Annual protest is one of few allowed in Turkey since attempted 2016 coup
With activists warning that violence against women was on the rise in the country, police in Istanbul used tear gas and pepper spray Friday evening at the city’s annual Women’s Day March, a rare show of public protest in Turkey.
There was heightened tension when police set up metal barriers and lined up two hours before the march was to begin, not allowing anyone onto Istiklal Avenue, the main pedestrian street next to Taksim Square in the heart of the city.
Attendees shouted “Open, open!” while blowing whistles. Police stopped a group of women and took their placards away.
In the end, thousands were allowed to enter – but there were more metal barriers and dozens of riot police at the half-way mark, where they blocked people from continuing to the end of the street, where the march was supposed to conclude. Reuters reported that after using their tear gas and pepper spray, police followed marchers onto side streets.
Many of the protesters were carrying signs calling for justice for Sule Cet, a 23-year-old who was found dead one evening last May outside the building where she worked.
Cet had been inside her 20th-floor office with her boss and a friend of his. The two men claimed she had committed suicide by jumping from the balcony and were released by police.
Friends of Cet organized a Twitter campaign to raise awareness of the case, and the Hurriyet daily reported that the autopsy showed evidence of sexual assault and her boss’s DNA under her fingernails. The two men are now on trial, accused of raping and murdering her.
Activists say the case shows prejudice toward women in Turkey. The defense attorney stated in the courtroom that Cet had not been a virgin, while there have been comments on social media questioning why she was out so late at night.
The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Gender Gap report ranked Turkey 130 out of 149 countries.
The Turkish NGO We Will Stop Femicide Platform says there has been a gradual rise in violence against women in the country. In 2013, 237 were killed by a relative or partner, this figure jumping to 409 in 2017.
The NGO’s secretary-general, Fidan Ataselim, said part of the rise was due to women demanding more equality without men’s attitudes moving ahead at the same pace.
“There are women who are always in search of their own freedom and rights. In contrast, there is still the same patriarchy,” Ataselim told The Media Line.
“Women reject the borders or lines that are put up for them,” she added, “and they want to have a right to say something about their life. Each woman has the same problem. This situation pertains to every woman from every [demographic].”
The Women’s Day March is one of the few demonstrations that has been allowed to continue in Turkey, at least to some extent, with many others having been banned following a 2016 coup attempt.
Umay Gildiz, a 20-year-old student, told The Media Line she always attended the marches and did so to bring people’s attention to the issue of women’s equality.
“The solidarity of women,” she said, “is important for the survival of women – to have a voice, to have a louder voice.”
Even staunchly pro-government media such as The Daily Sabah cover the issue of gender inequality and violence, partly blaming it on what is seen as a patriarchal mindset in Turkish society.
Zehra Arat, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut in the United States who focuses on women’s rights and Turkey, wrote in an email to The Media Line that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan allowed such marches to go on because he wanted it to appear as if there were democracy in the country.
“The government selectively allows some marches and even protests, [just] as it does allow some opposition journals and political parties to operate,” Arat wrote. “It enables [Erdogan] to claim that his rule in Turkey is not a personal dictatorship, but an elected, constitutional, democratic government, even though there is no rule of law and anybody can be detained and prosecuted anytime.”
Erdogan stated in 2015 that violence against women was a “bleeding wound” for his country. However, he has also said he does not believe in gender equality. In 2016, he attempted to change a law to allow some men accused of sexual abuse to avoid prosecution if they married their victims.
Critics say these are tactics for Erdogan to maintain support from his religious and rural voter base.