Thursday, July 07, 2011

Women's rights in increasingly Islamic Turkey

Why is Turkey's AKP ruling party opposing efforts to protect women? Because the Qur'an directs men to beat disobedient women (4:34); how, then, is all this domestic violence any concern of a good, pious Muslim?

Prime Minister Erdoğan of Turkey announced last month that the "Ministry for Women and Family" will be replaced by a "Ministry of Family and Social Policies," ending explicit focus on women's rights. This is much more than just a name change and signals a reduced emphasis on women's rights, and efforts to promote the rights to non-discrimination and freedom from violence will suffer. Rather than taking the spotlight off women's rights, Turkey needs to take urgent steps to combat endemic violence against women. In the past 10 years since the government has becaome less secular and more Islamic violent deaths of women have risen from less tha 100 a year to nearly 2000.

The existing ministry's mandate was dedicated to working on issue relating to women's rights and the family. The new ministry, however, will deal with issues of concern relating to children, the aged, the disabled, and the families of soldiers who die during active service, as well as family and women's rights. The existing Directorate for the Status of Women will be a department within the ministry.

A Human Rights Watch report issued in May documents brutal and long-lasting violence against women and girls in Turkey by husbands, partners, and family members, and the survivors' struggle to get protection. A study by Turkey's Hacettepe University has shown that about 42 percent of Turkish women experience physical or sexual violence inflicted by a relative at some point in their lives.

Turkey has improved its laws, setting out requirements for shelters for abused women and protection orders. However, gaps in the law and implementation failures by police, prosecutors, judges, and other officials make the protection system unpredictable at best, and at times downright dangerous.

In addition to the high rates of domestic violence in Turkey, other statistics speak to broader gender inequality in the country. In 2010, Turkey ranked 83 on the United Nations Development Programme's global Gender Inequality Index - down six places compared with 2008. Women hold just 9 percent of seats in the national parliament, and only 27 of the country's nearly 3,000 mayors are women.

Women are 27 percent of the paid work force. Only about 19 percent of women are engaged in income-generating work in Turkey, and in the eastern part of the country, the figure is about 10 percent. Illiteracy figures released by the government show great disparities between men and women: 3.8 million of the 4.7 million people who are illiterate are women.

Nearly 50 percent of the women in Turkey’s Eastern city of Şanlıurfa give birth at home. Women do not know that to put henna in the belly button of a baby might be deadly as the baby might get infected. To the contrary they think it is good for the health of the new born. It is a matter of shame to go and see a doctor. Being beaten up is routine. Doing something other than working in the fields is enough to be labeled “bad women.”

Zeynep Şimşek, from Urfa’s Harran University, decided to take the challenge, and women from Şanlıurfa have come to see the head of the University’s Public Health Department as a super hero. As she knew how things worked in one of the most conservative cities in Turkey, Şimşek first tried to convince the men before the women. She first started by training the local headmen. She provided essential information about women's and children's health. She taught them the answers of what to do during pregnancy, how to help women who are victims of domestic violence, where they can go and what their legal rights are. When the local headmen told her, “As men how can we explain all these things to the women? Why don’t you come and tell them yourself?” she caught the opportunity to reach women individually.

Yet this time she bumped into the fathers and the husbands of these women. It was their turn to be convinced to have women come to training courses. When she was told that according to religious obligations the place of women is at home, she found theology professors to explain to them that there is no such religious justification. Once she convinced the men, she finally reached the women. She gave them training courses for five days on heath, education, and judicial issues, legal and social rights. Women who used to be afraid of speaking out are now showing the way to those in need of help.

"We gave birth to a lot of children because we were told that making a lot of babies would prevent our men from going to other women,” said Emine Aslan. “I never objected to my husband,” Aslan said, adding, “When I objected to my husband he beat me up, it was first the women in the neighborhood who criticized me for doing so. Women are crueler to women in this country.” Her view is shared by Şükran Bayan who said women are oppressed by women. “When we raise our head to our husbands, other women denounce us,” said Bayan who is 19 years old.

We have been oppressed. I attended the training courses so that other women are not oppressed.” Aslan complained that sending girls to school is deemed dishonorable. “Is it more honorable to sell us to our husbands for some money,” she asked with frustration. “It is no longer enough for me be a leader in my own neighborhood. I will go to school. Sometimes I kid with my husband and tell him I will go to school, become a factory owner and hire him as a worker,” she said.

“I gave birth to 8 children before I was 32. I was not allowed to go outside,” said Şükran Elmas. They would not take her to the hospital when was ill and would beat her for becoming sick. “They did not want my kids to go to school. One of my kids needed a special diet for his sickness. They told me ‘why do you have a special diet. Let him die, you will give birth to another one.’ I can’t remember how many times I tried to commit suicide by drinking rat poison,” said Elmas, who is now 34 years old.

