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Searching for the roots of present Turkey, by Etienne Copeaux

Gender-Based Violence. About the Fate of Some Young Women

Publié par Etienne Copeaux sur 18 Septembre 2020, 13:56pm

Catégories : #Religion and Society, #The War Against the Kurds, #Turkey in the 90's

[Initially published in susam-sokak.fr on March 4, 2012]

In July 2020, in the Aegean province of Mugla, Pınar Gültekin, a 27-year-old woman, was beaten and strangled to death by her ex-boyfriend, Cemal Avcı, who then burned her body in a garbage bin and covered it in concrete. “Violence against women and so-called “honor” killings are deeply rooted and prevalent issues in Turkey”, writes Bethan McKerman in The Guardian. “Every year, the problem is getting worse: in 2019, 474 women were murdered, mostly by partners and relatives, the highest rate in a decade in which the numbers have increased year on year. According to a 2009 article on prevention strategies, 42% of Turkish women aged between 15–60 had suffered some physical or sexual violence by their husbands or partners” (The Guardian, July 23, 2020).

Let us examine the problem of the “töre” - the Turkish word for “honor killings” and consider some examples from the 90s, as I have described them in an article published on March 4, 2012, in the frame of my research about Turkey at the end of the XXth century.

"Töre" is an old Turkish word belonging to the semantic field of "tradition". It more particularly refers to ancestral Turkish customs, often idealized, that Turkish or Turkish-speaking peoples would have passed on from century to century from Inner Asia to Anatolia via the sultanates of Transoxiana and the Iranian-Afghan plateau. The assumed permanence and inalterability of this töre is a recurring theme in Turkish nationalist literature throughout the twentieth century.

Töre and “national culture”

In his book, Türk Töresi (“The Turkish Tradition”) published 1922, Ziya Gökalp, sociologist and, above all, one of the founders of Turkish nationalism, exposes various “positive elements” - according to him - this notion is supposed to include in it. One year later, in Türkçülügün Esasları (“The Principles of Turkism”, 1923), he sees in the töre the main element of the Turkish culture. Töre would even be the base which the whole spirit of the nation would stand upon, the decisive element which would have allowed the nation to keep true to itself during its long peregrinations across Eurasia, until its establishment in Anatolia from the XIth century on. Thus, for Gökalp, the notion of töre coincides with that of “national culture”.

These ideas were later taken up by a series of nationalist writers, particularly in the 1970s, when the ideology of the "Turkish-Islamic synthesis" was developed. The medievalist historian Ibrahim Kafesoğlu advocated an updating process of the töre, a return to the sources of the old values, as he expressed it in the nationalist weekly Yeni Düşünce (September 1, 1981), in order to overcome the serious crisis of that time (nearly a civil war). Thanks to the töre, according to Kafesoğlu, the Turks were predestined for secularism, the modernization of Islam, democracy; in sum, the whole bulk of the Kemalist reforms of the 30s would be due to the töre: it would be the basis of public law; it would “naturally” induce gender equality. The historian has developed his assumptions in a 140 pages-long article, “Türkler” (The Turks), of the Islâm Ansiklopedisi. But one must be aware that the idea of "respect" is here wholly linked to the honor of the family, exclusively borne by the women. Consequently, töre advocates death as a punishment for female adultery. In 1981, after the military coup d'état, in the above-mentioned issue of Yeni Düşünce, Kafesoğlu still claimed that one of the tasks of the new rulers was "the updating of the töre", and, simultaneously, the strengthening of Turkey's "belonging to the Muslim world".

As an author, historian, and polemist, Kafesoğlu is not at the margins. He has exercised influence on the nationalist currents, and his ideas were spread by other authors belonging to the same movement. Some of his ideas have become real dogmas of cultural policy through outreach publications, encyclopedia articles, and even school textbooks (more details on this issue can be found in my article "La nation turque est musulmane").

Together with becoming one of the keywords of reactionary nationalism of the late XXth century, töre was adopted as a commonly used word for the family vendetta, murders of women having allegedly "sinned" - or being simply suspected to intend "sinning". As the word, in its ideological sense, is positively connotated, its use concerning a vendetta affair helps to legitimize the acts it covers, in the eyes of those who commit or order, or approve them.

Violence against women exists everywhere, and we might as well make a record of such acts perpetrated in France. But my topic is Turkey, and qualifying as töre a woman's murder infers some peculiarities; it is not a question here of claiming that Turks are more violent than others. But what characterizes the “crime of honor” carried out in the name of töre precisely is that this word is part of a semantic field that also includes the ideas of "justice", "court", "legitimization". For the act is premeditated and carried out coldly: it is not a crime of passion, a love crime, but an assassination decided collectively by the family assembly. Moreover, its accomplishment is entrusted to a member of the family, sometimes a very young one, and - this last character is essential - publicly assumed.

