Justice in the making: Avenging crimes against women in Turkey

Late last month, when a jurist representing Turkey's highest court in a briefing to the Justice Ministry suggested reducing Turkey's legal marriage age for women to 14 and reducing the penalties for sexual attackers who agree to marry the woman they rape, the backlash from women's organizations and gender equality groups was enormous.

The suggestion also caused fear among women's rights activists, since some of these suggestions, brought up by a member of the Supreme Court of Appeals in a Justice Ministry commission that brought together civil society groups, lawyers from the Ankara Bar Association, social services administrators and Council of Forensic Medicine and Supreme Court of Appeals representatives, indeed used to be a part of Turkish legislation in the past.

They were removed in 2004 after long struggle by the country's women's rights movement. Representatives of the court defended their suggestion, saying young girls, victims of sexual assault, appear in courtrooms with babies in their laps and no one to take care of them, an argument found by rights' groups to be even more offensive then the proposal itself.

Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Şahin told the press a week ago that the news stories about the court member's proposals did not reflect the entire truth. He denied that his ministry was even working on a drafting a bill, but women's groups have pointed out that the statement came shortly after the enormous reactions shown towards the proposal.

Last weekend, women's groups in İstanbul protested the court member's proposal, along with a report issued by the Council of Forensic Medicine, asserting that the 14-year-old victim of sexual assault at the hands of Hüseyin Üzmez, 78, a columnist at a radical right-wing daily, had not been "permanently disturbed." Üzmez was released last week from prison pending trial, as a result of the controversial report. Protests and statements condemning both the proposal and the Üzmez report continued throughout the week. Most notably, a women's group named Birbirimize Sahip Çıkıyoruz (We're looking out for each other) protested in front of Galatasaray High School near İstanbul's central Taksim Square on Wednesday evening, demanding harsher penalties for sex offenders. "Every incident of assault, rape and violence against women that goes unpunished, legitimized or covered up triggers new acts of violence against women," the group said in a statement.

So, is Turkey taking a step backwards in women's rights? The answer is a resounding "yes" according to Turkish women's groups, including the İstanbul Bar Association's Women's Center. The center's head, lawyer Aydeniz Tuskan, stressed: "Turkey's female employment rate, which used to be around 34 percent in the past has gone down to 24 percent according to the latest statistics. Is this not a reversal?"

According to Tuskan, it is not the legislation but the mentality of administrators and jurists in courtrooms that lie at the heart of the problem. "Our laws are not significantly different from those of European countries. Of course a few changes here and there are needed, but we are not significantly behind," she said. New policies adopted by the government, including tax reductions for employees whose spouses are out of work and the removal of affirmative action policies targeting women in the social security laws, have been feeding this downward trend. "We need a change in mentality," Tuskan said, before women's issues can be addressed properly.

She also criticized the media for dedicating too much airtime and coverage to statements made by sexual aggressors. Üzmez, a journalist himself, was on television screens almost every evening after his release last week, explaining to provocative interviewers, ever hungry for controversy, that his affair with a 14-year-old was religiously acceptable. Üzmez's remarks found tremendous backlash from all segments of society, but, at the end of the day, the man was allowed to have his say on television.

Birbimize Sahip Çıkıyoruz also attacked the media in their Wednesday announcement, saying, "The media reports stories about violence against women with the levity of an entertainment story; and at the same time, it continues to provide a job, give talking space and extend a microphone to the man who committed violence," the statement said.

Meanwhile, despite public outrage, an appeal against Üzmez's release filed by the State Social Services and Child Protection (SHÇEK) agency was overturned by a court last week.

Fatma Benli, the vice president of the Women's Rights Association against Discrimination (AKDER), says rather than a complete reversal in women's rights, there has been a halt for years. "Since the Republic of Turkey was established, gender equality has been assured on paper. Since 2004, the state has been obliged to guarantee gender equality. But when you look at the figures, Turkey ranks 105th on a list of 115 countries in terms of women's access to education, work participation and political life. The mainstream view holds that changing legislation and modernizing the outside appearance of urban women should be enough. Since the words of equality are never translated into action, today there is a wide range of problem areas in women's rights."

Women's issues in Turkey in EU report

The latest progress report from the European Commission on Turkey released last Wednesday confirms activists' assertions. According to the report, gender equality remains a major challenge in Turkey. Not only is the rate of participation by women in the labor force the lowest among EU member-states and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, the rate of political representation of women -- 4.4 percent of Parliament -- is also alarmingly low.

