The brutal assault of a woman in Turkey sheds light on domestic violence problem

She lay unconscious and lifeless on the road, but he kept kicking her body.

Their weeping five-year-old daughter pleaded for him to stop, but he kept punching and slapping her in the face, and banging her skull against the pavement. Neighbours called on him to leave her alone, but he glared up at them, and told them to mind their own business.

The 6 March incident was recorded on a mobile phone, and later uploaded to the internet, shocking much of Turkey. And when the police finally caught up with 27-year-old İbrahim Zarap, he complained that he had been roughed up by the good samaritans who had stopped him from fleeing after he allegedly pummeled his 24-year-old ex-wife in the city of Samsun.

He vowed to press charges.

The grim incident, happening close to International Women’s Day, has shone a light  on what activists have described as an epidemic of violence against women in Turkey, often perpetrated by husbands, lovers and male relatives.

In the first 65 days of 2021, at least 67 women in Turkey have been murdered, according to the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, a women’s rights group.

The conservative, right-wing Ankara government, which has agitated to withdraw Turkey from an international convention ensuring women’s rights, appears to have sensed the moment’s volatility, and taken aggressive action.

Mr Zarap, who appears to be connected to the hardline nationalist party that is the junior coalition partner in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, has been arrested on a charge of attempted murder, according to the Samsun public prosecutor’s office. The 24-year-old victim and her daughter have been offered protection by the social services agencies.

“All necessary social service models and psychosocial support will be provided to the mother and our child,” said Zehra Zumrut, the family, labour and social services minister.

Ms Zumrut and justice minister Abdülhamit Gül Selçuk both vowed that Mr Zarap will be severely punished.

But many rights activists are outraged by the violence against women as well and what they describe as the Erdogan government’s contempt for women’s rights. Police on Monday sought to block an annual gathering of women seeking to mark International Women’s Day with a march along Istanbul’s landmark Istiklal Street. Opposition political parties called on the government not to use the Covid-19 pandemic to halt an even larger march planned for late Monday night.

Government spokesperson Fahrettin Altun seized on the rainbow-coloured flags raised at such rallies to denounce the protests for what he described as an LGBT+ agenda. “We strongly oppose the corruption of concepts such as freedom and tolerance for homosexual propaganda, and our families and children to be targeted in this way,” he said in a speech broadcast on television.

Activists say systemic failures and government inaction are leading to the violence against women. The woman in Samsun, who is not being identified for her protection, had divorced him over his alleged violence, and repeatedly sought to warn police about his brutality without any result, said one activist.

“She had filed complaints over and over again,” said Melek Onder, of the We Will Stop Femicide network. “The restraining order had been made. Despite this, our friend was not protected.”

Beyond the failures of law enforcement, a culture of impunity pervades in Turkey rooted in traditional values that are celebrated by the current government in Ankara. The coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdown have damaged women’s social and economic power, with many forced to stay at home to take care of children after the closing of schools.

“Women want to get divorced, separated, work, get educated—they want to make their own life decisions just like men do,” she said. “But they [run into] the patriarchy which refuses this and wants to oppress it with violence. Men who do not accept the decisions of women, cannot accept the decisions of women just like in Samsun – this is the main root of violence.”

On Monday, Turkish authorities disclosed that the possible murderer of another woman, Mervenur Polat, wrapped the body of the 20-year-old in aluminum foil and hid her away in an attic for more than four months. The suspect claims she died of a drug overdose.

Female protesters in Istanbul earlier this month

(EPA)

“It is inevitable to see how relaxed men are,” said Ms Onder. “They think they can kill women, hide it and get away with it without any punishment.”

According to news accounts, Mr Zarap told police he lost his cool when he claimed his ex-wife told him he would no longer be able to see their five-year-old daughter. Ms Onder described the excuse as part of a pattern through which violent men seek reductions in their sentences by shifting the blame for their own crimes onto their victims.

“They say, ‘She questioned my manhood, hurt my pride, or said she would not let me see my child,’” said Ms Onder, describing the typical defences offered by violent men to sympathetic police and judiciary officials, “These are all excuses men put forward to get reductions in sentence based on incitement.”

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