"Wash away our stained honor"

As a consequence of the war against the Kurdish rebellion, in the midst of the 90s,  Istanbul and Western Anatolia (re)discovered the tribal phenomenon. The huge migratory movement that pushed hundreds of thousands of Eastern Anatolians towards the major towns of the West had transported there some behaviors that made their population shudder and comforted them in their condescending, even contemptuous or racist view of these migrants, mostly of rural and Kurdish origin.

The concept of töre is vague enough to be interpreted at will in order to legitimize anything. In the media's news item, it designates in most cases the judgment of the family court intended to punish a woman accused of adultery, or a girl of flirting, and the execution of the verdict: very often her death. Of course, never a man or a boy is affected by such a judgment. The töre is an extra-judicial death penalty, a license for femicide.

Executions were and remain carried out all over the country, including in the West; during the 90s and the Kurdish migratory wave, the phenomenon did indeed seem to come from the East, but, as anthropologist Nevval Sevindi warned in the leftist daily Yeni Yüzyıl, it was not "the East" that was at issue, but the macho ideology (Yeni Yüzyıl, April 18, 1996).

I would like to remember here the memory of a few women whose modest existence was only perceived at the time of their violent death. They had a name, an identity, a life, which were brutally stolen because of the so-called "honor" of the group.


In March 1994, Hacer, a teenage girl from Urfa, is shot and killed with two expanding bullets ("dum-dum") by her 15-year-old brother. Hacer had grown up in a family "of Arab culture [that] was trying to adapt to its urban neighborhood”. Implicitly, we learn therefore that they were recent migrants from the countryside or from a small city, driven out by war and/or poverty. As is the custom, the girls were under constant control. But Hacer likes listening to languorous “arabesk-style” songs on the radio. "The family's pressure culminated when she listened to a song with the title of her own name, Hacer, a song by Ibo [Ibrahim Tatlıses]". Hacer loses her head. According to Cumhuriyet, she feigns a suicide attempt and then runs away, but she is found and, after the family's judgment, she is shot. The young murderer was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment but was released after two years (Cumhuriyet, December 20, 1996).

In April 1996, again in Urfa, a 14-year-old boy killed his 17-year-old sister Sevda on the orders of the family that had pronounced the death sentence. The adolescent was sentenced to seven years by the court. His family and entourage reassure him: "You have done well". The reiteration of this kind of facts in Urfa inspires Yeni Yüzyıl to make a play on words: "Kanlıurfa" (Bloody Urfa), instead of the official name of the city, "Sanlıurfa" (Glorious Urfa). The affair makes noise in the media and other cases of the same kind are recalled, which are not confined to the east of the country: so in Buca (a suburb of Izmir, on the Aegean coast), an eleven-year-old boy killed his mother "to defend the namus (honor)" of his father.

In December 1996, Mehmet Faraç lists in Cumhuriyet some recent cases of honor killings: a 17-year-old girl, S.G., whose throat was slit in Urfa by her 14-year-old brother, in the city, and publicly; the young murderer defends himself as follows: "I was given the order, so I obeyed"

Left: H.A., 12-year-old, stabbed in Urfa. Right: the murderer, H.A.'s “husband”. Cumhuriyet, December 23, 1996.Left: H.A., 12-year-old, stabbed in Urfa. Right: the murderer, H.A.'s “husband”. Cumhuriyet, December 23, 1996.

Left: H.A., 12-year-old, stabbed in Urfa. Right: the murderer, H.A.'s “husband”. Cumhuriyet, December 23, 1996.

Still in Urfa, on November 28, 1996, H.A., married at the age of eleven by the unofficial procedure of "imam nikahı" (a religious ceremony), was killed at the age of twelve with a "Rambo" type knife, just downtown, similarly as would be S.G. one month later. H.A.'s crime was being gone to the cinema with two friends of hers; the "husband" had followed them with his dagger, pulled them out of the cinema, and stabbed.