One point Tuskan highlighted in stressing the aspect of the mentality of the courts and in wider society was also in the report, which noted that some articles on the Directorate of Religious Affairs Web site contain language offensive to women.

The gender gap in primary education, domestic violence, honor killings, early and forced marriages and questionable legal practices -- such as a high court decision demanding evidence be shown that an honor killing had been committed following a decision by the family to legally classify it as an honor killing -- persist, the report highlighted.

"Overall, the legal framework guaranteeing women's rights and gender equality is broadly in place; however, further significant efforts are needed," the report concluded.

Evre Kaynak from the rights group Women for Women's Human Rights (WWHR) also states that improvements in women's rights have hit major obstacles in Turkey, or have even gone into decline. She notes that although the current penal code that went into force in 2005 is deemed as one of the most advanced legal codes of the world both in terms of how it categorizes sexual assault and also in how it treats these crimes, bureaucrats and administrators who have been in office in the past years have mostly had a traditional outlook on women. "For example, when there was talk of drafting a new constitution in early 2007 sought to take out the phrase 'the state is obliged to ensure equality of men and women' from our constitution. This shows how they see the issue of women's rights."

She also criticized the government over changes in the social security reform bill ending privileges earlier afforded to women, stressing that the new version makes women -- who have a lower participation in the work force -- dependent on their fathers and husbands. This mentality, Kaynak stresses, sees women as being in need of protection, and seeks to protect them instead of protecting their rights as equal citizens.

"They [the administrators] always say the police force has undergone training to handle issues of violence, but we don't see how this translates into reality. The police, in many cases, simply reject victims' calls, saying they don't get involved in domestic disturbances. Kaynak is quick to underline that although the new penal code was adopted by the current government as part of an EU-inspired reform process, the changes in it concerning sex offenses were solely the product of years of pressure and hard work by women's groups. "Even the deputies accept that," she adds emphatically.

What is to be done?

AKDER's Benli asserts that the mentality of the judges, always seeking to accuse the victim of slander unless there is strong evidence, is also the major factor crippling the proper enforcement of the current laws. Turkish higher courts have in particular made their outlook on victims of sexual assault clear, she said, explaining: "The Supreme Court of Appeals in a decision over a case issued just this year used the expression 'it should be accepted that the woman had consented to the crime,' actually blaming the victim, as if the judges were there at the time of the incident. They cite the victim's failure to report the attack to the police immediately after the assault and her silence at the time of the attack as the reasons behind their conclusion."

Although it should be quickly noted that, as WWHR's Kaynak points out, there has been an increase in reporting of sexual crimes to the police as more women across the country become more aware of their rights. This, according to Kaynak, owes a great amount to the work carried out by the country's numerous women's organizations, as well as increasingly more coverage of sexual violence on televisions and the print media.

Benli asserts, as almost every women's activist in the country, that Turkey's main problem is not that the penalties for sex offenders aren't harsh enough -- although in comparison with some other countries such as the US and the Netherlands they aren't -- but that most of the time, the crime goes completely unpunished, which in effect, encourages repeat offenses. "Since the judiciary sees sexual assault as cases needing very concrete evidence, such as one would look for in an incident of theft, women are discouraged from entering the judicial process. And when the crime is not punished, it is repeated," she says, adding that a complete overhaul of the system including the Council of Forensic Medicine, setting up special units to handle sex crimes, paying attention to psychologists' reports in court processes and holding special lectures are some of the things that can be done to address the problem. Indeed, two outrageous incidents in the past week -- the Supreme Court of Appeals member's claim that our modern penal code runs against the nation's conservative values and the Council of Forensic Medicine report on Üzmez -- have stressed that the need for such an overhaul is a pressing necessity.

Another institution that needs reform itself is the mainstream media, a point women's organizations have repeatedly underlined. An example of how exorbitantly insensitive and sensational newspapers can be in reporting sexual violence can be seen only by looking at headlines from Saturday last week. One of the newspapers used the headline "Call me 'my love,' not daddy" in its report on the tragedy of a 16-year-old who had to have three abortions as a result of persistent rape by her father.

However, the picture in Turkey might appear to be much worse than one would expect. The country's strong women's movement, the government's obligations to join the EU and increasing awareness among people will drastically change opinions in a surprisingly short time.

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