Turkey: Violent men in, laughing women out

Mahir Zeynalov
Mahir Zeynalov

Mahir Zeynalov

By: Mahir Zeynalov

Although they live in one of the most modern Muslim nations, Turkish women are now highly “recommended” to avoid laughing in public, adding another link to a restraining chain that has kept them under unceasing and disturbing scrutiny.

“Women must not laugh out loud among everyone else,” said Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, whose political weight has gradually eroded under the iron fist of his boss. The remarks sent chills and derision across Turkey, with many condemning his attempt to “educate” women.

And at the same time, Arinc’s AK Party is often at the heart of criticisms over a recent embarrassing corruption scandal, deliberate manipulation and other acts that are not in line with religious values they exploit.

This is not the first time a senior Turkish government official has tried to teach women how to behave. In the past, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan lobbied for women to have at least three children and fought for a law on how women should deliver babies.

In a country that is awash with news reports of domestic violence against women on a daily basis, the government’s obsession with the way women laugh is nothing but a miserable failure

Mahir Zeynalov

In a country that is awash with news reports of domestic violence against women on a daily basis, the government’s obsession with the way women laugh is nothing but a miserable failure to protect half of the population. Violence against women – according to police reports – is twice more than the number of cases in the U.S. and ten times more than in many European nations.

The real picture is even more horrific, because many women choose not to report their violent husbands or prefer to tolerate it in order to preserve their family and children.

Arinc’s statement seems to illustrate a dominant mentality among how the ruling elite sees the role of women in society.

Horrific picture

When it comes to rhetoric, no one is better than the AK Party in praising women and listing their achievements in women’s empowerment.

But statistics say the exact opposite. Last year, at least 214 women were murdered by their husbands, ex-husbands or boyfriends, according to official figures. A year before, the number was 165, a staggering increase.

For a number of reasons, many Turkish wives are compelled not to file complaints against their husbands. A perceivably weak implementation of a restraining order against men is probably the major reason why women are afraid to report their abusive husbands.

The punishment could be much more costly. Even if imprisoned, there is always a possibility that a husband could find a way to punish his wife for reporting the abuse.

Just let them go

One Turkish man was in the local press recently after allegedly arguing with his wife on a street in the central Turkish province of Denizli in April. After living separately for almost two months, he reportedly asked his wife to return home. When she refused to cancel the divorce, he allegedly pulled out his gun and murdered her. Then he aimed the rifle at his heart and killed himself before the eyes of their daughter. This tragic incident is no exception in a country where at least 15 percent of killings by husbands last year were because wives wanted to divorce.

Divorce is always tragic, especially if the family has little children. But an attempt to divorce runs opposite against the “honor” of Turkish men. Many women are forced to live with their husbands because they don’t have sufficient support from their extended families, and fear that they would not be able to see their children. And when they insist, death sometimes creeps into the picture.

Economic dependence is the primary drive why many women feel hesitant to divorce from their violent husbands. The unemployment rate among women is extremely high, largely fueled by a culture that suggests women should not work.

Even in urban areas, a significant number of women prefer to stay at home and the state does almost nothing to provide a free kindergarten service for working mothers. This situation definitely makes it much more difficult for women to seek divorce.

Preventing domestic violence

Preventing domestic violence is one of the most challenging tasks governments face across the world. It is especially difficult in countries such as Turkey because an overwhelming majority of cases go unreported. While the biggest reason is ineffective government protection once the complaint is filed, a prevailing mentality that women are almost always “wrong” also has a part in this outcome.

Turkish men love talking about what women wear, how they talk, how they laugh and how they behave in public. Already under immense pressure, a reinforcing mentality that women are “on the brink of sin” is likely the major reason why they are the ones who get the least attention.

A lecture telling Turkish women not to laugh – when they are already vulnerable to physical violence – is the last thing they need. Empowering women, whether by educating men on how to behave with women, creating economic opportunities and establishing effective and functioning state protection, is an essential part of this unending good fight.


Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today’s Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov



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