ISTANBUL (WOMENSENEWS)--For some of the female guests on "Woman's Voice"--the hit Turkish daytime talk show that last week was pulled off the air--it was a desperate move, a final attempt at getting out of a life of misery.
Appearing live before millions of viewers, they told similar, harrowing stories of abuse and violence at home.
In a country with a population of 70 million and fewer than a dozen shelters for battered women, they described a world where there was almost no place to turn. The police did not offer protection and family members usually told them to go work it out with their husbands.
For Isik Birgul, a mother of five from Turkey's conservative Anatolian region, appearing on the show--the most popular of some half dozen similar programs on various Turkish networks--it has turned out to be almost deadly.
After fleeing her abusive husband for the fifth time, she made her way to Istanbul last week and onto the show's orange-and-purple set. (When she sought help from police, they directed her to the program, according to press reports.) Birgul told of being forced to marry her husband some 20 years ago. Her husband, she said, had had two previous wives, both of whom he allegedly also abused.
Host Yasemin Bozkurt decided to take action. While Birgul was being interviewed on the air, assistants offstage reportedly called officials in her hometown of Elazig, demanding protection for Birgul and her children. Bozkurt says her staff received assurances, but officials in Elazig deny speaking with anyone from the show.
Apparently reassured, Birgul returned to Elazig.
But when she stepped off the bus from Istanbul, she was met by her 14-year-old son. "You went on television and disgraced the family!" he yelled and then shot her five times in the head and chest.
Now Isik Birgul is in a coma after 11 hours of surgery to save her life. Her son is currently under arrest along with his father, who is accused of sending him out on the murder mission.
Kanal D, the private network that was home to "Kadinin Sesi," has pulled the plug on the show. The second-most popular women's show, "You Are Not Alone," on a rival channel, has also been canceled. In a statement, Kanal D's management said they canceled the show because it was becoming a "social problem."
"These programs touch a raw nerve," Fatih Karaca, head of RTUK, the state body that monitors Turkish television and radio told the press. "They discuss family, children, marital relations--sensitive topics to Turks--in an indecently open way."
But in a country where violence against women is widespread and services to help them few, women's rights activists say the shows, despite their sensationalism, are being criticized because they spotlight the abuse and other difficulties faced by women that get largely ignored.
Violence the 'Real Problem'
"The major social problem is that these women get no help, that they have no other place to turn to," said Pinar Ilkkaracan, co-founder of the Istanbul-based Women for Women's Human Rights.
Close to half of all Turkish women have been victims of domestic violence, according to an Amnesty International report released last year.
Until recently, violence committed against women often went unpunished in Turkey. A criminal code passed last year is supposed to change that, particularly regarding so-called honor killings, when male relatives kill a woman for supposedly damaging the "honor" of the family.
In the past, for example, younger relatives would be sent out to do the killing because as minors they would face a lesser punishment. The new law holds everyone involved in planning the murder equally responsible for the crime and includes life sentences.
Desire to Talk
Some say shows like "Woman's Voice" indicate that as Turkish society goes through a period of rapid modernization, some of which is tied to Turkey's European Union bid, Turkish women are becoming more open about domestic violence, a topic that was once strictly kept within household walls.
"Domestic violence used to be a taboo subject, but now people openly discuss it. Things in Turkey are changing," says Nilufer Narli, a sociologist at Istanbul's Kadir Has University.
"I think these programs have come into being because of what's happening in the field. Women wanted to speak out, they wanted help," says Women for Women's Human Rights' Ilkkaracan.
Aysegul Yazici, host of the canceled "You Are Not Alone" on Turkey's ATV network, says she was getting requests from close to 300 women every day who wanted to appear on the show.
"The main objective of my show is to tell women that they shouldn't remain silent, that a solution will come if they raise their voice and take steps to address their problems," she says. "I'm trying to show women their way out."
Criticism of the shows had been building for the last month, after a murder between two feuding families in the city of Izmir. One of the families had been on "Woman's Voice" only a few days before to talk about the murder of their daughter by her husband. Reached on the phone during the show, the father of the murderer threatened further violence, which he delivered on a few days later when he opened fire on a car containing relatives of the murdered woman, killing her brother-in-law.
When women take the dangerous steps of talking about their lives, critics said, the shows should assume responsibility for what happens to them after they left the stage set.
"None of these programs is there to find solutions," says Cengiz Semercioglu, a television and popular culture critic at the Istanbul-based daily newspaper Hurriyet, who accuses the shows of exploiting not helping women. "They are using these people's sad stories to get these ratings."
Semercioglu says he believes that as the shows became more popular and the ratings battles more intense, producers started straying away from the programs' original purpose--to offer women a sympathetic ear--and started relying more on segments that featured highly-provocative emotional stunts.
Along with women fleeing an abusive home, a typical afternoon on "Kadinin Sesi" also features women and men looking for dates and couples who have gone on dates arranged by the show.
Like vintage episodes of the popular U.S. daytime talk shows, like the Jerry Springer show, there is a circus-like atmosphere with lots of shouting, crying and name-calling.
Ayda Nur is a 30-year-old Istanbul housewife who says the show has become a regular part of her life.
"I don't remember there being such a public platform where women's voices could be heard before," said Nur. "It makes people understand women's lives better, about their experiences and what they've been through."
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, where he writes for the Christian Science Monitor and the Jerusalem Report.
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