Whether these crimes are framed and represented as intimate partner violence, ordinary honour killings or customary killings, they all have material root causes that have led to the murder of women and girls, and such framings not only cover up these underlying material causes, but also absolve the state of its responsibility for dealing with them.
It is well known that there has been an ongoing increase in the murder rates of women and girls in Turkey, especially in the domestic sphere. These crimes are framed and represented in different ways – as honour killings, customary killings, passion crimes, individual crimes, a social disease. The male perpetrators of these crimes regularly benefit in court from reduced sentences due to claims of provocation, particularly in the absence of any campaigns organized on social media by activists from feminist and women’s rights movements and with campaigns following, monitoring and participating in court proceedings. Although there are many different dynamics behind these murders, and a comprehensive, non-reductionist approach is required to understand these crimes, in this article, I would like to focus on the importance of the material contexts that reproduce such crimes. [i]
Since the family is a social institution and women and girls are killed mostly by male family members in the home, I would like to address the topic through the concept of family in this article. As Christine Delphy has suggested, I see the institution known as the family as an economic unit in which certain oppressive labour relations are regulated, built on what men appropriate from women by seizing and exploiting women’s labour (Delphy & Leonard, 1992:1). Although some of Delphy’s arguments are problematic, her perspective of the family as an economic unit is an important starting point in determining the material basis of crimes committed against girls and women in the home.
Although various trends can be identified through an examination of the issue of men’s violence against women and girls in Turkey, in this article, I would like to discuss the issue from the perspective of two major trends that I have identified based on my analysis of the data I have collected over the years, which are also familiar to the society: murders committed within extended families and murders committed within nuclear families. [ii]
Murders of girls and women in extended families
With regards to domestic murders committed against girls and women in extended families, in this section, I would like to discuss male violence against girls and women framed as customary killings in recent years, as my aim is to discuss the underlying material basis of such crimes, rather than ascribing them to certain cultures like the culture of the Kurds, which is often the dominant explanation attached to such crimes in various domains.
I have identified from the examination of court cases, that in cases framed as customary killings, girls and women were killed by members of their extended families, including their brothers, male cousins, and fathers. Common forms of marriage within these extended families were unofficial/religious marriages including berdel (sister swapping) and cousin marriages, where issues of “honour” and “local custom and “traditions” are often linked to chastity and virginity of murdered women and girls.
As an economic unit, the family regulates the specific duties, responsibilities, rights and sanctions of each family member based on the sexual and gender-based, hierarchical division of labour. Deniz Kandiyoti (1988) shows that all these relations are maintained and regulated within the classical patriarchal structure in the patriarchal extended family types of pre-capitalist agricultural societies, also found in the Muslim regions of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Accordingly, in extended families in agricultural societies where the family acts as an economic unit, the production and reproduction of the family, the control of the economic resources of the family, the fertility and reproductive rights of women within the family, familial consumption, property and inheritance are organised within the classical patriarchy, based on hierarchies of gender and age (Kandiyoti, 1997: 54-68). These oppressive relations are built upon the control of the labour, sexuality, bodies, lives of girls and women through the threat of violence and murder. Therefore, girls and women live under the threat of violence and murder all their lives and develop different strategies for survival.
When women and girls fail to live obediently, according to the roles and responsibilities assigned to them in line with sexual and gender-based hierarchical divisions of labour, or when they are perceived not to, they are then seen as a threat by men, who establish, manage and benefit from exploitative labour relations. Concepts such as “honour” and “local custom” and tradition’ are used to regulate, maintain and reproduce these relations based on exploitation, and to legitimize the oppression of women and femicide.
However, these relationships are affected by social change, mostly changes in ecological, economic, political and technological areas (Moghadam, 2003). Consequently, the roles and status allocated to women, their access to resources, as well as the structures of certain institutions such as the family are subject to transformation as a result of social change. War, conflict, poverty and forced migration also cause difficulties and changes in material conditions and these disrupt existing relationships, so that the control of girls and women in the home becomes even more important. These changes also affect the form of classical patriarchy, which means a crisis for the household head, who was formerly the decision-maker in managing the productive and reproductive resources of the household (Kandiyoti, 1988).
