The fateful marriage: political violence and violence against women

Pervasive and diverse, instances of violence against women can only be fully comprehended in the political contexts that give them purpose and meaning.

Deniz Kandiyoti
25 January 2016

In November 2015, a conference was held in Istanbul to celebrate the 25th year of the Women’s Library and Information Centre Foundation.  Like the Women’s Library in the UK which has roots in the suffrage movement, and the Fawcett Society, this library with its extensive collection of books, archives, periodicals, ephemera, visual materials and women’s biographies aims to serve as the collective memory of the women’s movement in Turkey.

The choice of title for this anniversary, Against Women: Violence without Borders, was hardly celebratory. This is unsurprising if we consider the alarming statistics on violence against women (VAW) in Turkey. Between 2002-2009 the murder rate of women increased 14-fold. In the past five years, 1,134 women have reportedly been murdered, most commonly at the hands of husbands, boyfriends or male kin. The Platform to Stop the Murders of Women reports that in the first ten months of 2015, 236 women were murdered, 112 were raped, 157 forced into prostitution, 316 were assaulted and wounded and 179 suffered harassment.


"We Will Stop the Murders of Women Platform", November 2014. Avni Kantan/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Yet what marked and overshadowed this occasion was the fact that Tahir Elci, a prominent pro-Kurdish human rights lawyer, had been brutally assassinated on 28 November, on the eve of the gathering. The celebration turned into a wake as messages of outrage and condolence started pouring in. The mood of despondency settling over the proceedings coloured the already bleak nature of the subject matter.  In my talk I had, coincidentally, been intending to pose the question of the extent to which it is feasible to separate violence against women from societal and political violence, not realising how apposite this intervention would be on the day. Pursuing this line of reasoning further may provide fruitful pointers for women’s rights defenders: Where and how do we draw the line between political violence and VAW? How well equipped are we to comprehend the myriad forms that gender-based violence takes? 

The prevalence and “borderless” nature of violence against women unwittingly predisposes us to think about its various manifestations as the expression of some universal patriarchal order or timeless misogyny. This approach results in a rather expansive definition of gender-based violence ranging from practices such as FGM and honour killings (usually classed as harmful cultural practices ), all the way to the outrages perpetuated against women and girls in the context of conflict and war. Customs that infringe women’s most basic rights, such as forced marriage and child marriage, are also thrown into the mix. This leads us to debates that generally revolve around the polarities of universal human rights vs. respect for cultural differences. Patriarchy is often implicitly treated as an item of culture (preferably a feature of “other” cultures) making it more difficult to come to grips with its political dimensions and its relations to societal and political violence.

The political dimensions of violence against women were brought into sharp relief during and after the Arab uprisings in 2011. The types of assault women demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir square were subjected to raised a host of questions, since they displayed unprecedented forms. Individual women who were surrounded by two concentric circles of men, an inner circle grasping, tearing garments and probing with their hands and sharp objects, and an outer circle blocking their escape, were subjected to an almost ritualised from of abuse. Who were these men breaking the law publicly with impunity and with no apparent fear of being recognised, apprehended or punished?

The phenomenon of paid mobsters named baltagiyya operating during the Mubarak regime to intimidate protestors and quell dissent was already known. In the December 2011 protests security forces were themselves implicated in violence, as illustrated by the famous “blue bra” incident where a woman was cruelly beaten and dragged on the ground. There were undoubtedly numerous “opportunistic” harassers and men outraged by the fact that women dared to protest in public space joining the melee. It was civil society groups like Tahrir Bodyguard , Imprint and other citizen-volunteers engaged in anti-violence vigilantism who intervened rather than the so-called forces of order that have a duty to protect their citizenry. We were unquestionably witnessing the intersections of political violence with violence against women. These episodes invite further reflection on the uses of gender-based violence, given the novel forms of both aggression and resistance to it.

Unpacking violence against women

My keenest realisation of the need to “unpack ” what we mean by patriarchy when we address violence against women came in Afghanistan where I could detect at least three distinct patterns of violence.


A woman walks through a field of grass in the evening, in Bamyan, Afghanistan. Eric Kanalstein/United Nations/Flickr. Some rights reserved

The first that we might qualify as “traditional” originates in the modes of control and coercion exercised by families, tribes and communities over their womenfolk, often in the interests of safeguarding of “male honour” which is considered paramount to the maintenance of social order. Punishments against women range from coercion and beatings, to bodily harm and murder. These are usually meted out by fathers, brothers, uncles, husbands or other male kin who are in face to face relations with their victims.  We might speak of ‘privatised’ violence here to the extent that the prime movers are kin groups and families. However, the state is often implicated in these crimes. Indeed, many women face prison terms in Afghanistan not because of a crime that exists on the statute books, but because they have dared to evade the control of their kin by running away from forced or abusive marriages. Many states uphold male prerogatives over the control of women by passing lighter sentences for honour crimes, or showing leniency to rapists if they marry their victims.