Drama of the East, drama of machismo, or drama of misery? The murderer lives with his family in a precarious and illegal house, in the mud of a shantytown (gecekondu); his nine brothers and sisters live there with their mother: the eldest, a drum-player (davulcu), has three wives, the second has two; the third, "for the moment", has only one wife; together they already have ten children. Polygamy of course has no official existence in Turkey, but largely subsists in fact. The portrait of the "husband" is also in Cumhuriyet, probably a photograph provided by the police; about 18 years old, angry, he is staring at the lens, his knife brandished in his right hand, as if he was going to carry out revenge. But on whom? H.A. is dead. Her childlike gaze, however, continues to question us.

Özlem, 18 years old,murdered in Bursa. Passport photograph published in Sabah, June 19, 1997.

Özlem, 18 years old,murdered in Bursa. Passport photograph published in Sabah, June 19, 1997.

In June 1997, it was the turn of another young woman, Özlem, 18 years old, whose family had migrated from Antep to Bursa, a large western city, three years earlier. Özlem soon chose to move away from her family and to live with an aunt of her age, Nuray, with whom she got on very well. The young women decide then to live their lives and run away together. But three days later, they are found in Inegöl, 30 miles east of Bursa. The family meets in council. Nuray, exhausted and hopeless, commits suicide by defenestration. Özlem, as she rejects the "virginity control" her father wants to impose on her, is stabbed. The father has saved his "tainted honor" (Sabah, June 19,1997).


Little Özge, 5 years old, beaten to death in Diyarbakır. Photo published in Milliyet.

Little Özge, 5 years old, beaten to death in Diyarbakır. Photo published in Milliyet.

Gender-based violence may occur at any age of life. Little Özge, five years old, was the daughter of Dilek, a woman from Istanbul. According to the newspapers, she was a prostitute, but is it true, and what does it change? Ahmet, a young man from Diyarbakır, had married her, however, and accepted her child. Ahmet's cousin, a porter, couldn't stand the family's honor to be "tainted". He joins them in Istanbul, abducts the child, and beats her to death with a poker. While arrested, he swears that he will take revenge on the father and mother. The press photographs show the mother with a moving gaze, as empty as incredulous (Milliyet, January 28, 1998).

Semse, 18, ran over near Urfa (Passport photo, Milliyet, January 28, 1998)

Semse, 18, ran over near Urfa (Passport photo, Milliyet, January 28, 1998)

In February 1998 another drama occurs, again near Urfa. Şemse, an 18-year-old girl, is pregnant with her lover. Of course, the situation is unacceptable for the family. So her father and elder brother, coldly, knock her down with the tractor and run over her. The newspaper photo shows the men proudly posing on the tractor. For the occasion, the editorial staff of Milliyet invents a word: törerizm (töre + terörizm) (Milliyet, January 28, 1998).

Again and again: in May 1998, in Izmir this time, though a "modern" and western city, a 22-year-old woman, Fatma, was shot dead in the street. Her family, living in Batman, in the east, had decided to marry her to one of her first cousins, and she refused. Five times, she had escaped from home, and she was housing in Izmir with her boy-friend, probably thinking being far enough from the family to live quietly. But when family members learned that she was living there, together with a young man, they deemed they could not stand for long with "living with this stain". She was therefore sentenced to death by the family council. The forfeit accomplished, the honor was safe (Milliyet, February 28, 1998).

The massive migrations induced by the war (about 3000 villages evacuated and/or burned down by the "security forces" during the 90s decade) have displaced with them the problems of the Anatolian rural society: the tribal and family organization strongly centered on the notion of honor (namus), the very rigid patriarchal conception of the society, the absolute predominance of the male. The feminist movement is developing more rapidly in urban and industrial areas. There, they participate in the trade union movement, in the struggles of some rural areas. Nevertheless, at the end of the twentieth century, there was a broad, even preponderant participation of women even in some rural movements, such as the protest of the peasants of Bergama against the Eurogold company.

However, the cases of violence mentioned above are related to a society that is not only patriarchal or tribal, but also disoriented, uprooted, disrupted, in which the family, and the family alone, can provide landmarks, a more or less solid social environment, and whose rules are firmly established. The process of social disintegration reaches extreme levels when villages or even groups of villages are wholly and abruptly evacuated by the “security forces”, or when life becomes impossible because the army - or the rebels - prohibit access to fields or pastures, when the population is summoned in turn by the rebellion and by the army to choose its camp when villages are burned down, when at the end one finds oneself in an unknown city without resources, jobless, and without landmarks. What else is left, then, than attachment to family and tribe? This anguish indeed is prevalent and seems to be the very reason for withdrawal into traditional values such as honorability, because it is all that remains.