It has not been easy for Elmas to attend a training course. “One person was particularly against my attendance to the training course. I was told that one of my four brothers would kill me and nothing would happen to him even if he was sent to prison. Now I know through the training that I am not desperate against being beaten. I know I have a right to hire a lawyer for free.” Elmas continued her education and she is now a seventh grader. “I used to be ashamed of holding my books. Now I am proud of it. Everyone gets really astonished when I show my student card on public transportation.”

Sümeyye Güç, on the other hand, had to secretly go to the training courses. For her, being beaten was part of being a woman since she saw her father beat her mother all the time. “After the courses I became aware that we are not desperate. I told my mother that she did not have to put up with all these beatings. And I made her break up with my father with whom she had been married formally. Then I registered her to reading and writing courses,” 21 year old Güç said.

She is neither a celebrity nor a prominent politician, but a bodyguard escorts Nahide Opuz at every step, even at the supermarket, to fend off a menace that has proved lethal: her ex-husband. The 39-year-old mother of two is the first Turkish woman to have a government-funded bodyguard after the European Court of Human Rights condemned Turkey in 2009 for failing to protect her and her slain mother.

Before the landmark case reached the judges in Strasbourg, Opuz was repeatedly beaten and survived both a stabbing and an attempt to run her over with a car.
After Turkish authorities repeatedly failed to act on her complaints, her ex-husband killed her mother.

Activists say violence against women in the EU-candidate country has reached an alarming level and point the finger at the judicial authorities and the ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, or AKP. In February and March, 52 women were killed by men, according to a tally by BIAnet, a news site focusing on human rights abuses. The figure was at least 217 for last year, and 27 percent of them were killed after asking for a divorce. From 2002 to 2009, the number of women killed in pre-meditated murders rose 14-fold, according to Justice Ministry statistics that do not provide details on the perpetrators and circumstances.

Nearly every day you can read the latest report about a woman being murdered, invariably the murder will be of the most violent nature, be it with shotguns or knives, usually carried out by an estranged or former husband, or family members in a so-called honor killing. In a case earlier this month, a 20-year-old was strangled with her baby . The suspects were her father and brother.

The dramatic increase in killings does not surprise Pinar Ilkaracan of the non-governmental organization, Women for Women's Human Rights.

"The murders are the tip of iceberg; there is a lot of violence against women. There are thousands, tens of thousands of women, who are experiencing violence from their husbands, but they cannot leave home. First of all, what the government should do is increase the number of shelters. There are 26 shelters in 72 provinces of Turkey. This is a scandal by itself, the lowest number in European countries, for example in Germany there are 800 shelters," said Ilkaracan.

Despite the increase in murders, the government rejects such criticisms. It claims it has introduced some of the most far-reaching gender equality legislation in Europe in compliance with EU membership demands. Nimet Cubukcu, former women's minister and now minister of education, is proud of their record.

"The problem in Turkey has reached the level of ‘gendercide,’" said Hülya Gülbahar, a leading women's rights activist. Women have long been victims of violence, including honor killings, in a country where patriarchal traditions persist. But critics argue the problem has been compounded in recent years by the AKP's advocacy of conservative values. "The AKP's conservatism and Islam target the woman's body and sexuality," said Pınar İlkkaracan, a rights campaigner. "What is lacking is the will to eliminate violence against women on the part of the government. They have shown serious resistance" against solving the issue," she said.

Gülbahar also blamed mounting violence on "an intense propaganda that women and men are not equal by creation, and women are therefore responsible for housework and motherhood." Prime Minister – who once called women activists "marginals" – came under fire last year when he said, "men and women cannot be equal" but only "complementary to each other."...

Turkey has full equality on paper, but there is an incredible resistance on the part of the government, including the women's minister, to implement these reforms. Turkey is the country where women's employment is the lowest among OECD countries, the gender gap in education is not decreasing and the number of women in decision-making mechanisms are also decreasing.

Such a grim picture will undoubtedly cause concern in the EU. Women's rights remains one of the key areas of concern over Turkey's membership bid. That concern can only rise on the news of a 14-fold increase in murders of women.


Manu Manickvel said...

For most or all other faiths - Islamic countries are unfathomable & unreasonable...but not according to them!

Anonymous said...

Ah, the joys of the 'Arab Spring'. Thus goes Egypt, Tunisa, Jordan and all the other somewhat secular Muslim nations.

Not good times for human rights. A terrible step backwards towards the dark ages.

It can, and may, happen here. Don't say you weren't warned.