A second pattern is prevalent in conflict and war situations where, as in Afghanistan under the mujahideen, armed militias use abduction and rape of women and girls (although boys are not immune to sexual predation) as a systematic tool of war to intimidate, despoil, and establish positional superiority. This pattern, commonplace in many conflicts across the world, targets not only women and girls, but entire populations sometimes singled out on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity or other affiliations. UN Security Council resolution 1325 adopted in 2000 recognising rape as a war crime, and Security Council Resolution 2242 passed in 2015 making reference to 'sexual and gender based violence as a tactic of terrorism', point to growing international acknowledgement of the political nature of these crimes.

A third pattern can be detected in state-like formations like the Taliban-in-government, where public performances of  Islamic justice - such as the spectacular events held on Fridays in the main football stadium featuring the stoning of women, lashings and executions - are deployed both as a means of social control and an affirmation of rulers’ power and legitimacy. The much publicised outrages of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are, in fact, couched in the language of detailed regulations. Captured ISIL documents include Fatwa No. 64, dated Jan. 29, 2015 which purports to explain the Islamic rules on who may or may not rape a non-Muslim female slave. Access to women as sex slaves (or as fighters’ brides) offers powerful incentives to male fighters, stimulates recruitment, and brings in modest revenues to the war chest through the sale of women (whose prices are calibrated according to age and other attributes).

Women and girls fleeing conflict hardly find shelter in refugee camps where they remain vulnerable to sexual abuse. In addition, child marriages and an organised trade in young girls flourish under conditions of material hardship and physical insecurity. The scale of the problem becomes even more glaring when we throw into the mix the abuses and sexual predation perpetrated by UN peacekeeping forces whose mandate is to protect civilian populations and vulnerable groups. 


These examples clearly fail to exhaust the wide range of crimes against women perpetrated by states ( many with seats at the United Nations) through their apparatuses of coercion (such as armies and police forces) often by adopting a predatory stance towards the most vulnerable members of  their societies - as seen in the rape of lower caste women in India. Such examples of state sanctioned violence abound both in conflict and so-called peacetime.

‘My night’, a quilt by Hanna Mallalah, Iraq.

We may well wonder when the violation of women’s bodies becomes a ‘red line’. Sadly this is often  at the point when geopolitically powerful players decide to name and shame “bad guys” for their own instrumental purposes. Remember, for instance, the strategic silence surrounding mujahideen atrocities against women in Afghanistan at the point when they were backed and financed by the West against the Soviets. The Taliban’s record on women may well have been overlooked had they not so blatantly aided and abetted Al-Qaeda well beyond the 9/11 events. Outrage over violence against women often appears  as a politically expedient afterthought.

The rich tapestry of violence against women (VAW) illustrated above should suffice to demonstrate that the normative frameworks and objectives behind violence are neither interchangeable nor are they part of some singular cultural script. It is, nevertheless, possible to argue that however varied their sources and objectives, these patterns of violence display a mixture of instrumentalism and opportunism and can even claim a degree of internal logic when they are based on widely shared “honour codes”, or are couched in the language of religiously sanctioned actions. There are, however, other instances of violence that are even more challenging in conceptual terms.

Is there a “new” violence against women?

The instances of violence that I find most thought provoking are those that occur in anonymous public spaces, are perpetrated by strangers, and have a deceptively random and spontaneous appearance.  Cases in point are the serial killings of women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, targeting young single women working in assembly factories (giving us the term feminicidio or femicide), the gang rape and torture of Joyti Singh Pandey on a bus in Delhi followed by her death in December 2012, and Anene Booysen’s  gang rape and torture in South Africa followed by her death in February 2013.

We are clearly not dealing with private pathologies here, but instances where violence can almost become part of  a “sport” practiced by subcultures of local gangs, as was also the case in the multiple rape cases in Soweto. The targets are often independent women who, like the young workers in Mexico or the student in Delhi, find themselves in un-monitored public spaces. I have argued elsewhere that abuses against women can take more virulent forms when the male role is no longer secure, and where profound crises of masculinity lead to more violent and coercive assertions of male prerogatives. I tentatively called this phenomenon masculinist restoration to highlight some of its distinctive features. Both the manifestations of violence,  and more significantly societal reactions to them, break the mould of the silence and dissimulation that were the hallmarks of patriarchy-as-usual. Violence against women is firmly in the public domain eliciting storms of protest, demonstrations, petitions, blogs, advocacy and solidarity campaigns. Reactions to gender-based violence are shaping the contours of a political divide that crosses gender lines, and pits those who believe that women should “know their place” against others who defend the safety and freedom of women at all times and in all circumstances as a fundamental human right.

If we accept the proposition that gender orders are undergoing massive convulsions on a global scale, we should be encountering many more variations of the “new” violence against women. For instance, the shocking and unexpected New Year’s Eve sexual molestation and muggings of women in Cologne, other German cities (Hamburg, with over 100 complaints, but also Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Nuremberg) and across Europe, (from Helsinki to Zurich) have already elicited several predictable reactions given the fact that asylum seekers and illegal immigrants were among the attackers. Those on the right with an anti-immigrant platform felt vindicated, with far-right movements taking to the streets. On the liberal left, concerns were expressed that justifiable preoccupations about the safety of women could easily morph into a form of knee-jerk racism (dark-skinned foreigners violating white women), thus exporting sexism to “other” cultures and whitewashing the less than scintillating record of their own societies. More “forensic” interpretations of the events have pointed to faulty policing and crowd behaviour under the influence of alcohol. However, the seemingly coordinated and simultaneous nature of the attacks (about which we still know relatively little) also led to speculations about political provocation from either Islamists or right-wing extremists infiltrating the crowds or acting with premeditation.

