Konya, Turkey – Bahar sits in a safe house, a blue hijab loosely wrapped around her brown hair. She’s thinking back to when she was 13 years old and selling eggs in her village, thinking back to the first man she married.
A quarter-century has since passed. Two of Bahar’s children scurry into the room and are quickly shuffled along by a young and pale-faced woman, also in hiding. The pale-faced woman bore her father’s child four years ago.
“I have no future,” says Bahar. “My only hope is that my children die with me. This is no world for them.” Flowers – maroon, purple, and gentle yellow – stand in a vase in the corner of the room.
Bahar says her life ended all those years ago in a small village in Turkey’s Anatolian heartland, when her parents pressured her to marry a first cousin. Instead, she eloped with a local man 10 years her senior. The beatings began as soon as they were wed.
Women in danger
Turkey is one of the world’s worst countries to be a woman. Between 2002 and 2009, the murder rate of women skyrocketed by 1,400 percent. An estimated 28,000 women were assaulted in 2013, according to official figures. Of those, more than 214 were murdered, monitors say, normally by husbands or lovers.
On August 8, Beyzal Bal was stabbed to death on a bustling street 150 metres from a police station in coastal Izmir, by her husband. Bal was seeking a divorce and had requested police protection as a result of her husband’s threats.
Five days later in Erzinican province, a man brutalised his wife, forcing her to the floor before repeatedly bashing her head against the floor of their home, killing her. Earlier in the month, Serap Firat was cut down by a shotgun blast in a co-worker’s office. And in late August, a woman from the capital, Ankara, was bludgeoned to death by her axe-wielding husband.
One woman in southeastern Batman province was buried alive by her family for listening to inappropriate music; another was thrown down a ravine by her husband; one woman was pushed off a balcony; another was set on fire.
“There is no point in asking what kinds of violence we see,” says Hayrettin Bulan of Sefkat-Der, a women’s rights group providing shelter to abused women. “A better question [is]: What methods are not used?”
Around 40 percentof Turkish women have suffered physical abuse at some stage in their lives, topping rates in Europe and the US. The 2013 Global Gender Gap Reportranked Turkey 120th out of 136 countries.
In a patriarchal country with repressive social strictures and creeping religious conservatism, many fear that things will get worse.
‘My family rejected me’
Things got worse for Bahar. Her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, following one of her husband’s beatings. The second yielded a daughter. At age 17 she tried to reconnect with her family to escape the marriage.
“My family rejected me, would not see me. I went back to my husband. My father-in-law began sexually abusing me,” she says. “My brother-in-law, he would come into the room when I was alone…”
The beatings escalated. “It was constant violence,” she says. A man from the village promised to help her get out, telling her he knew a bar at which she could work. She fled on his promise, leaving her young daughter with her parents.
Instead, she wound up working in a pavyon, a seedy nightclub – essentially a brothel – linked to organised crime, where hostesses are paid to drink with the customers. Rubber bands were wrapped around her wrists, keeping track of how many drinks she had gotten the clients to buy for her.
“At the end of each night, we were sold to the men,” Bahar says. She was drinking heavily by this stage. Her memory stretches back into that haze of late nights, drugs and alcohol, prostitution and violence. She recalls one woman at the pavyon being strangled to death.
“Men turn to violence in order to establish their domination or when they feel it is threatened. Murder is one of the most horrific consequences of this violence,” says rights group Mor Cati. “Although we don’t have official statistics, the news in the media indicates that no less than three women are murdered by their husbands, boyfriends or their ex-partners every day.”
In 2009, around 1,000 Turkish women were killed. Government ministries have since ceased providing figures, instructing monitors to contact individual police departments instead.
“Various official statements on male violence contradict each other,” says Cicek Tahaoglu, a reporter monitoring violence against women at Bianet. “According to statistics released by the Justice Ministry, 953 women were slain in the first seven months of 2009. On the other hand, Interior Ministry officials declared that 324 women were murdered in 2009.”
Meanwhile, former Women and Social Policies Minister Fatma Sahin provided a different toll, the number of women killed in 2009 was 171.
Violence against women often involves concepts of “honour”, which, according to watchdogs, reduce women to “property”.
“A strong tendency… in all the 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 (UNPF) report, titled The Dynamics of Honour Killings in Turkey. The report stated that women, in order to be considered “honourable”, have to be perceived as chaste, loyal, modestly dressed, and adhering to traditional roles.
Women who violate – or are thought to have violated – these norms can often face violence.
The government’s role
Many say that Turkey’s government is not doing enough to support vulnerable women. “What did the government do? It gave at-risk women panic buttons. So if her family turns up with hunting rifles, she can press a button and maybe the police will arrive an hour later,” says Bulan, who ran a controversial programme for battered women in which they were trained to use firearms.
Activists argue that the government, led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is becoming increasingly conservative on gender issues. In 2011, the Ministry of State for Women’s Affairs, created in 1991 after a long battle, saw the word “women” dropped from its title. It was renamed the Ministry of Families and Social Policies, effectively redefining women according to family roles.
Similarly, efforts have been made to close the parliamentary commission promoting gender equality in the workplace.
Erdogan has encouraged women to have at least three children – preferably five – while seeking to limit the right to abortions or Caesarean sections. He once reportedly told a female employee that women working in senior government positions was “against human nature”.
While Erdogan’s government has increased the Directorate of Religious Affairs’ budget more than 20 times during its tenure and constructed 17,000 mosques, Turkey has, according to Bulan, a total of only 120 official shelters with capacity for 3,110 people. For the 28,000 women in need of protection last year, the burden is picked up by a small number of NGOs running shelters.
‘I was afraid they would kill me’
Bahar does not know what the owners of the pavyon did with the murdered woman’s body. She fled after two years. The owners had reach, she says. They could come find her. “I was afraid they would… kill me.”
Bahar has drifted through relationships – fighting, sometimes successfully, the urge to drink. She gave birth to another child. “When he found out I was pregnant he said, ‘I can’t see you any more’. I didn’t want to have an abortion, so I adopted her out. She must be 15 years old now.”
By this stage she was in and out of Sefkat-der’s shelters. She gave birth to two more children, by an Istanbul military man. She says he ended the relationship after she told him her history, claiming his family could not accept a woman with the burdens of her past. “I was searching to be loved, to have a good husband.”
Meanwhile, the young, pale-faced woman – her father is to be released from prison for her rape, and she will be moved to another safe house – bundles up Bahar’s children. Woolen hats are pulled down low on their heads. The three women and the two little ones take a walk in the fading November light.
Bahar’s first daughter managed to reconnect with her, and told her she’s now working in a pavyon.
“She’s fragile,” Bahar says. “I know what she’s going through. She’s living the same life as me.”