Ebru Aykut is a faculty member at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, Department of Sociology. She received her PhD from Boğaziçi University Atatürk Institute (ATA) with a thesis on arson and poisoning cases in the 19th century Ottoman provinces. Her studies focus on gender, the history of medicine, the history of law, the history of crime and punishment. We talked about the changing laws and medicine in the Ottoman Empire, poisoning, murders, the women who could not take it anymore and women who “claimed their lives” from the 19th century Ottoman Empire to present-day.
Personally, I am intrigued by the topic of your research because I wrote my master’s thesis on the litigations undertaken by feminists in 2012. Femicide trials were being monitored during the 2000s, I was a part of that monitoring group. I am talking about a period when women were present at the courts, collectively following femicide cases; femicides were brought to attention not only in Istanbul but also in other provinces. For my thesis, I went to courts a number of times, examined the records, and interviewed attorneys-at-law and activists. I tried to bring private aspects of these events under public purview as public issues and made a point about how the legal struggle was part of the feminist struggle. The subject you are studying with regard to how justice was practiced during the Ottoman period, and what it meant for women, the inequality between women and men etc. really intrigued me.
In a more general sense, your topic has a particular meaning for us; Istanbul Feminist Collective (IFK) started to publish a series of reports called “Women are Claiming Their Lives” which centered around women resisting male violence and practicing their right to self-defense. During that period, by monitoring femicides, the feminist movement’s relation to justice reached a point where there was not only a resistance against legal struggles taking up so much space in our struggle, but also questions around our policy to accept each demand to follow cases. Following the discussions, within the context of IFK reports, we jointly conducted the litigations − the most famous ones in the media were the trials of Nevin, Çilem, Yasemin, and Hasret. The reports are discontinued but some of the cases are ongoing. Therefore, your study on women killing their husbands in the Ottoman Empire really drew our attention. How did you decide to study this topic?
To be honest, it was not my primary intention to do so; I would have never thought I would be studying poisoning cases or women that poisoned their husbands. I am a feminist, but my interest in this issue is shaped by my research in the Ottoman archives rather than the current state of politics. There is an expansive literature on murder by poisoning in Europe, if not in Turkey. When I was deciding on my thesis topic in 2007, I was not that familiar with that literature. I was interested in capital punishment post-Tanzimat era; therefore, interested in crimes, such as banditry, arson, premeditated murders, that required a sentence of capital punishment. With the enactment of the Ottoman Criminal Code of 1840, crimes against individuals, which concern the rights of persons under the Shari’a law, are also being regulated by the state, and now considered within the scope of public prosecution. Those arrested on charges of murder are tried according to the criminal code, both in the Shari’a courts and in the newly established assemblies (and in nizamiye Courts from the 1860s onwards). In other words, despite the demands of the victim’s heirs, in the Shari’a court, the murderer is now tried and convicted according to the criminal code and is sentenced to imprisonment or hard labor − as opposed to voluntary/without a fine pardoning the murderer before. Nevertheless, the fundamental principle of punishment is the protection of the Shari’a (religious) rights of the heirs. For example, if the heirs do not demand talion, the state, with some exceptions to the rule, cannot rule a decision to sentence the murderer to capital punishment according to the criminal code. When the heirs are adamant about talion, the state cannot change its ruling for capital punishment to another sentence either. The Criminal Code of 1858 marks a radical transformation in that field.
Certain crimes, such as murder by poisoning or arson, were not clearly defined in the Criminal Codes of 1840 and 1851 as crimes that require capital punishment; that did not happen until 1858. As I was studying a period that witnessed comprehensive transformation in criminal law, and the state acted as an intervening party to issues within the scope of Shari’a law, I was going through the catalogues in the archives and reading about different cases when I started to become interested in murders committed by women. You would also know that the court records have a specific jargon that usually repeats itself. But there were istintakname, interrogation reports, included in most murder trials seen at nizamiye courts. When I used to take classes at ATA, we talked a lot about the importance of interrogation reports. These are records that were kept in question-answer format. There are questions regarding the name, sect, vocation at the beginning of the interrogation. Then müstantik, the interrogation officer, asks questions to reveal the contradictions in the statement so that the suspect confesses the murder. When she confesses to a crime, then they try to figure out the motives of the murder, whether there were accomplices, or instigator of the murder, or someone who showed the perpetrator how. Of course, we can access the statements of not only the suspects, but also the plaintiffs and witnesses who were involved in the case, thanks to the court records.