Whatever the case may be, neither the invocation of universal misogyny nor the stigmatisation of particular groups is likely to be helpful without a context-specific grounding of events and reactions to them.

At this point in time, rather than trying to establish the root causes of different episodes of violence (usually these are complex and multiple), it may be more feasible and useful to trace how these phenomena get politicised once they enter the circuits of judiciaries, politicians, the media and the wide array of civil society actors operating in different contexts. The case of Turkey, whose epidemic-level incidence of violence against women I alluded to earlier, offers valuable object lessons in this respect.

Politicising violence: the chasm between words and deeds

On paper at least, Turkey has an exemplary record in combating violence against women. The Amendment to the Turkish Penal Code passed in 2004 is unprecedented in the Middle East region. These legal changes prevent sentence reduction for ‘killings in the name of customary law’ ( so-called honour killings); criminalise marital rape; abolish the article foreseeing a reduction or suspension of the sentence of rapists and abductors marrying their victims; criminalise sexual offences such as harassment at the workplace, and abolish the distinction between virgins and non-virgins in sexual crimes. Turkey was the first country to ratify the Council of Europe's Council of Europe's Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (CAHVIO), the Istanbul Convention, in 2012. The number of women’s shelters has increased significantly from 51 shelters in 2008 to 122 in 2015. The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women was celebrated officially with landmark buildings bathed in orange light on 25 November, 2015.

Meanwhile, news of fresh murders, beatings, mutilations and harassment of women continue unabated. Even a casual perusal of newspaper reporting of murder cases and other crimes of violence shows that perceived female disobedience and insubordination act as primary triggers: women murdered by husbands they wish to divorce, or ex-husbands they have dared to divorce, rejected suitors, and obstinate girls refusing to fall in line with their fathers’ or brothers’ wishes jostle on the pages of dailies. Women’s rising aspirations and determined male resistance create a perfect storm in the gender order that manifests itself in both official attempts to “tame” women and shore up men’s privileges, and in the unofficial excesses of street-level masculinist restoration. The instructive documentary Dying to Divorce attempts to give voice to both victims and perpetrators of crime, as well as to committed activists who struggle to bring offenders to justice. For here is the rub: although the legal system offers the means to bring perpetrators of violence to justice offenders, sometimes quite literally, get away with murder. Multitudes of rapists and killers benefit from so-called “good behaviour reductions” for nothing more consequential than having a respectful bearing, wearing a tie to court, expressing regret or pleading intolerable provocation to their male honour. The scandalous scale of such judgements and arbitrary sentence reductions prompted a male journalist to speculate scathingly about the love affair and deep empathy between male perpetrators of violence and the prosecutors and judges who are supposed to deliver justice for their female victims. In a country where detentions without trial and judgements based on the flimsiest of evidence abound (as attested to by the number of jailed journalists) prosecutors and judges bend over backwards to exonerate assaulters, rapists and murderers of women. This chasm between the letter of the law and its implementation inevitably politicises the issue of violence against women and implicates the state in its perpetuation; not only are current offenders treated leniently but would be offenders take heart from such dispensations. The task of seeking justice for women falls on the shoulders of civil society actors, among which are groups like the Platform to Stop the Murders of Women, and a liberal press that now forms a dwindling and threatened component of a totally co-opted dismal media scene.

One of the most striking examples of the politicisation of violence against women followed the attempted rape and murder of Özgecan Aslan, a 20-year old student commuting to her home on 13 February, 2015. The debates following this gruesome murder rapidly degenerated into a contest over women’s rights to a presence in the public domain: while some argued that women could only be protected by being segregated, others riposted that enjoying a public presence under conditions of freedom and security is a fundamental human right. Of course, those arguing for segregation had conveniently forgotten that most incidences of violence still occur within households, families or immediate neighbourhoods.  A petition that received over a million signatures went forward with a proposal to parliament for a new law (dubbed the Ozgecan law) that would block sentence reductions and the lenient treatment of perpetrators of crimes against women.

Protesting violence against women. Christopher Michel/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

One final but crucial component of the politics of violence against women resides in societal reactions to it. The feminist slogan “the personal is political” has finally come into its own. Gender-based violence is understood in the broadest terms and also includes abuses against the LGBT community. There are now constituencies of concerned citizens, men and women of different sexual orientations and ethnicities, organising in groups, protesting, documenting outrages, blogging and petitioning because they recognise that the climate of impunity surrounding crimes against women defines the entire polity and the masculinist, militarised political culture that stifles democracy and human rights.

The grief and despair I encountered during the Istanbul conference, Against Violence, offered a powerful testimony to the inseparability of women’s rights from other struggles for dignity, recognition and freedom.

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