Last week a faction of Turkey's military tried to take over the country in a failed coup attempt. Noticeably absent from the torrent of coverage and political discourse are the country's women — not surprising in a country that activists say has become increasingly patriarchal and misogynistic.
Despite Turkey's emergence as a world leader, the country has a rocky record of female empowerment. It ranks 130th out of 145 countries in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report. That's just slightly above Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. The labor force participation rate for women is only 33.6% — one of the lowest rates in Europe and the Middle East. Honor killings, in which women are murdered by family members for perceived damage to the family's reputation, still occur in rural parts of the country.
Last summer 28-year-old Çilem Karabulut became a cause célèbre among Turkish women activists when she turned herself in to police after admitting she had killed her husband with a handgun. Karabulut insisted that she was defending herself. Her husband had allegedly beaten, drugged, and abused her. The prosecutor demanded a life sentence. In June, the court sentenced her to fifteen years behind bars.
"It shouldn't only be women who do all of the dying here," she told local press, claiming that she went to authorities several times with a black eye, but no one helped her. "It's time for men to do some dying, too."
Last year, the brutal murder of Özgecan Aslan, a 20-year-old student who was stabbed in a minibus in southern Turkey while resisting a rape attempt — her body burned and dismembered afterward — helped lift the silence around the treatment of women in the country. While crimes against women are widely underreported, it's estimated that almost 300 women were killed last year, mostly at the hands of men. What's more, around 40 percent of Turkish women have experienced domestic violence in their lifetimes.
It wasn't always this way. Turkey gave women the right to vote in 1934, a decade before France and Italy did. By some reports, the country had the world's first female combat pilot. While activists say Turkey has long been patriarchal, many focus the blame on current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamic-rooted AK Party for rolling back the status of women and moving what was once a distinctly secular country toward Islamic conservatism. Analysts predict that the failed coup attempt will only strengthen his autocratic grip on the country.
Shortly after Aslan's murder, Erdoğan called violence against women the "bleeding wound" of the nation. But his detractors weren't fazed. They pointed to a series of repressive practices and rhetoric that minimizes women's rights. In 2012, Erdoğan announced that the AK Party would draft a law banning abortion completely. Following debate, the draft has been shelved, though the demeaning rhetoric continues, including a call for women to have at least three children each and an oft-referenced speech in which he declared that men and women aren't equal.
"We only hear whispering of progress ... not real words," said Serap Güre Şenalp of the Women's Employment and Labor Initiative. "And if there were real words, we wouldn't hear them because we're not at the table."
Last February, the Istanbul Police Department established a new bureau for fighting domestic violence and appointed a 39-year-old female police officer, Kiymet Bilir Değerli, to head the post. Turkish police have long been criticized for failing to provide protection for women and focusing on family reconciliation rather than punishment. Activists point to the government's 2011 decision to rename the Ministry of Women's Issues to the Ministry of the Family as further proof of their minimized role and protection in society.