Interrogation reports hold an important place as resources for 19th century Ottoman social and feminist history, since the court statements of women we get to read are of illiterate women from the Ottoman provinces who live in villages or towns. These women are not like Halide Edip or Nezihe Muhiddin, who could read or write, or had access to opportunities to make their voices heard. There are no other documents, letters, journals written by these women apart from these interrogation reports. That’s what makes them invaluable and provides a unique opportunity to shed light to and voice these women’s worries, concerns, which would otherwise have been left in the dark within the household. That’s what got me excited about them. Honestly, studying murders is considered nonsense in Turkish academia. Yet, through these murders, we get to learn about “common” –or let’s say non-elite– women in the Ottoman Empire who, for the most part, had been left out of historical narratives. We get to learn about a commoner’s household rather than the palace of the sultan or the mansions of the pachas. I want to go back to something important you’ve said, these murders transform what happens behind closed doors, in the private sphere, issues that cannot be easily become under public purview as public issues. “History from below/people’s history” became popular with social history during the 1960s and 70s in England; an historiography that centered on the subject, not the elite subject but the working class, peasant, women, and their experiences. In Ottoman historiography, “history from below” dates perhaps around twenty years. There are more and more studies done with that perspective. To study arson and women poisoning their husbands in the rural provinces of the Ottoman Empire is a minor contribution to that field.
I should also briefly add: feminist historians who focus on crimes state that the crimes where women are the victims receive more attention than the crimes committed by women –except when women killed their children, had an abortion or engaged in prostitution. In this regard, I find it important to study women who poisoned their husbands. In sum, while I was examining the case files of women perpetrators, at first, I focused on aspects such as why women were killing their husbands, and the advantages of poisoning to kill. I tried to understand the personal, social, and legal traits of these murder cases. I realized that women were at a deadlock. The institution of marriage regulated by Shari’a law is quite restrictive for women, there is quite limited possibility of getting a divorce. The common denominator for most, if not all the cases, was that when marriage turns into an impossibly difficult situation, women sometimes find no other way out than to kill.
I was intrigued by the possibilities granted by the law when I was examining these cases. Like I just mentioned, in the 19th century, pre-Criminal Code of 1858, there were the Criminal Codes of 1840 and 1851. Both criminal codes do not define poisoning within the scope of murder, that happens with the enactment of 1858 Criminal Code. In the Criminal Codes of 1840 and 1851, those condemned for murder, whether via poisoning or other methods, (are expected to) receive short term prison or hard labor sentences. For example, those who committed murder intentionally before 1858 received prison sentences that ranged from two to seven years. The interesting part is that although poisoning is always intentional according to Shari’a law, it is not intentional murder because poison is not considered a wounding, perforating object. Knives, rifles are considered wounding, perforating objects but sticks or a piece of wood are up for debate. Whether they were gnarled or not, or which part of the body the attacker hit to kill are taken into consideration. Even the axe is up for a debate. To determine whether a murder was intentional or not, there is emphasis on which side of the axe –sharp or blunt side, or the handle– was used to hit the victim. Killing by choking someone or squeezing testicles are also not considered intentional murder. If a man kills his wife by beating her, since it does not involve a wounding, perforating object, he can claim that he “slapped her twice and she fell dead.” In these cases, it is not possible that heirs demand talion for the murder, just like murders by poisoning. I am talking about the Hanafi sect here. There are different schools of jurisprudence in Sunnite Islam, and what constitutes a wounding, perforating object changes from school to school. At the end of the day, if it’s a murder committed by poisoning, the heirs of the dead cannot demand talion for the murder because poison is not considered to be a wounding, perforating object. Therefore, according to the Shari’a law, the murderer cannot be tried for capital punishment, which means, if you kill someone by poisoning, you eliminate the possibility for talion or capital punishment. This did not change following the enactment of the 1858 Criminal Code. On the other hand, since the sentences are aggravated in the new laws, those that received amnesty from capital punishment or talion and that committed murder with poison now receive sentences of up to fifteen years, as opposed to two to seven years before, of prison or hard labor.