But the problem lies in the conception of honor, which is based upon the domination of the man over the woman, because the woman, through "honorable" behavior, is in charge of transmitting the honor of the group. While the man is free in his sexual life, in and out of the family, a total ban of adultery, flirting, even friendship with a male person not belonging to the large family, is severely imposed on women and girls. For a woman, a “honorable” life means strict confinement within the bosom of the family.

Added to this is the external pressure. After the violence suffered (physical violence of war, loss of resources, loss of a way of life, sometimes loss of social respectability) comes the plunge into an unknown world where those who might witness the past honor are often lacking. In order to try to preserve it, the migrants must reconstitute the group, and it actually is a transplantation of a family or tribal cell into a "foreign" environment. In turn, the social bubble transplanted to Istanbul or elsewhere is stigmatized by the "locals", all the more so if it is a question of a non-Turkish population, generally Kurdish. For the cohesion of the group, which must be preserved in such hostile conditions, everything contributes to the withdrawal into ancestral values and rigid behavior.


But this population who have lost everything lives in vital need of dreams. Men can easily accomplish themselves in the macho ideal of domination and violence; their dream is in line with the values that still dominate the Turkish society in general, strengthened by the army and war; it is in line with the message delivered by the movies and series broadcast on television.

But there is an impassable chasm separating a young woman's dream and the life that opens up to her (or rather closes!); she dreams of love when she is promised at a very young age to forced marriage, to domestic confinement, and to procreation. The dream is haunting, however, it bursts into the shantytown every day in the form of syrupy songs (“arabesk”) and television series. Thus, the young woman's life tends towards flight: flight into the imagination of the arabesk, flight to the local cinema, flight with friends, flight from the family, flight to the big city.

Refusal and flight do express a radical challenge to the family system. Even unconsciously, the flight itself is a denouncement, it stigmatizes the system as intolerable, and designates the family as being a grave. Escaping is tantamount to a scream of defiance: "Real life is elsewhere, and without you!". Rejecting the first circle of protection, the "natural" environment, is unacceptable behavior to the assumed protectors: it is a betrayal. In order to protect the family, and even to protect the unruly young woman, she must be killed.

It is not easy to escape from the Anatolian family because, due to the phenomenon of migration itself, families and tribes have branches and informants everywhere. A young woman on the run is always or almost always caught up, even abroad.

The offense is felt so harshly, so deeply, that the group which is assumed as protecting considers itself as a victim of betrayal. The family, which indicts and condemns, as well as the executioner, is convinced that they are in their rights and that they are delivering justice. They will not hide from having premeditated and then carried out an assassination. On the contrary, the sentence, and the act itself, must be known, because honor is restored precisely by the public character of the assassination.

Values are therefore turned upside down: the murderer considers himself a victim, his imprisonment as injustice and he claims for revenge. If the young woman "at fault" is not yet dead, she remains under threat, as does her family. Thus the vendetta never ends, especially since institutional justice is lenient towards these avengers, who are generally released early – if they are imprisoned.

Feminist movements

The feminist movement and the denunciation of male violence in Turkey are much older, but feminism has been delayed by the pervasiveness of Kemalism. According to the Kemalists, Atatürk and his movement would be at the origin of feminism in Turkey. Thus, official feminism exists, which has delayed alternate movements to flourish, which have themselves to distance from Kemalism. We have to do justice, however, to Bahriye Üçok, lawyer, historian, and politician, who was the best-known figure among former Kemalist feminism and was assassinated on October 6, 1990, in Ankara.

But a wider "discovery" by the mainstream media of violence and so-called “honor killings” in the name of the töre has been accelerated by the migration phenomenon, and their denunciation has been promoted by the rise of new and independent feminism in society. This decade of the 1990s was one of feminist effervescence. At that time, movements were getting organized, initiatives began to flourish, such as that of Pınar Selek and its Street Workshop, which also was a hearth, in Beyoglu (Istanbul).

As early as 1987, women had grouped together to denounce male violence, under the name of Women's Solidarity Against the Beatings (Dayaga Karsı Dayanısması), which in 1990 became the Foundation-Shelter of the Blue Roof (Mor Çatı Kadın Sigınma Vakfı - site in Turkish - site in English), providing women with material and legal support. Women began demonstrating against the practice of töre; in 1998 and 1999, the March 8 parades were largely followed. During that decade, some daily newspapers willingly already give voices to the leaders of these feminist associations, often jurists and lawyers: Canan Arı, co-founder of the Blue Roof, or Vildan Öztürk, a lawyer in Antep and president of the Gaziantep Feminist Platform (Gaziantep Kadın Platformu). Journalists such as Nilüfer Kuyaş in Milliyet take their part in disseminating their ideas.

