Women protest against women’s murders in Ankara, Turkey, on Aug. 23. Signs say “We are not silent” and show Emine Bulut, whose killing by her ex-husband was captured on video that was widely shared on social media.
Emine Dirican, a beautician from Istanbul, tried to be a good wife. But her husband hated that she worked, that she socialized, even that she wanted to leave the house sometimes without him.
She tried to reason with him. He lashed out.
“One time, he tied me — my hands, my legs from the back, like you do to animals,” recalls Dirican, shuddering. “He beat me with a belt and said, ‘You’re going to listen to me, you’re going to obey whatever I say to you.’ “
She left him and moved in with her parents. In January, he showed up, full of remorse and insisting he had changed. She let him in.
In her mother’s kitchen, he grabbed her by the hair, threw her to the floor and pulled out a gun.
“He shot me,” she says. “Then he went back to my mom and he pulled the trigger again, but the gun was stuck. So he hit her head with the back of the gun.”
Her father, who was in another room in the house, heard the gunshots and ran over. Dirican almost bled to death after a bullet ripped through a main artery in one of her legs.
“I was telling my father, ‘Daddy, please, I don’t want to die.’ “
Femicide — killing women because of their gender — is a longstanding issue in Turkey. Nearly 300 women have been killed so far this year, according to the Istanbul-based advocacy group We Will Stop Femicide, which has been tracking gender-related deaths since Turkish authorities stopped doing so in 2009.
The group — widely considered an authoritative source on violence against women — compiles its data from news stories and emails from the families of women killed. It says more than 2,600 women have been murdered since 2010, most of them by their partners.
Emine Dirican survived a shooting attack by her estranged husband after she left him. “Enough,” she says. “This is not what honor looks like.”
Since 2011, the year Turkey became the first country to sign and ratify a Council of Europe convention on preventing domestic violence, We Will Stop Femicide’s data shows a steady increase every year in the number of killings, with 121 women murdered in 2011 and nearly four times that number, 440, in 2018.
“Men can’t accept that Turkey is a modern country where women have rights,” says Fidan Ataselim, the group’s general secretary. “Some of these men don’t even think we have the right to live.”
Last month, Ataselim led protests in Istanbul after Emine Bulut, a 38-year-old in central Turkey, was killed in a café by her ex-husband, who slit Bulut’s throat in front of their 10-year-old daughter. Bulut’s murder was captured on video and shared widely on social media. In the video, she is heard screaming, “I don’t want to die!” Thousands of women in the protest echoed Bulut, chanting: “We don’t want to die.”
“If they disobey him, he is emasculated”
Emine Dirican’s husband was convicted of simple assault and is now free, awaiting final sentencing. He has appealed his verdict. So has Dirican, who wants him tried for attempted murder.
Lawyers for women in cases like hers say Turkey has strong laws against abuse. They’re just not being enforced.
In her no-frills Istanbul office stacked with case files of domestic abuse victims and survivors, lawyer Hulya Gulbahar pulls out a folder filled with statistics from 2009 — the last year Turkey’s conservative government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, kept records on domestic violence.
That year, she said, the Justice Ministry initially recorded the killings of 953 women in the first seven months of the year — then revised it to 171 for the entire year.
“The government ignores the problem because they’re complicit,” she says. “Politicians imply that men and women are not equal, that women are given by God to man to care for. They want a family controlled by men, where everyone in the family obeys the men.”
And male honor depends on women’s obedience and men’s control of women’s sexuality, says gender studies scholar Fatmagul Berktay, a professor emeritus of political science at Istanbul University.
“It can be a daughter, it can be a wife, it can even be their own mother,” Berktay says. “If they disobey him, he is emasculated.”
In Europe and the United States, she says, women die in “passion killings.” In Turkey, she says, “the men claim it’s about honor. The problem is the same — women are not valued.”
Lawyer Ozlem Ozkan, also in Istanbul, sees how authorities treat her clients.