Where did these incidents take place?
Like I mentioned before, I studied the trials that took place in assemblies (meclis) with administrative and penal powers established in 1840s and courts of nizamiye institutionalized in 1860s. These incidents mostly take place after the Tanzimat period, around the 1860s and 70s. I did not geographically limit myself. The cases do not concentrate on one place either. Adana, Kastamonu, Trabzon, Ankara, Silistre, Kürdistan, Muş, Bosnia, Danube Province… Except for one or two of them, cases are strictly from villages and towns outside of big cities. It is because it is easy to find poison there.
Poisons like ratsbane (arsenic) and aksülümen (mercuric chloride) can be bought very cheaply from grocers, peddlers, and herbalists. There are regulations surrounding selling poison in Istanbul from the 1850s onwards, but the effectiveness of the implementation of regulations and provisions of the code in villages and towns away from the center are debatable. It’s naturally a different story in Istanbul; the capital city is naturally subjected to a tight control. In other words, I believe the reasons for encountering these cases mostly in the provinces are the ease in which poison can be obtained and the lack of controls there.
You are talking about a period where the laws were changing, what were the legal changes that concerned incidents involving poison?
The Ottoman Empire centralized its governance structure during the 19th century. We can interpret standardization of justice, and criminal codes enacted one after the other as part of that attempt to centralize. For example, capital punishment decisions of the provincial assemblies are no longer executed before the higher court in Istanbul, called Meclis-i Vâlâ, examines them, and more importantly, they are approved by the sultan. This regulation is extremely important in limiting the power of governors and local authorities. There are regulations introduced not only to the justice system but also to medicine following the Tanzimat period. Mekteb-i Tıbbiye-i Şahane in Istanbul became the center of reforms in medicine. Regulations published 1850s onwards discern between different vocations under medicine. It will not be possible to mention them all here, but regarding poison: pharmacists are now required to separate the cupboards where bottles of medicine and poison are stored, and accordingly label them if they are to comply with the new regulations. This regulation is more for avoiding malpractice due to poisoning from wrong drug combinations rather than criminal poisoning incidents. These regulations determine and define who can sell which substances to whom for herbalists, pharmacists, pharmaceutical traders, and herborists. Perhaps the most important regulation of all is the guarantor system introduced to limit and control the sale of toxic substances. There is even an article about that in the Criminal Code of 1858. It is not possible to entirely ban selling poisonous substances since their use in daily life is quite well spread. Ratsbane is used for killing mice and making medicine, just like we do today. People with lice, apply it on their heads. Certain poisonous substances are irreplaceable for craftsmanship like mirror making and fishing. That’s why it is impossible to ban selling poisons, so they control it by putting regulations in place.
Did these regulations make poisons less accessible to women?
It might have made it more difficult. Unfortunately, we don’t have the necessary sources or data to answer that question with confidence. After all, we find cases where women somehow could procure poison and committed or attempted to commit murder. It is hard to predict, since we cannot know whether there were women who wanted to buy poison from an herbalist but could not do so because they could not present a guarantor, because these common instances of daily life are not documented. Nevertheless, there are documents that demonstrate the limited impact of these regulations outside of Istanbul, especially in small villages and towns. There are examples of toxic substances being sold to people without guarantors, herbalists keeping unauthorized substances in their stores, and inspectors raiding the shops. There are herbalists being tried at the court during the trials of women who poisoned their husbands. They are sometimes called to court as witnesses where they are asked “this woman bought the ratsbane from you, is that correct?” and “why did you sell it without a guarantor, aren’t you aware of the law and regulations?”
Did each person go to court according to their sect or belief? Could you elaborate on how the act of poisoning was sentenced?
No, criminal cases involving Muslims and non-Muslims are seen at Shari’a and nizamiye courts. The dominant sect in the Ottoman Empire is Hanafi, and as I have previously stated, the heirs can never demand talion for murder by poisoning. On top of that, they cannot demand blood money.
