Silencing women's rights activists in Turkey

Leading Turkish women’s rights activist and lawyer Canan Arin was unlawfully detained on 23 June 2012 for speaking out against child marriages. While her trial continues, she is living under permanent threat, but refuses to be silent. Bingul Durbas spoke to her.

Bingul Durbas : As an active lawyer and trainer you were invited to Antalya Bar Association to speak about violence against women. After your talk you were detained. What happened?

Canan Arin : I was the co-founder of the Istanbul Bar Association, Women’s Rights Enforcement Centre and worked as a trainer there.  The Antalya Bar Association was opening a Women’s Rights Enforcement Centre and the lawyers needed training. I gave a talk on violence against women in the form of early and forced marriages in the context of training. I used two examples to illustrate my point. One was the Prophet who married a girl of seven. The second was the head of the Turkish Republic who was engaged to his wife, the first lady, when she was 14 and married her when she was 15. These are facts.  As I spoke, a group of young men got up and started shouting at me. They said I was insulting and going off the subject. I denied this and said they were free to leave the conference room, which they did. The next day another group of young men, (I am not sure whether they were lawyers), held a press conference and reported me to the court on charges that I was insulting the Prophet and President of the Republic of Turkey. This group of around 10 men who filed a complaint against me were not present at my talk.

On the day of my detention, I was sightseeing with friends and we stopped in Gaziantep to visit museums. The next day we were due to leave but police officers came to my hotel room while I slept at 5.30 in the morning. I had to wait until 11 am to give my affidavit. I have been charged with publicly degrading the religious values of a section of the public (Turkish Penal Code Article- 216/3) and of  insulting the President of the Republic (Turkish Penal Code- Article 299/1)

BD: In addition to the male opposition to your talk, were there illegal interventions in your case?

CA: Yes. According to Turkish penal code, if you want to sue someone for insulting the head of the Republic you have to get the Ministry of Justice’s permission. The prosecutor did not get the permission needed even though two accusations were made against me for insulting the President of the Republic and for degrading religious values. Moreover, the examples I gave in my talk are public facts available on the Internet. The prosecutor should have objected. However, he accepted the case and said he was going to sue me. Later, the police phoned me and invited me to the station. I told them that in order to interview me they needed the permission of the Ministry of Justice.  In addition, the prosecutor claimed in my warrant that my address was unknown. In Turkey, every lawyer’s address details are registered and available on the Bar Association’s website. It is impossible not to know a lawyer’s address. It is an obvious violation of the law to claim that he had to issue a warrant because my address was unknown.

BD: According to the law and international treaties Turkey has signed, the state must be impartial in dealing with freedom of speech.  How can you explain the attitude of the prosecutor?

CA: In my indictment, the prosecutor used the abbreviation “S.A.V.” (Peace Be Upon Him) when writing the name of the Prophet Muhammad in the legal document.  A prosecutor cannot include such qualifications in legal documents. This shows how impartial he is regarding my case.

BD: Under the Civil Code the age of marriage is 17 for girls and boys and under the Penal Code, religious marriages are not allowed. However, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat) there are more than 181,000 child brides in Turkey and, the rate of parental consent for legal marriage under the age of 18 increased by % 94.2 in 2011. How do you explain the prevalence of child and forced marriages in Turkey?

CA:  Some base marriages on the example of the Prophet and argue a girl can be married at six and the marriage can be consummated as soon as she menstruates. Some say that this constitutes a base in religion. Girls are forced to marry early because women are not considered human beings but the property of their families.

Another factor could be that there are so many children in poor families, especially in the east and southeast of Turkey, and those families cannot look after them. As soon as girls grow up they are married off so they become the responsibility of their husbands and for her parents, there is one less mouth to feed. There are so many factors.

BD: The new education reform known as “4+4+4” seems very problematic. Under the new education law, it is not compulsory to continue education after the first four years. The Child Bride project of the Flying Broom, a women’s organisation in Turkey, has recently found that, almost all of the students who are absent from school due to early marriage and engagement are female. According to the TurkStat the prevalence of lifetime physical or sexual violence against females decreases with the increase in their education. This indicates that the new education reform is likely to increase the vulnerability of girls to early marriages and violence.

