Nicole Tung Eda Okutgen's sisters (L to R) Nazli and Nida, and her best friend Funda, hold a picture of Eda while posing for a portrait in Izmir, February, 2017.

Women Are Dying in Turkey

And the Problem Is Getting Worse

On a quiet November evening in 2014, Eda Okutgen left her apartment in the coastal Turkish city of Izmir and ran for her life. She didn’t get far.

Her ex-husband, Ugur Buynak, had already stabbed her in the leg with a kitchen knife. And as he chased her down a flight of stairs, the successful 38-year-old businesswoman and mother screamed for help. She screamed in vain—neighbors locked their doors as Buynak fatally plunged the knife into his ex-wife. She bled out in the stairwell, her murder caught on CCTV footage that would play over and over on Turkish television.

“She was too good for this world,” said her older sister Nazli Okutgen, wiping away tears.

Eda’s murder, although shocking, is hardly a rarity. In Turkey, headlines often tell grisly tales of violence against women—in the street, on public transportation, and in the home. There was the 20-year-old student who was bludgeoned, burned, and thrown into a river by a bus driver who tried to rape her. There was the Turkish newscaster who, shortly after giving birth, was beaten so badly by her husband that she is now paralyzed. There was the woman shot dead by her husband in a hair salon after he was released by police and defied a restraining order. And then there was Eda, stabbed to death by her ex-husband in a stairwell as her young son hid several floors above.

Eda is one of thousands of Turkish women who have been murdered or assaulted in recent years. At least 414 women were killed in Turkey in 2015–16—most by their significant others and family members—up from 294 in 2014 and 237 in 2013, as documented by We Will Stop Women Murders, a cross-country organization that documents the murders of women and aids victims of violence and their families. And activists, lawyers, and survivors of violence say that the situation is getting worse—rights and protections for women are being curbed at an alarming rate. Under the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the government is squashing dissent and pushing policies that are detrimental to women. This in a country that was once touted as a model for a stable, modern, and Islamic democracy.

At least 414 women were killed in Turkey in 2015–16—most by their significant others and family members.

STATE OF FEAR

Turks fighting for gender equality say that the courts are often tilted against women.  Judges can reduce the sentences of murderers and abusers at their own discretion if, for instance, a man justifies his violence by claiming that his wife was unfaithful or dressed inappropriately, or if he has good behavior in the courtroom.

Eda’s sisters have been battling this system for two years. Although Buynak is currently in jail for Eda’s murder, he has enlisted the services of a top lawyer to fight his conviction. He is claiming insanity, alleging that his ex-wife provoked him by supposedly having an affair and by refusing to have sex with him. Allies of Eda slam these allegations as ridiculous, but they are a strategic move for Buynak: he could be released if, after medical review, the court says he was indeed insane at the time of his crime. And after a relatively short stint in psychiatric treatment, he could walk free.

Ismail Altun, the prosecutor for Eda’s case, has represented at least 40 cases of battered, raped, and murdered women over the past 22 years as a lawyer. He’s seen it all.

“I don’t think the rate of murders will decrease,” Altun says, shaking his head. According to groups such as We Will Stop Women Murders, the rate is in fact going up.  But the number of battered women in Turkey is unknown. Many victims do not seek help because they do not have the economic status to stand on their own or they are afraid to go to the police and file a report.

“Even if they do go to the police, the police say it’s a family issue,” Altun says, shaking his head. In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights slammed a “pattern of judicial passivity in response to allegations of domestic violence” in Turkey. Altun says it’s only getting worse.

Eda Okutgen's case file, as seen at the office of her lawyer, Ismail Altun, in Izmir, April 2017.

Eda Okutgen's case file, as seen at the office of her lawyer, Ismail Altun, in Izmir, April 2017.

Turkey has fairly strict protections for women written into law; the problem is that many laws are simply not enforced. This is despite some notable legal gains: In 2012, for example, Turkey expanded a domestic violence law to include unmarried woman. (Previously only married women had been protected from domestic violence.) The law also gave greater authority to police officers when dealing with domestic violence cases. But without enforcement, the law by itself does little to protect women.

In recent months, the situation has been getting worse. In January, the Ministry of Justice lowered the exam score necessary to become a judge or prosecutor. As part of the state of emergency imposed in the wake of the July coup attempt, Turkey has sacked and jailed roughly 4,000 judges and prosecutors. They have been replaced by inexperienced judges, largely selected on the basis of their loyalty to Erdogan and his ruling Law and Justice Party (AKP). As Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, explains, “Erdogan is using the post-coup purges to politicize the judiciary.”

The judicial purges are part of an authoritarian shift that critics of the Turkish government have warned about for years, and which has only intensified since the coup attempt in July. This shift, moreover, has been coupled with a rise in religiously conservative rhetoric and policy. Erdogan has publicly lambasted birth control as treasonous, urging women to have three children or more. He ardently opposes Caesarean sections and has equated a working woman with being “half” a person because she “refuses maternity and gives up housekeeping.”

In one particularly noteworthy moment in 2014, then–Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc shocked Turks when he claimed that women should not laugh in public because it was indecent. Many women posted photographs on social media of themselves laughing in the face of Turkey’s government. And in November, the AKP proposed a controversial bill that would pardon convicted child rapists as long as they married their victims, much to the horror of human rights organizations. Thousands of Turks took to the streets to protest the bill, prompting the AKP to withdraw it.

A photograph of Eda Okutgen, February 2017.

A photograph of Eda Okutgen, February 2017.

FIGHTING BACK

On April 16, Turks took to the polls in a referendum, narrowly granting Erdogan—who has declared that women are lesser beings than men—significantly more power as president. Although U.S. President Donald Trump congratulated Erdogan on the victory, the State Department and other outside observers have voiced concern over widespread allegations of voting irregularities and intimidation. Erdogan himself has rejected any criticism of the referendum, even telling international election monitors with The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to “know [their] place.” With the chance of a change in leadership unlikely, Turks on the front lines of the fight for women’s rights say the road ahead will now be much more difficult.

Yet for many women in Turkey, retreat is not an option. Eda’s death, for instance, has only propelled women like her sister into activism. Nazli believes that the government’s controversial stance on women’s rights is only encouraging violence against women. And that’s why she’s fighting.

“We have a saying in Turkey: The fire only burns where it drops,” Nazli said, explaining how people often only care about things they have witnessed or experienced firsthand.

“We were seeing all these things on the television,” chimed in Nida Okutgen, Eda’s younger sister. “We felt sorry for the victims, but we turned our backs and kept living our life. After Eda was murdered, we started seeing that it was a huge thing. It was happening every day.”

Now, the sisters participate in women’s rights marches and protests. Nazli attends the hearings of other murdered and battered women. She goes to hold their hands, for Eda.

Nazli will never forget the last conversation she had with her sister. It was about apple and mandarin marmalade, of all things—Eda’s favorite food. Nazli had made a big batch, but it was too hot to take home. Eda said she would pick it up in the morning. But she was dead by dawn. Instead, Nazli passed out the jars of marmalade at her sister’s funeral.

Nazli is channeling her grief into a book about Eda’s life and death. She plans to donate all the proceeds from it to organizations helping women like Eda. She already has a title, she says, smiling through tears: Apple and Mandarin Marmalade.

Reporting for this article was supported by The International Women's Media Foundation and The Fuller Project for International Reporting.

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