Women Seeking Divorce in Turkey are Being Murdered by Their Husbands

Filmmaker Chloe Fairweather documents the violence that women in Turkey endure at the hands of their husbands.

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Oct 24 2015, 3:00pm

courtesy of Dying To Divorce

When Arzu Boztas asked her husband for a divorce in December 2014, he shot her in the arms and legs six times. She recalls him saying, "'I won't shoot to kill you, I will just make you crawl.'" Boztas is one of the many women in Turkey who have been attacked for trying to get out of their marriage. While domestic violence affects women internationally, there are specific issues linked to the context of Turkey: a fight for equality in a state that in many ways is still very conservative.

In September 2015, 29 women were killed in Turkey, with 14.5% of those caused by women asking for a divorce, while 2014 saw almost 300 women murdered by men.

Filmmaker Chloe Fairweather set out to record this epidemic of violence in her upcoming documentary Dying To Divorce. "It was a combination of seeing something quite shocking but the feeling that people wanted to do something about it," Fairweather says.

Another catalyst for outrage was the brutal murder and attempted rape of Ozgecan Aslan. In February 2015, while traveling home on a bus, Aslan was kidnapped and stabbed by the driver. Turkey erupted in protests, with activists demanding justice while also drawing attention to the country's misogynistic society that fails to adequately punish the assault and murder of women by men.

I won't shoot to kill you, I will just make you crawl.

Dying to Divorce follows several women associated with the fight against domestic violence: activists, advocates and lawyers. It follows two cases of women allegedly brutally attacked by their husbands – Arzu Boztas, as well as Bloomberg newswoman Kübra Eken, who was paralysed after being beaten, allegedly at the hands of her husband. Fairweather will continue to film the forthcoming progress of MP Aylin Nazlıaka, the woman who famously threatened to throw her shoe at the sexist deputies she faced in parliament, which triggered a huge twitter campaign. Followers pushed for a change in Turkish law, which still allows men to get lighter sentences for violent crime against women.

Film still, all images courtesy of Dying To Divorce

The specific issue that activists are fighting against is the legal loophole that allows judges to reduce sentences for homicide when the perpetrator was "provoked". As Ipek Bozkurt, an attorney who specializes in domestic violence cases, told the New York Times: "Judges follow their social agenda and give discounts according to their own opinions. Even the existing laws in Turkey are not enforced in practice because judges don't care about women."

It's not just women who complain about this level of discretion. In conversations Chloe Fairweather had with various perpetrators of domestic violence, assailants also expressed their annoyance with a system that allows one homicide to get a lighter sentence than another, simply because it was committed in a different region of Turkey. In some cases, these men are keen to speak out against this perceived inequality.

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"They want to talk, they want to put across their viewpoint. It's interesting that people on both sides feel that there's injustice there: [these men] feel that, if they've got a large sentence, it's unfair because other people have managed not to get large sentences. If their wife did provoke them by disobeying them, and someone in a different part of Turkey can get a judgment which takes that into account, then why can't they?"

The activists against women's violence and the men committing these crimes have a convergence of opinion. Both groups believe that discretionary judgments are unjust. "That's one of the things that the activists are trying to do: make it harder for that type of discretion to be used. They would like more mandatory sentences for that type of violence and for homicides," Fairweather explains.

There has been an influx of new laws protecting women and a growing movement supporting their rights, But much of the country, including president Erdogan (who stated that "women and men are not equal"), is still very conservative. Traditional ideas of shame and honour are one of the reasons that a woman's right to ask for a divorce from her husband is perceived as a provocation to violence.

"It's tricky to unpick, but these notions of shame and honour are in some way more intense in Turkey, and the shame of your wife leaving you is seen as something that puts a pressure on that person that's quite public, I think," Fairweather says.

Violence against women is increasing as a result of the government's anti-women, patriarchal and Islamist rhetoric.

"What's happening now in Turkey is that violence against women is increasing as a result of the government's anti-women, patriarchal and Islamist rhetoric," Christina Asquith, journalist and founder of The Fuller Project for International Reporting said. Asquith is executive producer for Dying to Divorce, and her op-ed in The New York Times on domestic violence in Turkey sparked the idea for the film. "And the backlash just this last year has been exciting as tens of thousands of women and men taking to the streets to defend women's rights and call for an end to light sentences of abusers. "

"They've managed to pass so many impressive laws and bills about protecting women," Fairweather adds. "But it's like the country hasn't caught up yet. There is this section of women who know their rights and want to have them, while a whole other section of people are thinking 'Hang on a minute, when did that happen?'" It's this specific context of push-pull that makes Dying To Divorce so important and interesting, documenting the growing pains that are occurring as a country moves forward progressively in some areas, while dealing with the backlash that these changes bring with them.

In the context of a country that has such stark political divisions in approaches to women's rights, what the film's story reveals is the remarkable capacity these women have to pull together to fight against oppression, even after being attacked by the men they've shared their lives with. "The film is about women coming together to change laws, to fight for justice and to fight for their rights. They're all part of the same struggle: it's not victims and actors," Fairweather says. "It's all these very strong women and the survivors are just as strong. It's amazing to hear someone who's been through that saying that they feel they've been set free. If this is what the price of divorce was, they'd still rather pay it than not."

The community, grassroots feeling of women uniting to help one another is one overwhelmingly positive message to take away from the film. "It's about women helping each other and coming together and the strength in recognising you're not alone in a situation," says Fairweather, noting the cross-generational makeup of activists involved: "For the younger women, they're fighting for the rights of these women, in a very selfless way but they're fighting for their own space in a society that is increasingly squashing them out and telling them what they can't do. The issues are quite grave, quite shocking, but sometimes in those situations you'll also find people who are even more committed to engaging with why it's happening, how they can change things and stop things."