In Turkey, Not Even Posters of Women Are Safe From Violence

After a deadly sexual assault on a minibus, a hidden-camera campaign gains new meaning.

Murad Sezer/Reuters

On February 11, a 20-year-old college student named Ozgecan Aslan was riding in a minibus in the southern Turkish town of Mersin. When she was the last passenger still aboard the bus, the driver allegedly pulled over and attempted to rape her. As she fought him off, he allegedly bludgeoned her with a crowbar, stabbed her to death, and cut off her hands to hide the evidence.

The murder caused a nationwide outpouring of anger over the treatment of women in Turkey, a country that has long struggled with high rates of gender-based violence relative to European countries. As Christina Asquith, a journalist in Istanbul, noted in The New York Times, 27 Turkish women were killed in January alone, a 20-percent increase over the same period last year. In the days after Aslan's death, women marched across Ankara, Istanbul, and Mersin holding signs that read, "Enough, we will stop the murder of women!" Twitter soon erupted with the hashtags #OzgecanAslan and #sendeanlat, or "you must also tell." More recently, the #OzgecanAslan campaign has been used to draw attention to killings of women in Afghanistan and other parts of the world.

Activists say Turkish men routinely face relatively mild penalties when caught injuring or killing women. "In 2014," Asquith pointed out, "a man in eastern Turkey who stabbed his wife multiple times was given a reduced sentence after he argued she was wearing 'provocative' leggings and speaking with another man." Some claim that government officials are propping up a patriarchal culture that regards women as second-class citizens. In response to Aslan's murder, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan "encouraged men generally to protect women from harm, since women were 'entrusted to men by God,'” according to Istanbul-based journalist Emily Feldman. A 2013 Hurriyet Daily News survey found that 34 percent of Turkish men think violence against women is "occasionally necessary," while 28 percent say violence can be used to discipline women.

Even Turkish immigrants in Europe and elsewhere occasionally hew to these convictions, as Michael Scaturro wrote in The Atlantic. "We grew up in Eastern Anatolia hearing that when a woman makes a mistake, she is always wrong. That it's even okay to kill her," one 40-year-old Turkish man told Scaturro in Berlin. "And some people in our community still believe this."

A 2010 video created by the Turkish anti-violence group Mor Cati, or Purple Roof, attempted to raise awareness of violence toward women in a public way:

The group placed large posters of women jumping for joy, their arms and legs splayed out beyond the frame's borders, all around Istanbul. The text next to the women reads, "I want to live in freedom."

The organization then set up hidden video cameras, which purport to show male passersby kicking and ripping off the cutouts' arms and legs. Underneath their missing limbs, the text reads, "Not violence."

"The women in the posters were subjected to violence," the video creators say, "just like at home."

The clip has been making the rounds again on Facebook in the wake of Aslan's death. A Turkish version on the page of Karabuk University (posted shortly before the attack on Aslan) garnered more than 2 million views.

All of the standard caveats apply here: We don't know if any female pedestrians took a swing at the posters, or what percentage of the images were vandalized. We certainly shouldn't assume that lashing out at an art project has any correlation to wife-beating. And it's worth noting that in the aftermath of Aslan's death, groups of Turkish men have taken to the streets, too, with some wearing miniskirts to symbolize their rejection of traditional gender norms.

Still, in the video it's startling to see how little some of the men hesitate before beating up the images. The viewer is forced to wonder why they don't give it a second thought.

After Aslan's death, Mor Cati published a long blog post condemning gender inequality in Turkey. "You cannot assess Ozgecan’s rape and murder as independent from male violence and politicians who ... distinguish between ‘chaste’ and ‘unchaste’ women," the group wrote. "You cannot analyze rape by isolating it from its male perpetrator and patriarchy."