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Attacks on Women Continue In Turkey Despite Protests Over Student’s Brutal Murder

Men dressed in miniskirts marched through the streets of Istanbul in the latest protest over the killing a 20-year-old college student, but the demonstrations have seemingly done little to stop violence against women.

by Miriam Wells
Feb 21 2015, 5:55pm

Photo by Burhan Ozbilici/AP

Men dressed in miniskirts marched through the streets of Istanbul on Saturday, the latest in a wave of protests that have swept across Turkey following the recent murder of a young woman.

Protesters chanting, "Men hit, the government stays silent!" walked up a central avenue to Istanbul's Taksim Square, demanding an end to the country's victim-blaming culture of violence against women.

The killing of Ozgecan Aslan, a 20-year-old college student, sparked the demonstrations. Aslan was traveling home from school on February 11 when a minibus driver allegedly tried to rape her. According to testimony from the bus driver's confession that was widely reported by Turkish media outlets, he stabbed Aslan and beat her to death with an iron bar after she tried to fight back by using pepper spray and scratching him with her fingernails.

Fearing that the skin under her nails could be used as evidence agains him, the bus driver allegedly cut off Aslan's hands before burning her body and dumping it in a river with the help of his father and a friend.

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Sexual assault and murder are nothing out of the ordinary in Turkey, where 281 murders of women were reported in the press last year. Roughly 40 percent of Turkish women have been physically attacked by their partners, according to a 2011 UN report based on government data.

But Aslan's death has sparked an unprecedented wave of anger about endemic levels of sexual violence and harassment throughout the country. Four days after her murder, more than 10,000 people marched through the streets of Istanbul demanding the perpetrator and his accomplices be brought to justice. Online, hundreds of thousands of Turkish women took to Twitter to share their experiences of everyday sexism and abuse.

The hashtags #ozceganaslan and #sendeanlat (tell your story) became top trending topics worldwide on Twitter. 

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Politicians were quick to join the outcry over the student's death.

Economics Minister Nihat Zeybekci proposed bringing back the death penalty, while Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu promised to break the hands of all men who harassed women.

President Tayyip Erdgogan said in a speech that violence against women is the "bleeding wound" of Turkey, and that men are duty bound by Islam to protect them.

Women's organizations in Turkey said such reactions simply demonstrated the same values of male dominance that have allowed a culture of sexist violence to flourish. 

"What happened to Ozgecan happens every day," Selime Buyukgoze, a member of the anti-domestic violence organization Mor Cati, told VICE News. "The reason that people have responded in such a big way is because she was the perfect victim. She was a good young woman, on her way home from school in the daytime. If she had been traveling late at night or wearing a short skirt the reaction would have been very different."

Erdogan has said repeatedly that he does not believe in gender equality, stating last year that it is "against nature." His religious Justice and Development Party has also heavily pushed traditional family values, including a platform that says every Turkish woman should have at least three children. Erdogan has also sought to restrict access to abortion, contraception, and birth by Cesarean section.

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Erdogan's government has toughened the country's laws against domestic and sexual violence. But Buyukgoze said the laws have made no practical difference because they are not enforced and many women distrust the police.

Women who do report domestic violence to the authorities are usually discouraged, she said, with police making victims wait for hours or telling them nothing will come of their complaint. Protection orders can be granted, but there are no real penalties for breaking them. 

The only time cases end up in court is when a man attempts to murder or murders his partner. Even then, attackers are frequently acquitted using a defense of "unjust provocation," meaning the actions of their victim caused them to lose control. 

'I was so scared but I knew there was no point in making a complaint. The police just humiliate you more.'

"Men have learned to say to the courts, 'I love my wife so much, I just found out she had cheated on me and I exploded," Buyukgoze said. "And it works."

A 2009 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights found Turkish authorities demonstrated widespread "passivity" in response to violence against women.

Evre Pestereli, a 30-year-old woman who works in public relations, remembers being harassed for more than a hour by police after she and some friends went to report a bag snatching.

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"They kept us in a room, with officers coming in over and over again saying how beautiful we were, making suggestive comments, asking for our numbers," Pestereli told VICE News. "We've all heard stories about what the police can do so we got so scared that we left without filing the complaint."

Sexual harassment is a daily reality for all women, Pestereli said, noting that a culture of blame often keeps victims silent.

"The only time I was not negatively judged for speaking out about it was when I was 12 and a friend and I were attacked while picking flowers early one morning," she said. "We were so young we were considered innocent. As soon as you are a woman people ask, 'Well it was you that it happened to, so what did you do to provoke it?'"

Basak Corpuroglu told VICE News she was seven when a man flashed her while driving through her neighborhood.

"My friends and I pressed our faces to the window, we thought he was holding a sausage," she said. "It sounds funny now but it wasn't at the time. That was how I learned what a penis looked like and what masturbation was, when some boys told us afterwards that's what he was doing."

She recalled another incident two years ago when she was forced to get out of a taxi alone on a highway after she looked over to see the driver masturbating.

"I was so scared but I knew there was no point in making a complaint," she said. "The police just humiliate you more."

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Corpuroglu said all her female friends have been groped on public transport. Most carry pepper spray and some carry knives, she said. None were surprised by Aslan's death.

Pestereli said the huge outcry over the murder was meaningless hypocrisy. "These murders happen every day and no one says anything, in fact the government's actions encourage them," she said. "These protests have just become the latest fad. If those men in miniskirts are out there marching in six months time I will be right there alongside them cheering — but they won't be."

Mustafa Akyol, an analyst and columnist for Turkey's Hürriyet Daily News, wrote recently that Aslan's death was becoming a political football when it should provoke a "national soul-searching."

"All political figures condemned this and that's welcome," Akyol told VICE News. "But we need political, opinion and religious leaders to really make an effort to educate their own people and stand against this violent patriarchy, which is killing Turkish women every day in different ways."

Despite the recent protests, violence against women has seemingly continued unabated in Turkey. In the last week, a woman died after allegedly being run over by her boyfriend, a man was caught trying to rape a 12-year-old girl in a minibus, and the dismembered body of a woman killed by her husband was found in a garbage can in Istanbul.

"This shows Ozgecan was just one of many," Corpuroglu said. "This violence isn't going anywhere."

Follow Miriam Wells on Twitter: @missmbc