NYC250 cover image See all stories from issue #250, January/February 2016

Violence Against Women
Why does it keep happening?
Hande Erkan

I moved to New York from Turkey when I was 11. Although I come from a city, Istanbul, that protects women’s rights better than some other parts of Turkey, my country is more restrictive toward women than here in the U.S. Now that I’m older, I have been paying more attention to the way women are treated in Turkey and other more conservative countries. And I’m angry about what I see.

Recently, women in Turkey have been complaining that the problem of violence and discrimination against women is getting worse. According to Bianet, a Turkish group that tracks violence against women, almost 300 women were killed in Turkey in 2014—up 31% from the previous year.

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In recent years, there have been several highly publicized cases of horrifying violence against women, not only in Turkey, but also in India, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, and some other countries where women’s rights are weak.

This one in particular horrified me: One year ago in February, a 20-year-old woman named Ozgecan Aslan was taking a minibus home from college with a friend in the Turkish town of Mersin. Sometime after dropping off her friend, the bus driver tried to rape Ozgecan. When she resisted, she was stabbed and beaten with a metal pole. Later her body was set on fire and dumped in a riverbed in an attempt to cover up the crime. Three men, including the bus driver and his father, were charged with her murder.

Unbelievably, some people blamed Ozgecan for the crime because she was getting out late from her college, saying that she should have known better than to travel at night without being accompanied by a man who could protect her. In other words, instead of holding the men responsible, they said she was “asking for it.” It could have just as easily happened to her best friend. It could have happened to one of my friends.

In many countries, men think they have the right to sexually harass or sexually abuse women just because they are alone in public, which is probably why Ozgecan was carrying pepper spray in her purse when the crime occurred. Blaming women for men’s crimes is common.

We’re Human Beings

A famous television personality in Turkey recently upset a lot of people by suggesting that any woman who wears “sexy” clothes doesn’t have the right to make a fuss over harassment. A lot of his fans were shocked by his words. His statements cost him professional contracts and he got criticized on social media. He later apologized, but the fact that he thought he could get away with saying something like that shows how much Turkish society tolerates these kinds of ideas.

Violence against women isn’t just a problem in a few conservative countries, though. According to the United Nations, more than a third of women around the world suffer physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner, or sexual violence by a non-partner.

So much of the violence against women is connected to women’s sexuality, and men’s desire to control women, body and mind. Too often, women are seen in very simple, old-fashioned ways as “good women” versus “bad women.” Good women are virgins or virtuous married women who must be protected, while bad women (not virgins) don’t deserve protection, so that men have the right to do whatever they want to them.

In my opinion, instead of being “protected,” all women just need to be respected. This isn’t cultural; this is about being treated as a human being.

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Virginity Obsession

In some parts of Turkey, as in other conservative countries, many families put an intense pressure on girls to remain virgins until they get married, often at a young age and without consideration of the girl’s education. If she doesn’t remain a virgin, or sometimes even if she simply goes out with or flirts with a guy, she is considered to have violated family honor.

This entitles—even obligates, some believe—her family to reclaim their honor by punishing the girl or woman severely, even killing her. But it only seems to work one way: No one is pressuring men to remain virgins until they get married.

In eastern Turkey, some girls have been stoned to death for not bleeding after having sex on their wedding night. (Many people believe, incorrectly, that bleeding proves that the girl’s hymen was broken for the first time during sexual intercourse, indicating that she was still a virgin on her wedding night.)

When I think about this, I have so many questions: Why all this focus on girls’ sexuality? And why don’t boys get the same amount of scrutiny?

I did some research and found out that in many societies in the past, women were considered property to be sold or traded to men through marriage. If a woman was a virgin, it increased her value, which gave families more reason to keep their daughter a virgin until a husband was chosen. Today, in many parts of the world, families still put pressure on their daughters to stay virgins until marriage because it has become a cultural norm.

Time to Speak Up

This kind of thinking is encouraged by politicians (usually men) who don’t take a strong stand against gender violence and discrimination. For example, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, recently stated that he did not believe in equality between women and men due to their different “dispositions.”

Erdoğan is pressuring women to do only “feminine” jobs that fit their traditional gender roles. When I hear him speak, it sounds like what religious fundamentalists say: Women are supposed to get married, do the housework, raise children, and listen to their husbands.

In my opinion, every woman in the world should be aware of these awful examples of gender violence and discrimination. And despite the fact that in the U.S. women have more rights than in many other countries, discrimination and violence against women happens here every day too.

A recent survey of more than 150,000 college students in the U.S. found that 27.2% of female college seniors had been sexually assaulted while they were in college. Sadly, three-quarters of those women never reported the assaults because they thought it wouldn’t do any good or they were ashamed or embarrassed. When a whole society blames women for “causing” their own rapes, women start to believe it, even if they know better. And so we stay quiet, and the assaults keep happening.

We are all at risk. Women everywhere—and men too for that matter—need to speak up and work as a team to demand equal treatment and respect.

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