Pinar Ilkkaracan

ISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)–Guldunya Toren wasn’t even safe lying in a hospital bed.

An unmarried 24-year-old from Turkey’s impoverished and conservative southeast region, Toren was sent to live with an uncle and her brothers in Istanbul when her family discovered she was pregnant in 2003. In Istanbul, though, Toren’s brothers presented her with a stark choice: Kill yourself to save the family’s honor or we will kill you ourselves.

Toren ran away from her uncle’s house, asking the police to protect her. Her request was refused and a few weeks after she gave birth last February, Toren was shot in the street and left for dead, her brothers considered the most likely suspects. As Toren was recovering in the hospital–again without any police protection–someone entered her room and shot her to death.

Toren’s murder made headlines in Turkey and is one of several disturbing examples in a recently released Amnesty International report about violence against women in Turkey. The report makes clear, though, that "honor killings" like that of Toren are only the most extreme and attention-grabbing examples of a far more widespread problem of domestic violence in Turkey.

Turkish women’s groups say the June report–which estimates that up to half of all Turkish women may have been victims of family violence–points out another important problem: Turkey’s difficulty in confronting violence against women and tackling the wider issue of women’s equality.

While the country has been making major reforms in the human rights field as part of its bid to join the European Union, which could be given a green light this December, activists say the country’s traditions and conservatism are holding back women’s rights.

"Most of Turkish society wants reforms. But when it comes to women’s issues, there is a lot of resistance," says Pinar Ilkkaracan, co-founder of the Istanbul-based organization Women for Women’s Human Rights, which has been lobbying in Ankara for stronger laws to protect women’s rights.

Death Penalty Abolished, But Few Gender Reforms

In order to improve its odds of getting into the European Union, Turkey has abolished the death penalty and reorganized the country’s court system to eliminate what had been termed "black holes" in the country’s judicial system. These changes were successfully passed by the country’s parliament with little public discussion, Ilkkaracan points out.

Gender-related reforms, however, have been stalled. After a heated debate, members of parliament this past May blocked a constitutional amendment proposed by Turkey’s opposition party that would have allowed for affirmative action in elections and government hiring. The country’s ruling party–which holds an overwhelming majority–unanimously voted against it.

Meanwhile, a parliamentary committee preparing a draft law to reform the penal code has so far rejected a demand by women’s groups that honor killings be defined in the new law as "aggravated homicide," which would lead to stiffer sentences for those who commit the crime.

Observers are also concerned that the draft bill fails to explicitly outlaw the practice of virginity testing, leaving various loopholes that would allow the practice–often used to determine whether a young woman has lost her virginity and thus her family’s "honor"–to continue.

"Domestic violence and honor killings are yet to be understood in Turkey as violations of a woman’s human rights," says Leyla Pervizat, a researcher who has written about honor killings in Turkey. "They are still considered as domestic and marginal."

Ilkkaracan, of Women for Women’s Human Rights, says this attitude must be rooted out of Turkey’s new penal code, which parliament will most likely vote on in September. "The philosophy of women’s bodies and sexuality in the existing penal code says it belongs to their husbands, their families, their community, the state," she says. "This has to be changed."

"We want a complete reform of the penal code, a feminist reform," she adds. "If there are only a few reforms, it won’t bring full equality to Turkey."

Failure to Protect the Rights of Victims

The Amnesty International report also points to Turkey’s systematic failure to protect the rights–and even lives–of women who are victims of violence.

"Amnesty International is concerned that the government has failed to ensure the effective implementation of existing legislation and fears that further reforms will also be resisted by the courts and other parts of the criminal justice system," says the report, the first to be released as part of a new global consciousness-raising campaign about gender violence called Stop Violence Against Women.

"The police frequently fail to investigate or press charges against perpetrators of violence against women. Women are not encouraged to bring complaints against their attackers and receive almost no effective protection from vengeful husbands and relatives. Those responsible–including the heads of family councils–are rarely brought to justice."

Women’s advocates also point the dire lack of shelters for abused and threatened women in Turkey, which has eight shelters and a population of 65 million. Sweden, by contrast, with a population of 8 million, has more than 120 shelters.

"In Turkey, where violence against women is so widespread, we need shelters because there are so many women’s lives to be saved," says Canan Arin, an Istanbul lawyer who co-founded Purple Roof, Turkey’s first shelter for women. It opened in 1990, but closed eight years later because of a lack of funding.

No Place to Go

Arin says efforts to reopen the shelter have failed because neither the Turkish government nor any other source has offered funding support. In the meantime, she says, threatened women have basically no safe place to go, especially since the police and the court system are often unsympathetic to them.

"Prosecutors and judges should be trained," Arin says. "The police should be trained very well and taught the most important thing is a woman’s life. I’m not talking about her human rights but her actual life."

The European Union has sponsored human rights training programs for Turkish judges and prosecutors as part of the reform process, although these trainings did not deal specifically with women’s human rights.

Hansjorg Kretschmer, the European Union representative in Ankara, has also spoken publicly about the importance of gender equality for political and economic development.

But while the European Union has been closely monitoring the progress of the Turkish reforms and has provided millions of dollars in funding for human rights and civil society projects, some worry that women’s issues have not been given a strong enough look.

Women’s issues "have been part of the package, but it’s not a priority," says Sally Goggin, assistant director of the Ankara office of the British Council, an agency connected to the British government that has helped fund women’s centers in Turkey’s southeast.

"There are various funds and mechanisms there, but I think it’s on the agenda but not at the top of the agenda."

Yigal Schleifer is a journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey.



For more information:

Women for Women’s Human Rights:

Amnesty International–
Turkey: Women Confronting Family Violence: