for their mother for years, trying to protect her from the constant torment and abuse delivered, she alleges, by her father.

"He always said he was going to kill her," Kaya says. "And he said he'd get away with it."
Sevgi Gulseren says her daughter Yagmur's boyfriend killed her in April. (Nil Köksal/CBC)

Her mother was shot in the face with a hunting rifle and killed in her home last spring. Kaya says she picked her mother's jawbone off the floor.

Her father's lawyer is now arguing he is mentally ill. That is a lie, Kaya insists, and she says Turkey's justice system is stacked against women.

She now fears he will be released and may try to kill her, too.

"All of these perpetrators, all of these men applying violence to women, are very much aware they are being protected by legal institutions," says Meline Cilingir, a lawyer and volunteer with Mor Cati (Purple Roof), one of Turkey's oldest charities working to protect women.

The Istanbul park where we meet offers a dose of irony Cilingir finds impossible to swallow.

There it is, etched in stone, in English and Turkish: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression," the stone slab reads. "This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference." It is from Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
A municipal public service ad from Canakkale, Turkey reads: Domestic Violence is not a family matter. (Municipality of Canakkale, Turkey)

Cilingir feels that applies less and less to Turks, and especially Turkish women.

As of Dec. 5, 223 women were killed across Turkey this year, according to the activists at Kadincinayetleri.org, a group that tracks femicide.

The death toll is down from last year, but that's hardly a consolation, especially when the number climbed to 224 in the last day. A young mother in Adana, Turkey was allegedly beaten to death by her husband and her in-laws.

It is worth noting that according to recent statistics, the murder rate for women in Turkey is actually slightly lower than it is in Canada.

Statistics Canada reports 146 women were murdered in Canada in 2014. In the same year, 266 women were killed in Turkey. But Canada's population is around 35 million, while Turkey's is roughly 78 million.

But the concern in Turkey goes beyond the killings themselves.

"It is very terrifying and outrageous. We have many laws, we have many rights, but they are trying to take those rights away," Cilingir says of the government.

One recent attempt by members of the governing AKP stunned even some of the party's own supporters.

It was a bill to give some men who married underage girls amnesty — only if, those supporting the bill said, they were marriages of love and there was no force.

The government said it would help thousands of families affected by what it believes is unnecessary incarceration and insists it has brought in the harshest punishments for rape.

The idea baffled and disturbed people. Why offer an amnesty that could exacerbate the already serious problem of child marriage in Turkey?
Lawyer Meline Cilingir speaks to CBC correspondent Nil Köksal in Istanbul. (CBC)

Cilingir says that as upsetting as the idea was, she wasn't surprised. In the current state of emergency, she says, "All of us are scared to go out and to fight for our rights. We are very reluctant. So I don't think there could be any better time to do this, it was the perfect time," she says.

It backfired.

During days of protests, men and women from different backgrounds rallied. High-profile women, supporters of Erdogan's AK Party, also pushed to kill the bill. KADEM, the women's organization Erdogan's daughter, Summeye Erdogan, helps lead, also expressed concern. The bill was dropped.

That was a victory, Cilingir says. But the unity is rare. She points out that independent women's organizations that don't directly support the government are shunned and in some cases are shut down.

"In most cases it is turning women against each other," she says.
kadincinayetleri.org tracks the number of women killed across Turkey. This map shows killings between Jan.1 and Dec. 5. (kadincinayetleri.org)

And in some cases, as with the most recent murder, the accused include other women.

Cilingir refuses to feel defeated, though. The regular rallies across the country by various women's groups offer constant hope — and a reminder of the power of Turkish women.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey in 2018.

now