Based on the conceptual discussion above, I would like to give an example of such crimes. Records of a certain case show that prior to the murder, the uncle of the 14-year-old victim wanted to arrange a marriage between the victim and his son to resolve a dispute about the ownership of land belonging to male members of the extended family. Only when the marriage offer was rejected by the victim’s father was the issue of “honour” and her not being a virgin brought up by her uncle, which resulted in her murder. In relation to the reason given, her so-called loss of virginity, the victim’s uncle and his sons started putting pressure on the victim’s father and his son; claiming their “honour” had been stained and that she had to be killed according to custom. The underage victim was forced to undergo a virginity test more than once. The victim’s father moved to another town, away from them and, in order to avoid pressure from the community, he married the victim off to a disabled man. However, the uncle and his sons carried on pushing the father to kill his daughter and persuaded him in the end to have her killed to clear the family’s “honour”. All the defendants gathered together in a family council and decided to kill her to clear the family name, and her cousin, whom she had refused to marry, carried out the act (Case 37).
This and similar cases show that material reasons in fact lie behind these murders. In this particular example, the 16-year-old victim’s uncle, a classical patriarch, the decision-maker in this extended family, decided to marry the victim off to his son in order to keep the land within his family. The issue of honour only emerged when his economic interest turned to be at risk (as the marriage proposal was rejected); her so-called loss of virginity came into play as a punitive mechanism to get rid of her, communicated through male control exercised over female family members.
However, despite the material motives underpinning such crimes, the domestic murder of women and girls in extended families committed by extended family members in the majority Kurdish South-eastern and Eastern regions are often conceptualised, framed and explained as “customary killings”, associated with the “backward customs and traditions” of the Kurds in Turkey. This cultural stigmatisation also occurs in Europe and North America as one of the dominant and problematic frames in the discussion of “crimes of honour” as a product of the cultures of internal others. I argue in this article that framing these crimes in relation to culture and tradition alone ignores the main and most important point: the material conditions that reproduce such crimes. Another implication of this approach is that, reducing such crimes to an issue pertaining to certain cultures and traditions ignores the gender aspect, and disregards the fact that violence against women is not unique to certain minority, ethnic or immigrant communities; it cuts across societies to occur in majority groups of various cultures as well, and is, in either case, a manifestation of universal patriarchal gender violence.
With this in mind, I now turn to the domestic murders of women within nuclear family settings. These crimes occur across all regions of Turkey and are often framed as intimate partner violence. I argue that whether these crimes are framed and represented as intimate partner violence, ordinary honour killings or customary killings, they all have material root causes that have led to the murder of women and girls, and that such framings not only cover up these underlying material causes, but also absolve the state of its responsibility for dealing with them.
Murders of women in nuclear family settings
We know that women living in nuclear family settings are most often killed by the men they are married to, during their marriage, at the stage of divorce or after their divorce. When I examined these murder cases in depth, one of the main trends I identified was that victims, who were mostly unemployed housewives during their marriages, were subjected to both physical and economic violence by their husbands, over a long period of time. This shows that although these murders are often represented as unplanned, spur of the moment crimes (committed by husbands in a rage, spontaneously, as opposed to crimes framed as honour or customary killings which are premeditated, organised crimes), the murdered women had in fact been subjected to various forms of abuse and violence leading up to their murders by men and that these crimes do not occur as a result of any sudden rage as opposed to what is claimed by murderers. I also find that, when women who are oppressed try to engage in some kind of dialogue with their murderers, or criticise, disobey, question or resist this oppression and want a divorce, as in when they try to escape domestic violence or end marriages due to economic problems, it is then that men kill them.
With the capitalist transformation in Turkey into the capitalist patriarchal economic mode of production, predominantly in urbanized areas and usually in nuclear family settings, control over women’s bodies, sexuality, labour, and lives has been given to women’s husbands through their marriage contract. Women are expected to implicitly obey the men they are married to in return for their upkeep, at best, and to not run away when they are subjected to violence by their husbands, but to blame themselves for causing such violence. They are expected to make tea for men who inflict violence upon them, and ask them for the reason for this violence using the appropriate mode of address, relinquishing control over their lives, bodies, sexualities and efforts to the men they are married to.
As can be seen from the welfare policies introduced by the Islamic neoliberal capitalist patriarchal system, not only is women’s unpaid domestic labour in terms of housework and caring for children set aside, but women are also allocated the role of unpaid carers of the elderly, sick and disabled in their extended families. By fulfilling these roles, women act as a social security proxy for what is not covered by the state, but is instead imposed on women within traditional, patriarchal family units.
To the extent that women continue to fulfil these roles, duties and responsibilities, the structure, based on the oppression of women and built by the Islamic neoliberal capitalist patriarchal state, is strengthened and can continue. Gender-based hierarchical divisions of labour, roles and norms are reinforced and reproduced, ensuring that the social construction and social order of the society is built as designed by and for the benefit of the state. For these reasons, the state does not interfere with the family, framing it as “sacred and holy” and the “private sphere”. It thus leaves this space and the control of women and children (especially girls) to male family members.
