Istanbul, TURKEY – The brutal slaying of a young woman fighting back an attempted rape has prompted days of angry protest across Turkey, refocusing public attention on what women’s rights groups call soaring levels of gender-based violence.
Police last week discovered the charred corpse of 20-year-old psychology student Ozgecan Aslan in a riverbed in Turkey’s southern Mersin province. She was killed by the driver of a mini-bus she took to go home, authorities said.
Three men have been arrested in connection with what prosecutors described as the “atrocious” murder, including the 26-year-old driver of the minibus driver,Ahmet Suphi Altindoken.
“Ozgecan had a wonderful heart, she would work hard, help everyone,” the grief-stricken mother of the slain woman told reporters on the weekend, as thousands of mourners turned out to her funeral. “I cannot accept that she was massacred when she took a minibus to come home.”
The slaying has refocused attention on gender-based violence in this nation of 80 million.
Many thousands of people in dozens of provinces have taken to streets – denouncing violence while carrying placards depicting a smiling Aslan – calling on the government to do more to halt such violence.
An online petition has so far gathered more than 700,000 signatures while #OzgecanAslan trended globally on Twitter.
Violence against women has nearly trebled during the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party’s more than decade of rule. Nearly 300 women were murdered last year according to the news website Bianet – up from around 60 in 2002 – which monitors violence against women.
Women were typically slain for attempting to end a marriage or other relationship.
Bianet reported that 27 women were slain in January alone, most with guns, knives or axes.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the rash of murders as Turkey’s “bleeding wound” on Monday, while promising retribution.
“The perpetrators of this nefarious massacre have been arrested. I will personally follow the case so that they will be given the heaviest penalty,” said Erdogan, according to local media reports. “I am already following the case.”
Rights groups have long called on the government to do more and alleged judicial sympathy towards perpetrators of gender-based killings. Human Rights Watch has previously found “that gaps in existing laws and lax enforcement left women without adequate protection.”
Meanwhile, the government recently conceded that its “panic button” system – a button that women at high risk could press if attacked – had been a failure. Women’s rights activists had repeatedly argued that the system did not work and called for harsher sentencing as a deterrent.
“If you kill a woman, you should be jailed for life,” said Isil Kurt, an activist from We Will Stop Women Homicides Platform, which organized many of the protests following the discovery of Aslan’s remains “There should be no judicial sympathy for these crimes. Maybe then these murders will stop.”
Aslan was last seen alive by a friend aboard a minibus in Mersin on Wednesday last week. The driver, Altindoken, whisked Aslan away to a secluded locale, where he attempted to rape her. She fought back with pepper spray.
Reports indicate that she clawed at her assailant. Overwhelming the young woman, he stabbed her repeatedly then bludgeoned her with a crowbar before cutting her hands off, according to media reports citing police accounts.
Altindoken – with help from his father and a friend – later doused Aslan’s body in petrol and set her ablaze.
The men then dumped the scorched remains in a remote riverbed. Police discovered the remains on Friday.
“No child is born a murderer, a thief or a terrorist. There are many things behind what turned him into this,” said Naciye Tan, the murderer’s estranged mother, according to local media.
“I could not protect my child. His father tended to violence. I was subjected to violence from my husband, but could not tell anyone.”
The brutality of the crime has reinvigorated calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty in pro-government circles – a clear retreat from European Union standards, to which Turkey aspires – while once again exposing schisms in deeply-polarized Turkey.
Sevda Turksev, a columnist with the pro-government daily Yeni Safak, slammed a Twitter campaign in which women shared stories of harassment and abuse.
“The women who tell stories about how they were sexually harassed should shut up and see a doctor,” Turksev tweeted. “Life is not a TV drama.”
Others took to comment forums to deride Aslan as a “bitch” and an “Alevi” – a much-repressed religious minority, while questioning her attire at the time of the attack. Erdogan, meantime, lambasted a group of female protesters for dancing in remembrance of the slain Aslan.
“It’s like enjoying death,” he said. “What place does this have in our culture?”
Incendiary statements by ruling party officials, while made prior to Aslan’s murder, fuelled further protester outrage, going viral across social media platforms.
In one of the comments, Erhan Ekmekci, a provincial ruling party figure said: “When girls go to school, boys can’t find wives to marry.”
In another Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Ankara, said women who had an abortion following a rape “should die.”
Violence against Turkish women often revolves around concepts of “honour” and loyalty – a stifling patriarchal environment – which, watchdogs claim, reduces women to “property.”
“A strong tendency… in all the (Turkish) provinces was to relate the concept of honour with women, women’s sexuality and the control of women,” said a 2005 United Nations Population Fund report.