“Women who have been beaten go to the police and are told, don’t file a complaint, it will just make your husband angry,” she says. “I’ve heard with my own ears lawyers telling women who have survived domestic violence, ‘Well, maybe you just want a divorce because you have a lover.’ “
Turkey doesn’t have enough state or municipal-run women’s shelters, she says — only 142 in a country of more than 80 million. Ozkan says the government calls them guesthouses because the word “shelter,” she says, “expresses an immediate danger and the need for protection.”
Beyond this, “The state does not favor real solutions to stop violence against women and children,” she says. “Although women are subjected to violence, it does not want the family to break up.”
Ozkan volunteers at at a women’s rights organization, Mor Cati, or Purple Roof, that runs a private shelter. Mor Cati grew out of a 1987 protest over a male judge turning down a woman’s divorce petition by saying, “A little whip on the back or on the belly is of no harm to women.”
The shelter’s welcome center is located off a busy shopping street in Istanbul. Children’s drawings of hearts and houses fill the walls. Stuffed animals line the shelves.
“Some of these men don’t even think we have the right to live,” says Fidan Ataselim of the activist group We Will Stop Femicide.
“Many women bring their children,” says one of the volunteers, Elif, who declines to give her last name because the shelter receives threats from the partners of women it protects. “They can’t leave their children with family,” she says, because relatives often push the women to stay with violent husbands.
“Because of the social norms here,” she says, “they think violence can be OK, why are you crushing your family?”
Blaming the victims
That mindset — that violence is OK — has hardened among many Turkish men, “rural, urban, religious, secular, educated,” says Berktay, the gender studies scholar. At the same time, Turkish women are exercising their rights — including the right to work, speak up, divorce.
“Women are pushing for their rights, and they’re making an issue out of domestic violence,” she says. “Women are awakening.”
Turkish leaders are noticing. After Emine Bulut’s killing in August, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu blamed “male violence” for her death. A popular soccer team observed a moment of silence in Bulut’s memory. Erdogan even hinted at reinstating the death penalty for men who kill their wives.
Ataselim of We Will Stop Femicide says Erdogan’s tough talk misses the point.
“High-ranking members of this government say things like women should not laugh too loudly, as if this encourages men to attack us,” she says. “Domestic violence never happens because there’s a problem with the woman. The men are killing. They are the problem.”
Istanbul jewelry shop owner Hilmi Bilgin doesn’t entirely agree, though he has two grown daughters. “I would say it’s 70% the fault of men and 30% the fault of women,” he says. “Women make it worse for themselves by either being meek, which makes men feel more aggressive, or they overreact, which triggers the men.”
“I get emails and phone calls saying, ‘I will find you and rape you and kill you,'” says prosecutor Selin Nakipoglu. “I’m not scared. But my clients are dead.”
“This is not what honor looks like”
Istanbul-based attorney Selin Nakipoglu has spent years facing off with men in court who say they were provoked into killing their wives.
“They show up in court wearing suits and ties, saying they’re sorry but ‘honor’ made them do it,” she says. “And the judges let [them] get away with it.”
Relatives of victims sometimes call Nakipoglu to the scene of the crimes. She remembers finding one young mother lying in her kitchen after the woman’s husband stabbed her repeatedly in the heart. He thought she’d been cheating on him. Her two young sons found her.
“I still see her face,” Nakipoglu says, her eyes filling with tears.
The woman’s husband threatened Nakipoglu in court. He’s not the only one.
“I get emails and phone calls saying, ‘I will find you and rape you and kill you,'” she says. “I’m not scared. But my clients are dead.”
Emine Dirican’s estranged husband is free until another hearing scheduled for next month. She rarely leaves her parents’ home. Every day, she hears about another woman being killed.
“Enough,” she says. “This is not what honor looks like.”
NPR Istanbul producer Gokce Saracoglu contributed reporting.