When women and girls fail to live according to the accepted gender norms and roles, when they challenge the sexual and gender- based division of labour or when they are perceived not to accept it or show any objection or confront these oppressive systems, and when they want want to divorce, they are regarded as a threat to gender relations, which legitimise the authority and control of women by men, economic relations and the social order.
In the light of these conceptual explanations, I would like to present two examples. Unfortunately, there are very few women who have survived attempted murder or brutality, as I have found from the hundreds of femicide and gross bodily harm files I have examined. I have selected the examples below, from the files of women who survived because the courts ignore or do not take the statements of victim women who survive and can testify before the court, into consideration for sentencing, dismissing them unless they are to the benefit of male defendants.
In one case from İstanbul, the survivor was a 25-year-old victim whose husband had attempted to kill her because she started divorce proceedings after suffering long term violence at his hands. She had left her marital home and moved into an apartment block and started to work as a janitor/caretaker to earn a living. However, the unemployed defendant broke into her flat when she was out and waited for her to come home. When she arrived at her flat with her children, he stabbed her several times which caused her life-threatening injuries. She had previously been to the police station on several occasions to report his violence towards her. Despite all this, the court did not take into consideration the narrative of the victim when it did not support the claim of the defendant and totally dismissed this surviving victim’s statement. The court actually reduced the defendant’s sentence by granting him a reduction based on provocation due to his following statement: “I had my fortune read; you’ve had a lover for three years.” (Case 4).
Similarly, in another case from the city of Gaziantep, the 27-year-old victim survived attempted murder at the hands of her husband and revealed that, as he was unemployed, there were regular arguments due to their economic problems which caused the defendant to attack his wife. He claimed in his legal defence, according to the court records, that he was humiliated and provoked because his wife told him “you are not working”, so that he had hit her with tongs causing her injury. The court granted him a sentence reduction based on provocation, despite the fact that he declared during the trial that he did not regret the crime he had committed (Case 3).
This and similar cases show that when women who have to rely on their husbands for their economic survival made any attempt to express their problems or demonstrated a wish to escape violence or be divorced from their husbands, they were perceived as a challenge and threat to the authority and masculinity of the men they were married to. The perpetrators tried to legitimize murders of women on the pretext that these women had opposed them and provoked them into committing these crimes.
Although domestic murders of women and girls are represented in different ways –as intimate partner violence, ordinary honour killings or customary killings, all of which serve to legitimize such violence (or make illegitimate on paper by way of ethnicising)– I have tried to explain that framing such crimes in these ways enables the state, by allowing these crimes to continue, to abdicate its role, especially in terms of the prevention of all kinds of violence, with domestic violence in particular, through providing protection and support to women, carrying out an effective investigation, prosecution, and with appropriate procedural law put in place (Koğacıoğlu, 2004). Furthermore, the state has failed to engage with the underlying causes and conditions that reproduce such crimes, in fact, actively covering up the underlying material causes that reproduce such crimes of which the oppression of women is an integral part.
The ongoing efforts made to terminate the Istanbul Convention, which has not been properly implemented, should be read through this lens. With the abolition of the Istanbul Convention, the Islamic neoliberal capitalist patriarchal state wishes to renew the masculinity/gender contract between its male citizens and itself, at the expense of the lives of girls and women (and the LGBTI+ community).
* This article is based on the paper presented at the “Gender and Political Economy in Turkey” Workshop which took place at the London School of Economics on 12 June 2020.
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[i] This article only discusses the murders committed by male family members (including husbands) against girls and women in the home. In Turkey there are unfortunately certain new trends in crimes committed by men against women and girls. The murders of women, such as Münevver Karabulut, Özgecan Aslan, Şule Çet, Nadira Kadirova, Pınar Gültekin, Duygu Delen and Aleyna Çakır were committed not by male members of their families but by men outside the family, including strangers, boyfriends, former boyfriends whom they had broken up with, their male bosses whom they had turned down, and cases suggesting crimes involving different parties. This issue will be discussed in more detail in other articles.
[ii] This article draws on hundreds of court cases of domestic murders against women and girls in Turkey (represented as ordinary murders, intimate partner violence, honour killings and customary killings) that I directly collected from courts across all regions of Turkey dating from 1980s onwards to analyse for my academic research.