Colin Imber has an article titled “Why You Should Poison Your Husband”, where why one cannot demand blood money for poisoning is explained in detail. Imber makes the following analogy: Let’s say someone gave an order to kill someone else. The person who received the order is not required to fulfill this order, but in the event that they do, the criminal liability lies with the person who committed the murder. If the person who received the order is a slave and could face a death sentence, and no way out but follow the order to kill, then the criminal liability lies with the person who gave the order. In murders committed by poisoning, the adversary served the coffee with poison in it is not required to drink that coffee. The fact that they know there is poison in the coffee, or not, is not important at this point. When your adversary drinks that cup of coffee, since they drink it with their own hands –without being forced to drink it–, there is no need to demand blood money from the person who poisons the coffee. That means the liability is with the person who takes the cup and drinks from it. In the event that the murderer pours the poisoned coffee in the mouth of the victim, forces them to drink it, then the heirs can demand blood money from the murderer. I once came across such a document. The heirs demanded blood money because the woman tried to poison her husband twice. They claimed that, in the first instance, the man ate the soup himself, but when he fell sick and was bedridden, the woman –in an attempt to guarantee his death– fed him the soup herself. Since their claim could not be proved, no blood money was demanded from the woman, she only received a prison sentence.
According to Shari’a law, poisoning is the “perfect” method of murder where criminal risks, such as talion or blood money, are minimum. Pre-Criminal Code of 1840, since these trials were only seen at Shari’a courts, murderers who used poison to kill, received tazîr sentences . So, depending on the discretion of the Qadi, it could mean either being beaten by a stick, which can be converted into an amount of money, or a prison sentence. Post-1840, in addition to the Shari’a courts, there are assemblies and nizamiye courts that base their decisions on the criminal code, which means longer prison and hard labor sentences. Following the Criminal Code of 1858, murders committed by poisoning the victim are included under the category of willful murder and the sentence is capital punishment but since Shari’a law does not require talion, nizamiye courts’ hands are tied. It is said that the Criminal Code of 1858 is an adaptation of the Criminal Code of France. The legal transformations during the 19th century are reported to be attempts at modernization and secularization. On the other hand, we see that Hanafi jurisprudence is embedded in this Criminal Code. It is undeniably a modern set of laws, and most articles of the code is an adaptation from the Criminal Code of France; but it is also a set of laws that takes rights protected by Shari’a into account and guarantees them. It is stated at the very beginning that none of the articles of law can annul personal rights protected by Shari’a. Consequently, none of the murderers who killed by poisoning receive capital punishment sentence even post-1858, and the capital punishment sentence set forth in the Criminal Code is converted to 15 years in prison or hard labor. There are exceptions to this rule, couple of women receive capital punishment for poisoning their husbands, although the crime does not call for talion according to Shari’a. Unfortunately, I have not been able to explain these exceptions and why these women were executed
Were these new criminal sentences, laws accessible to common people living in different places? Were the laws implemented uniformly around the empire? Could everyone equally reach the laws?
Criminal code texts are sent to the provinces, but there are people who free themselves from criminal liability by claiming they were not aware of this or that articles of the criminal code. For example, a woman named Ayşe poisons her husband with aksülümen (mercuric chloride) in Rousse, Silistra in the 1860s. They immediately find the herbalist. Aksülümen mixed with mercury is used to produce düzgün. At the time, düzgün was a cosmetic product women use to whiten their skin. The herbalist claims, “this woman used to make düzgün, and sell it. She used to buy aksülümen, and mercury and leave. I never asked her why she bought them.” They ask the herbalist, “Are you aware that there is an article in the criminal code regarding not selling [these substances] without a guarantor, were there guarantors present?”. His reply is, “I was neither aware of the criminal code nor the article on the guarantor. The law has not reached here yet”. That’s why he isn’t sentenced. Back in 1902, Vasil Naum Efendi, a chemistry teacher at the Mekteb-i Tıbbiye [School of Medicine], wrote a report on how sale of toxic substances in the provinces are not controlled, and regulations are not implemented. Internal organs, stool and vomit specimens obtained from autopsies performed in Anatolia are sent to the laboratory of the School of Medicine for examination, and Vasil Naum Efendi’s report states that in most cases demonstrate the use of arsenic. He adds, the number of such cases increase daily. He highlights there can be many more murders which are not reported to the police or the courts and there could be an epidemic of murders by poisoning in the provinces. He says that this situation is a consequence of how the two regulations published to control the sale of toxic substances in the 1880s could not be implemented. After the presentation of this report, the two regulations are resent to the provinces. So, that means we should be looking at legal regulations from two perspectives. First, the law on paper, then how the law is implemented, carried out. We should be aware of the differences between the two. The laws and regulations are published in Istanbul, and there is an undeniable effort put in to have administrative and legal standards parallel to moves of centralization. On the other hand, it would be wrong to assume that all laws and regulations were implemented with the same amount of meticulousness in the vast geography of the Empire.