Later, as soon as she was released from prison in 2000, Pınar Selek gave the impetus for the foundation of the Amargi Feminist Association, with Aksu Bora. Right in the center of Beyoğlu, Amargi was, until 2014, a place for presentations and conferences, including a library. Amargi Dergi, a feminist quarterly journal was created in 2006 and published until 2015, then on the Web until August 2016.

In Turkey, the feminist movement has a crucial role. It is not only a question, as in France, for example, of achieving parity within the family, parity of roles at work and in public and political life. Feminism in Turkey is the questioning of a patriarchal society that was strengthened by war and migration. Can a society abolish violence inside the family if it is itself permeated by the violence of war? Instead of waiting for the problems to be miraculously resolved by a hypothetical revolution or upheaval of the whole society, Turkish feminists can, and want, through the problems of domestic violence, to question the violence of war, and in a sense, can even question nationalism.

Other posts about the women's conditions in Turkey, by Etienne Copeaux

In English:

The Woman in Black and her White Shadow” (2011, updated 2020) http://susam-sokak-in-english.over-blog.com/2020/06/women-in-black.html

In French:

Le combat des femmes de Bergama” (2010) http://www.susam-sokak.fr/article-esquisses-sur-la-turquie-des-annees-1990-5-eurogold-et-bergama-55168213.html

Que la mère qui a fauté se donne la mort!” (2012) http://www.susam-sokak.fr/article-que-la-mere-qui-a-faute-se-suicide-106300311.html

Musulmanes et féministes?” (2012) http://www.susam-sokak.fr/article-musulmanes-et-feministes-106962687.html

Some references:

Acar (Taylan), « Linking Theories of Framing and Collective Identity Formation: Women’s Organizations’ Involvement with the Supramed Strike », European Journal of Turkish Studies[Online], 11 | 2010, Mis en ligne le 25 octobre 2010, URL : http://ejts.revues.org/index4314.html#bodyftn1.

Arslan (Güliz), “Mor Çatı’nın 25 maddede 25 yılı” [A History of the Mor Çatı Association], Milliyet, April 26, 2015.

Elias (Nicolas), « A propos de violence. Etude d'une danse communautaire du Nord-Est de la Turquie », Cahiers d'ethnomusicologie, 23/2010, pp. 113-130.

Kerman (Kader Tekkas) and Betrus (Patricia), “Violence Against Women in Turkey: A Social Ecological Framework of Determinants and Prevention Strategies” in Trauma, Violence and Abuse, June 10, 2018. Online: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1524838018781104?journalCode=tvaa&. Accessed August 28, 2020.

McKernan (Bethan), “Murder in Turkey sparks outrage over rising violence against women”, The Guardian, July 23, 2020. Online: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/23/turkey-outrage-rising-violence-against-women (accessed August 28, 2020).

Mor Çatı Association, “Law No 6284 In Preventing Male Violence” [an analysis of the 2012 law].Onlin:: https://en.morcati.org.tr/law-no-6284-in-preventing-male-violence/ (Accessed on August 29, 2020).

Selek (Pınar), « Barıs için feminizm ihtiyaç var ». Conférence prononcée sous le titre « Barısa Cinsiyet Penceresinden  » lors de la rencontre « Türkiye'de Kürtler: Barıs Süreci için Temel Gereksinimler », Diyarbakır, 29-30 septembre 2007 (en ligne).

Sourou (Benoît), « Prescriptions et pratiques matrimoniales chez les migrants turcs ou l'impossible émergence d'une singularité », in Guerraoui Zohra et Reveyrand-Coulon Odile, Pourquoi l'interdit ?, Toulouse, Erès, 2006, pp. 135-149.

Unsal (Artun), Tuer pour survivre. La vendetta, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1990, 192 p.

Sources (Turkish press)

Intikam vahseti”, Milliyet, January 28, 1998.

Büber (Oya Ayman). “Kanlıurfa tragedyası”, Yeni Yüzyıl, April 7, 1996.

Faraç (Mehmet). “Töre kıskacında kadın”, Cumhuriyet, December 20-24, 1996. Particularly “Türküyle gelen vahset”, December 20, 1996.

Özken (Murat). “Töre için kızını öldürdü”, Milliyet, May 9, 1998.

Sevindi (Nevval). “Urfalı Sevda’yı bogazlayan erkek ideolojisi”, Yeni Yüzyıl, April 18, 1996.

Uzun (Resat), Çelik (Mehmet), “Törerizm : 2 ölü”, Milliyet, February 28, 1998.

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