CA: Exactly. And, no one reports these crimes despite the fact that child marriages constitute sexual abuse of children and sexual intercourse with those who have not achieved adulthood is a crime, according to the articles 103 and 104 of the Turkish Penal Code. However the law is not implemented.

BD: There seems to be a link between these types of marriages and so –called 'honour' crimes. There are many cases where the victims were forced to marry under the legal age and ended up being killed either because they ran away from home, damaging the family 'honou'r; or because they were sent back to their parents’ home by their unofficial husbands after suffering extreme domestic violence and wanting to leave their husbands. The judges acknowledge the illegality of unofficial marriages and disregard the legality of victims’ acts. Unofficial marriages are implicitly recognized by the judges who give reductions in sentence to the perpetrators of violence on the pretext of provocation.  I find that the patriarchal attitude of society and judges and non- application of laws are a great problem in Turkey.

CA: Absolutely. The government does not have the political will to stop violence against women. As you know, in the case of N.C. who was 12 years old when she was raped by 32 men, including state officials, a teacher and a village elder, the male defendants received reduced sentences while the two women defendants in this case received tougher sentences.

BD: In the recent case of O.C, all 34 suspects, including state officials, who are accused of sexually assaulting and raping a 14 years old girl, were released by the court.  Last year, the Ministry of Justice stated that the rate of murdered women increased by 1400 per cent between 2002-2009 -  femicide in Turkey is endemic. Government threats to freedom of speech send the message to activists in Turkey - stay silent about violence against women.

CA: Whatever the Prime Minister says is accepted by judges as law. First of all the Prime Minister said he did not believe in gender equality. He now tries to forbid abortion. According to Turkish law it is not forbidden but most medical doctors now refuse to perform it.  The Minister of Health said that if a woman becomes pregnant a result of rape, she should give birth and the state would look after the child. This is unbelievable.

BD: In another recent case, Nevin Yildirim, who killed her rapist to save her honour, was not allowed to have an abortion and she had to give birth to her rapist’s child. There is also a link between the abortion issue and 'honour killings'. My research shows that in cases where the victims got pregnant out of wedlock, the defendants (the girls’ families) take the victims from one hospital to another, in a desperate bid for an abortion to avoid any social stigma. They try to avoid murdering the victims in every way they can. If they fail to resolve the situation then they kill the victims to cleanse their' honour'.

CA: Very true. The Prime Minister is involving himself in women’s private lives more and more – from how many children she should have to whether she can have an abortion or a caesarean. So that is why it is especially difficult for young women in Turkey.  A woman has no value unless she is married and it is the family that must be protected - not the women, whatever the cost.

BD: The current practices of the state and your unlawful harassment illustrate how patriarchal Turkish society is. Women are deliberately being silenced.  What needs to be done to challenge anti-feminist and patriarchal attitudes in fighting violence against women in Turkey?

CA: The current practices are violations of women’s human rights. Of course, the Prime Minister is against feminist women and expresses this stand at every opportunity.  But we do not care what he says, he cannot stop us. Women’s ngos  work very hard. But the Prime Minister changes the order of the day constantly and women get tired because of this. Women find themselves fighting the sexist agenda that he creates on a daily basis.

BD: Do you feel that you will be able to continue your work and challenge these opinions and practices without fear of being detained?

CA: Of course I will continue my work. No one can silence me.

 

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About the author

Canan Arin is a women’s rights activist and feminist lawyer. After graduating from the Istanbul University, she studied law at the LSE.  She  joined the women’s movement in Turkey in the 80’s. She co-founded Purple Roof, Mor Cati Women’s Shelter Foundation, and KA.DER - Association for the Support of Women Candidates. Canan Arin also co-founded the Istanbul Bar Association Women’s Rights Enforcement Centre. Between 1994-1997 she acted as an expert on violence against women for the Council of Europe Gender Equality Commission.

Bingul Durbas is a researcher in Sociology at the University of Sussex. She has been researching gender violence and honour crimes in Turkey and the UK. She also works as a researcher affiliated with the Humboldt University of Berlin in the Diversity and Social Conflict department on the UNRI Research Institute for Social Development  project on honour crimes.