We are talking about life stories of common people in the Ottoman era. What is the subject position you are underlining? What is subjectivity for women in poisoning cases?
Primarily, it lies within the fact that women find the power to transform their lives within themselves. We tend to imagine women less powerful than they were, when we think about the past, it’s as if women were subjected to more oppression, and had less power to intervene in matters related to their lives. Surely, in some parts, there is a truth in that: the social conditions are different, and an individual’s power to intervene in her life is not solely determined by herself. Regardless, considering women then to be less powerful than we are today, is a consequence of our distorted and teleological perspective. Historians studying the 16th and 17th centuries talk about women who fiercely defended their rights at the court. Fikret Yılmaz has an article titled “Fahişe Subaşıya Karşı” [Prostitute vs. Subaşı (Chief Officer)]. Yılmaz talks about a subaşı who steals the coat of a prostitute, and she demands it be returned. One would think that she would be afraid to ask for her coat back “because she is a prostitute”, but that is not the case at all. My students get surprised when I tell them this story, we are inclined to think that those women have no voice, they are silent. Our impression of them today does not assign them a subject position.
However, these women have the power to resist, and, just like today, when there is not a lot more options left for them, try something else – like murder. Secondly, their subject position is revealed in their court statements; most women who poisoned their husbands confess their crime during the interrogations, and say, “I did it”. For example, the women said, “he was going to kill me if I didn’t kill him” – just like today. They state their concerns clearly and confess. Surely, a part of it could be that they had confidence in the law, but the fact that they were talking about their worries, concerns could also mean that they were implying he deserved it. Despite the fact that the interrogators are trying to corner them with questions like, “you could not have done it all by yourself, there must be someone who showed you the way, who gave you the poison,” the women tell them that they bought the poison and committed the act themselves. The interrogators often ask women who encouraged them to commit the murder, but even in cases where women directly confess to their crime, the interrogators are barely convinced since they think women could not have devised the plan to kill and implemented it from beginning to end. Some women mention that they have lovers, and that their lovers procured the poison. Women always make a case about how they suffered from their husbands and accept their own responsibility, too. I find that important with regard to establishing subjectivity, although it is not a truly empowering position to be in when you establish subjectivity through violence.
From today’s perspective and with caution as not to praise violence, these cases demonstrate the violence and how women have had enough. One could interpret their different forms of resistance against [male] violence and they turn that into a public issue as a form of empowerment. We cannot say much about the fact that these cases are of public knowledge or their impact on other women but I believe that we are talking about a form of empowerment in this regard.
In some of the cases I came across, there were women who advised other women to use poison. The next-door neighbor would come and say, “your husband is beating you on a daily basis, let me concoct you a medicine and let’s see if he can beat you again” and gives some poison to the woman. There are interesting historical studies on women who procure poison and teach other women how to get rid of their husbands in Italy and England. There is a woman nicknamed Sally Arsenic, who lived in Essex, England during the mid-19th century. The existence of such women who show the way out to women who cannot take it anymore can be interpreted as an indicator of a network of solidarity among women. I am not talking about a professional, established network but, for the poisoning case I just mentioned, the same woman could have procured poison for other women and showed them how to use it – we cannot know for sure. At the end of the day, not every poisoning case is taken to the court. I came across three-four cases like that and got quite excited about them.
Right, we must keep in mind that most stories are not revealed and among those revealed, we don’t know about all details related to these cases. We can move on to motives and methods. Your research provides a lot of details on power relations in the house, and women-men relationships. We come across beating, oppression, forced and child marriages in women’s statements.
