On a quiet November evening in 2014, Eda Okutgen left her apartment in the coastal Turkish city of Izmir and ran for her life. She didn’t get far.
Her ex-husband, Ugur Buynak, had already stabbed her in the leg with a kitchen knife. And as he chased her down a flight of stairs, the successful 38-year-old businesswoman and mother screamed for help. She screamed in vain—neighbors locked their doors as Buynak fatally plunged the knife into his ex-wife. She bled out in the stairwell, her murder caught on CCTV footage that would play over and over on Turkish television.
“She was too good for this world,” said her older sister Nazli Okutgen, wiping away tears.
Eda’s murder, although shocking, is hardly a rarity. In Turkey, headlines often tell grisly tales of violence against women—in the street, on public transportation, and in the home. There was the 20-year-old student who was bludgeoned, burned, and thrown into a river by a bus driver who tried to rape her. There was the Turkish newscaster who, shortly after giving birth, was beaten so badly by her husband that she is now paralyzed. There was the woman shot dead by her husband in a hair salon after he was released by police and defied a restraining order. And then there was Eda, stabbed to death by her ex-husband in a stairwell as her young son hid several floors above.
Eda is one of thousands of Turkish women who have been murdered or assaulted in recent years. At least 414 women were killed in Turkey in 2015–16—most by their significant others and family members—up from 294 in 2014 and 237 in 2013, as documented by We Will Stop Women Murders, a cross-country organization that documents the murders of women and aids victims of violence and their families. And activists, lawyers, and survivors of violence say that the situation is getting worse—rights and protections for women are being curbed at an alarming rate. Under the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the government is squashing dissent and pushing policies that are detrimental to women. This in a country that was once touted as a model for a stable, modern, and Islamic democracy.
At least 414 women were killed in Turkey in 2015–16—most by their significant others and family members.
STATE OF FEAR
Turks fighting for gender equality say that the courts are often tilted against women. Judges can reduce the sentences of murderers and abusers at their own discretion if, for instance, a man justifies his violence by claiming that his wife was unfaithful or dressed inappropriately, or if he has good behavior in the courtroom.
Eda’s sisters have been battling this system for two years. Although Buynak is currently in jail for Eda’s murder, he has enlisted the services of a top lawyer to fight his conviction. He is claiming insanity, alleging that his ex-wife provoked him by supposedly having an affair and by refusing to have sex with him. Allies of Eda slam these allegations as ridiculous, but they are a strategic move for Buynak: he could be released if, after medical review, the court says he was indeed insane at the time of his crime. And after a relatively short stint in psychiatric treatment, he could walk free.
Ismail Altun, the prosecutor for Eda’s case, has represented at least 40 cases of battered, raped, and murdered women over the past 22 years as a lawyer. He’s seen it all.
“I don’t think the rate of murders will decrease,” Altun says, shaking his head. According to groups such as We Will Stop Women Murders, the rate is in fact going up. But the number of battered women in Turkey is unknown. Many victims do not seek help because they do not have the economic status to stand on their own or they are afraid to go to the police and file a report.
“Even if they do go to the police, the police say it’s a family issue,” Altun says, shaking his head. In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights slammed a “pattern of judicial passivity in response to allegations of domestic violence” in Turkey. Altun says it’s only getting worse.
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