ISTANBUL — A woman in the studio audience stands up and, with the spotlight highlighting her covered head, announces to the crowd that her husband abuses her but that she doesn't know how to react and still be a good Muslim.
The host of this popular Turkish TV show, “Islam in Our Life,” Professor Faruk Beser, is — from his trimmed mustache to his tailored suit — the image of a modern, successful Turkish man. But as he approaches the woman, his answer is far from progressive.
Looking her in the eye, Beser urges the woman to “carry this pain within you and keep living with your husband,” prescribing constant prayer over divorce, and reminding the woman of the rewards she will receive in heaven for her suffering.
What is shocking about this scene is not so much the reaction of the host, a man known for his conservative interpretation of Islam in a country that is 99 percent Muslim, but rather that the woman had the courage to speak up at all.
Four out of 10 women in Turkey are beaten by their husbands, according to the recent study entitled "Domestic Violence against Women in Turkey,” which has collected the first official statistics on this topic in Turkey. Even more disturbing, the study reveals that a significant number of abused women, almost 90 percent, do not seek help from any organization.
“This is such a silent problem that most people don’t believe you when you give them the numbers,” said Henriette Jansen, team leader of the study, which was conducted by the General Directorate of the Status of Women (KSGM). "It shows how much women suffer alone and the huge stigma attached to violence against women.”
In this, Turkey is by no means alone. Violence against women exists in every country in the world, often behind closed doors and more likely than not unreported. How to address the problem however, needs to be tailored to the underlying causes that foster the problem.
“In Turkey it’s the patriarchal power relationship. When there is an issue of power in a family or relationship, violence will be in the middle,” said Meltem Agduk, Gender Project Coordinator for UNFPA Turkey.
“If the gender stereotypes continue like this violence against women will always be with us.”
Compared to European counterparts, the Turkish government took its time before beginning to take seriously the struggle to combat violence against women. It was only in 1998 that the country's supreme court overturned a law that criminalized adultery, and just last year there was a major push in Parliament to revive the edict.
“Until the government says, ‘OK, I have zero tolerance towards violence against women,’ then its going to be very difficult to get women to speak out,” Agduk said.
Still, progress has been made. Passage of the Law for the Protection of the Family (1998) and changes to the Civil Law (2001) and Penal Code (2004) have all helped to combat both the violent action and the tacit social acceptance of violence against women.
In 2004, Turkey took its most publicized step of introducing mandatory life sentences for those who carry out honor killings, a long-awaited action thought to be an effort to combat a crime that had marred its quest to join the EU.
“The definition of honor, in the Turkish, more eastern, sense, is always defined within the sexuality of women," Agduk said. "Men believe that when they marry a woman, they possess her. They see a woman just like a car.”
Such wide-ranging changes to the penal code have been helpful in curbing the practice of allowing murderers to plead family honor as an extenuating circumstance to justify killings, and there have been several successful prosecutions for the crime. Most recently, on January 13, 2009, a Turkish Court sentenced five members of the same Kurdish family to life imprisonment for the "honor killing" of Naile Erdas, 16, who got pregnant as a result of rape.
The legal realm is not the only area where progress has been made. A number of government and non-government programs have sprung up in recent years to address the topic.
An advocacy campaign, initiated by Ankara and supported by UNFPA, made great leaps in focusing public attention and shaping a national dialogue on violence against women. One of the most influential elements of the campaign was the involvement of the country’s major league soccer players who spread the message — "Stop violence against women" – during half-time shows and in film spots across the country; a bold move in a society known for its machismo.
The popular Turkish newspaper Hurriyet has also played a unique role in the fight, leveraging their opinion-making position as a newspaper to push the issue to the agenda through their Stop Violence Against Women Campaign, as well as establishing a hotline for women facing domestic violence with round-the-clock legal and psychological support.
Despite these efforts, experts agree that Turkey has a long way to go, starting at the highest levels of government.
Women MPs from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the Democratic Left Party (DSP) have complained in parliament that there has been too little attention paid to the struggle against violence towards women.
“The positive intention is there but implementation is weak because of a lack of resources and capability,” said Temucin Tuzecan, Director of the Stop Violence Against Women Campaign.
“We cannot solve this problem in its totality. It’s a very big ocean and we try to care for women who are caught in our nets.”