Women also fall in love with other men. We shouldn’t forget that. But the most reported reason is beating, violence.
When I was reading the text, I felt like: domestic labor is also among what I just listed, it should also talk about oppression, not being able to divorce, unequal rights etc.. But let’s not position these things against one another: as if there is pressure and persecution on one side and falling in love with someone else on the other. As if the latter is a choice and that’s how it is distinguished from the others. However, we are talking about it because it is a consequence of yet another form of oppression. If she was free to do as she pleased, the fact that she fell in love with someone else would not be an issue. Even today, when a woman kills a man who was subjecting her to violence, we sometimes find ourselves questioning: was she subjected to violence, rape, or did she have an undercover affair, or an affair she consented to. It’s as if we should find a legitimate justification for that act, something that can be justified legally as well. Self-defense in cases where the perpetrator is women is hardly ever recognized. What I am trying to say is that we should not be falling into that trap.
You are right, additionally, we should not ignore the desire of women. Women used to desire then, as we do today. A woman can fall in love with another man after enjoying a period of being happily married. It’s problematic to say that her husband was not taking care of her but beating her, that’s why she fell in love with someone else. What renders a marriage insupportable does not have to be physical violence. She desires another man, but her husband does not want to be divorced. There are many cases like that. There are also women who were forced to get married at a very early age, kidnapped without their consent, and forced to marry due to an agreement between the families.
Couldn’t women get divorced?
We cannot say they could not get divorced but the numbers are quite limited. Men could divorce their wives by talak-ı selase, saying “I divorce you” three times, without even having to go to the court. For women, there are certain criteria to divorce. The husband must be impotent, or have a disease such as leprosy, or go insane. But, beating does not constitute grounds for divorce. Beating complaints resulted in the husband getting a warning. I ran into a case where a woman was complaining that her husband was beating her. The second time she complained, the husband was put into prison for 3 days, then released. Moreover, if the woman can convince her husband to divorce, they can. If she offers to give up all her rights and give money on top of that, she can divorce her husband by hul, but this is of course only possible for wealthy women or women with family support. Women who had signed marriage contracts could also get divorced. For example, if men were not to return home after a specified period, or to beat their wives, the marriage contract was annulled. Although divorce is not completely out of picture for women, there are limited avenues for it. It is especially difficult for poor or women without a family to get out of a marriage they do not want to continue if their husband is not of the same opinion. That is also why I see these murders as an act of desperation. They are not products of a rage explosion. There is thought behind putting poison in your husband’s meal.
Now let’s look at traditional gender roles and murders, like in putting the poison in the soup or coffee. We can’t even imagine a man putting poison in his wife’s soup. That poison is today’s knife. I once wrote an article on how normalized/accepted it is in courts that men carry a knife in their pocket and kill women by stabbing them multiple times. When women injure the men with a bread knife when they are experiencing violence at home, the knife they grab from the kitchen counter is somehow questioned at the court. Obviously, I am not mentioning this to victimize women. At the end of the day, what happens in the domestic sphere, in the kitchen, carves a place for male violence, or the statement “if I didn’t kill him, he was going to kill me”, in history. Your research attests to that.
Yes, you are right. Additionally, I can mention the murders committed by men during that period. There are murder cases by poisoning committed by men, but only 3-4 of them killed their wives, mostly they are directed to other men.
I have also come across trials of men who killed their wives or sisters, most of them were committed in the name of honor. The men say that they saw their sister or wife defame his honor. By the way, they don’t have to see them in bed, it is quite hard to prove adultery. He justifies his claims by saying “my wife went to another town”, “I saw her talking to another man in the garden” or “I heard she has a relationship with the guard”. Before the Criminal Code of 1858, the murderers are exempt from punishment if the murder is committed in the name of chastity and honor”. The Criminal Code of 1858 introduces criminal sanctions for the first time and distinguishes between crimes excusable and exempted from punishment. From then on, the men who kill their wives or women relatives on grounds of defamation of their honor are no longer exempted from punishment, but they are excused nevertheless and sentenced to three years in prison. Honor killings are the most common type of murders committed by men where the victims are women. There are other types of justifications presented by men, such as “we were sitting at the table, eating, when the child started crying, and she did not calm her, so I hit her on the ear, and she died.” There is not much of a contemplation on the murders committed by men against women. Just like today, he can pull out a knife from his pocket and kill her.
