The Trouble with Martyrdom: How Have Turkey’s Conservatives Responded to the Özgecan Aslan Case?

by Justus Links

March 27, 2015

In response to the brutal rape and murder of university student Özgecan Aslan on February 11, Turkey’s Director of Religious Affairs Mehmet Görmez had choice words of outrage: he blamed a “vicious and oppressive culture” for the death of “our pure sister.” In the light of other statements by supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), it is not hard to guess which culture Görmez had in mind.

A few days after the attack, the pro-government newspaper Yeni Akit ascribed two other recent cases of rape and murder to “the western lifestyle” with its “mini-skirts” and “co-ed housing.” Celebrity Nihat Doğan chimed in with a tweet, scorning women who “wear mini-skirts and strip,” and then cry foul when “harassed by perverts whom the secular system has corrupted.” For Turkey’s conservatives, not patriarchal norms but rather their loosening is to blame for the country’s worsening plague of sexual violence.

A protest in Istanbul following the murder of Özgecan Aslan.

Such an explanation is plausible to those accustomed to thinking of rape as a result of excessive sexuality, rather than a means of enforcing male dominance in a patriarchal society. Politicians can indulge in law-and-order rhetoric, invoking castration and the return of the death penalty, without threatening the country’s dominant gender politics. As lawmakers propose the nationwide institution of “pink buses” reserved for women, the fear of rape becomes a further weapon in the hands of those who would segregate public facilities. Such women-only buses have been in operation in the city of Afyon since 2013.

Nor do conservatives need to blame the victim in order to make Özgecan’s cause their own. The televised Koranic commentator known as Cübbeli Ahmet Hoca pronounced the young woman a “martyr” for defending her chastity and thereby her “honor” (namus). Namus is a patriarchal conceit that regulates relationships among men through the medium of the female body. Its guardians are the male authority figures of family and neighborhood. These are the authorities on which the AKP government calls to keep the mistreatment of women under control. Rejecting the opposition’s call for the further installation of “panic buttons” that alert police to domestic violence, one parliamentarian asserted that “neighborhoods” must protect their own “namus.”

The week after the murder, three brothers charged with murdering a young woman in Istanbul in 2010 were acquitted by a court that saw fit to explain that the part she had played in her own death was unclear, given that she “had drunk alcohol and had sex with a man she barely knew.” It remains to be seen whether women who refuse patriarchal policing can benefit from the general public’s newfound concern for rape victims—or whether its solidarity remains a privilege reserved for those who submit to male authorities.

When the AKP came to power in 2002, many liberal commentators in Turkey and abroad looked forward to the reign of a reformist party committed to liberalization on both economic and political fronts. On paper, Erdoğan’s first term as Prime Minister brought reform for women as well. In the spirit of compliance with EU standards, the Turkish parliament passed laws stiffening penalties for violence against women. Rape within marriage was criminalized in Turkey in 2005, the fourth year of the AKP’s time in power.

Yet another development was underway that belied the narrative of reform proffered by the ruling party. By 2009 government statistics showed a 1400% increase in the murder of women over the previous seven years. Since then the numbers have become an object of dispute between the government and women’s groups. A government-sponsored research project of 2008 found that over half of the women of some conservative eastern regions had experienced domestic violence. Yet last year reported murders of women were highest, not in the rural east, but in metropolises such as Ankara, Izmir, Antalya, and most of all Istanbul. What is happening in Turkey is not so much the uniform advance of conservatism as severe polarization, as cultures previously separated by geography come into increased contact and clash. The last three decades have seen pronounced urbanization, fueled by internal immigration from rural and conservative regions to major urban centers in the central and western parts of the country.

Many observers see therein a spur to the explosion of violence against women that has taken place in recent years. As families whose women led a cloistered existence on the farm or in the village relocate to urban settings, the boundaries separating the patriarchal home from the outside world—a world of both work and desire—becomes increasingly difficult to police. Without the semi-organic network of the village community to enforce these boundaries and settle disputes, men reach for ever more desperate means to maintain their authority and protect the family honor.

It is those communal structures, lost in the fluidity of urbanization, which the AKP apparently hopes to reconstruct with its rhetoric of neighborhood policing. What it wants to avoid at all cost is the further interruption of communal patterns through the intrusion into families of the police, that is, the state. Nevertheless, it does not hesitate to send police to investigate and break up mixed-sex student households, with the approval of some of the students’ conservative neighbors.

Whatever its liberal—or neoliberal—bona fides on other fronts, it should be clear by now that progressive cultural reform was never going to come from a party rooted in religious conservatism. Yet neither should critics assume that AKP politicians are insincere in their efforts to combat the scourge of rape. These men hope to diminish male violence by clamping down on what they perceive as its root causes: sexual freedom and the emancipation of women.

Judges appointed under the AKP have reduced men’s murder sentences in the case of “provocation,” e.g. when a woman wore tight clothes or used cell phones without the future murderer’s permission. Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s rhetoric against female immodesty has led to activist solutions on the part of local officials. A female secondary school official in Mersin outlawed mini-skirts among her pupils and proposed organizing a “harassment team” made up of male students to enforce the rule. In Tokat, a public high school religion teacher told her female students that they too “deserved” Özgecan’s fate for not covering their hair, and for protesting rather than praying in response to her death. This statement echoes the president’s own criticism of a feminist parliamentarian for dancing at a demonstration rather than reciting the Koranic verses read at funerals.

There is a danger of the country coming together over the recent gruesome attacks, but at the expense of women who don’t meet the ruling faction’s notion of virgin purity. On the other hand, the aggressive promotion of patriarchal mores by an Islamist government has galvanized feminist sentiment among mainstream secularists in ways not seen before secularism itself was in danger. It is doubtful that so many men would have taken to the streets wearing mini-skirts if that garment had not entered the vocabulary of Turkey’s clothing-wars as the counterweight to the Islamic headscarf (türban): each a life-style signifier that one faction seeks to marginalize and another to promote. Even so, long-term change is most likely if secular Turks find common cause with those among the devout who feel that Erdoğan and Cübbeli Ahmet do not speak for them.

Justus Links is a freelance writer and educator based in Turkey. His
political commentary has appeared on MR Zine and LeftEast.