There are similarities as much as differences in how the justice system sees these murders: following the changes brought to Turkish Criminal Code (TCK) the perpetrator can receive a reduced sentence for unjust provocation and many men benefit from that when they murder a woman. For women, there is not much of a difference legally if they were to file complaints against men for violence, to issue a precautionary decision or to go to a shelter. What is interesting in your research is that women’s capability of murder is being questioned. Whereas now, there is a fear of women, which gets them punished, and men pardoned.
In cases I have studied, there is ignorance of agency. They can’t even imagine women being capable of that. There are mentions of nakısat-ül akl olan taife-i nisadan, which means women’s mental capacities fall short of that of men and that she could not foresee the consequences of her actions, even in court mandates. Same goes for arson cases. It is possible to trace the prejudice against women in court records, in that formal discourse. Although the criminal code does not differentiate between women and men in terms of criminal liability, or state that women and men cannot be judged differently before the court, the judges at the court use their discretionary powers. They think that women cannot be the sole perpetrator of such undertakings, because they are of “womankind”, and reduce the sentence of women. Here, naturally, the Islamic law comes into play. For example, if there is suspicion that a person has an accomplice in a murder, they cannot receive capital punishment. It should be noted that women use this prejudice against them to their advantage, which is a great example for how subjectivity arises in these discussions. She says, “I am of womankind, what do I know”, and adds “I did it because I didn’t know better, someone told me to put that into the cup”. This could also be interpreted as a defense strategy. Or a tactic used to receive a reduced sentence. None of the men, lovers etc. who were alleged to be accomplices to the crime accept their responsibility in the deed. Since their support or encouragement cannot be proven, they do not receive any sentence. We could say the women were always left standing alone.
What happened if the murder did not take place?
I once read a document related to a 13-14-year-old girl, named Hatice. Her husband, Halil, was 19 years old. They lived with her mother-in-law. Hatice puts aksülümen in Halil’s sherbet and poisons him. We read from Hatice’s statement that Halil beat up Hatice and claimed, “she was not a virgin”. Hatice poisoned him following that incident. Hatice’s mother-in-law comes to rescue and feed Halil yoghurt. In the end, Halil survives. When Halil is asked whether he wants to divorce his wife, he says “no, she just could not foresee what could happen”. When they turn to Hatice, “if he is going to keep beating me, I don’t want to be with him. If he is going to get along with me, I am fine [with staying married].” They stay married, but Hatice is sentenced to 3 years in prison.
What did the women who denied committing murder do?
I could bring in another case to answer that question. It’s a case of a woman named Simona, from Trebin, Herzegovina. She poisoned her husband, and her brother-in-law named Toma sues her. In her statement, Simona says “cazu [witch] came by and told me ‘I am either going to take away Toma or your husband.’ I told her to spare Toma and kill my husband.” She then goes on to deny this statement. The community gathers in the church square to reach a decision on her punishment, there are people who want to “drag her around behind a horse”, who want to “bury her in the ground, and stone her”; but the decision falls with those who “don’t want to do any of that but exile her to Nemçe [Austria]”. She is exiled to Austria, but she comes back after six months. Upon her return, Toma files a complaint. She is rejected by her family, too, and receives a prison sentence for 15 years in the end. She insists, “I lost my mind, and I don’t remember anything” but since she had already confessed once in front of the community, and there were witnesses, she still receives a sentence. The phrase “I’ve lost my mind” is one of the defense strategies used by women when it is certain that they committed the murder but still deny their crime. Some of them claim that they were forced to confess to a crime they have not committed and were told nothing would happen to them because they are women.
Did women sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment for poisoning their husbands serve 15 years in prison?
We do not know that for certain. There were amnesties declared. They can submit petitions to be pardoned. But we don’t have the slightest idea about what women experienced after they received their sentence or what happened in women’s prisons.
Translator: Deniz İnal
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan