Watch your language: Turkish artists botch response to femicide

On July 21, Turkey was shook by the brutal murder of 27-year-old university student Pınar Gültekin by a man named Cemal Metin Avcı. many of Turkey’s influential cultural figures, from musicians to models, weighed in on Gültekin’s murder and the larger epidemic of femicides.

On July 21, Turkey was shook by the brutal murder of 27-year-old university student Pınar Gültekin by a man named Cemal Metin Avcı. Gültekin’s burned body was found in a forest area in the Aegean province of Muğla. Tragically, this high-profile murder is just the latest example of Turkey’s atrocious record of femicide. In the first six months of this year alone, 146 women have been killed. In 2019, TheWe Will Stop Femicides Platform reports, 474 women were murdered. 

Gültekin’s death led to an outpouring of rage by a country tired of women being murdered by husbands, boyfriends, family members, and strangers. Social media was filled with messages commemorating Gültekin. Meanwhile, the streets of Istanbul, Ankara, Adana, Samsun, and other Turkish cities were filled with protesters demanding justice for Gültekin and an end to impunity for perpetrators. In Izmir, women were beaten and arrested by police. Seeing these photographs of women brutalized and pulled by their hair for demanding the right to live in safety, one cannot help but conclude that the state is revealing how it really thinks women deserve to be treated.  

As with other important social issues, many of Turkey’s influential cultural figures, from musicians to models, weighed in on Gültekin’s murder and the larger epidemic of femicides. While some of these celebrities raised their voices in the name of justice, others made statements that not so subtly undermined the very struggle for women’s rights that they claim to support.

One such statement came from Haluk Levent, a famous Turkish rock musician who became famous in the early 1990s and is also known for his environmental activism and extensive charity work. 

On Twitter Levent wrote: “Girls! Some advice from your big brother Haluk! If in the early days of a relationship your boyfriend acts even a little violently because of jealousy or some other reason, do not tolerate it. Even more, don't be like some girls who go on social media to show off [these behaviors] saying, 'That's my man.' Don't legitimate violence. Otherwise you'll die :("

The response to Levent’s condescending remarks was swift and fierce. On social media, many asked why Levent was calling out to women rather than men. Canan Güllü, head of the Federation of Women’s Organizations in Turkey wrote: “Instead of saying ‘I’m addressing girls’ he needed to address men. If he had said, ‘My fellow men, Don’t burn, cut, beat, or bury [women], show mutual respect,’ Turkey would be a different place today.”

Whatever Levent’s intentions were, statements like this put the blame on women themselves for being murdered. It is not a far leap from interrogating a woman who is a victim of violence about why she wore a certain dress or chose to meet a man at his house to asking why she didn’t break up with a boyfriend sooner. This line of questioning can easily lead to blaming victims for legitimizing violence.  

What needs to be asked instead is why jealousy and violence are romanticized in the first place. The answer, of course, is patriarchy: a society based on the power and privilege of men. Certainly no one can remain spared from the values of such a society, but it is the perpetrators and beneficiaries of this power that need to be interrogated.   

It is also essential to remember who is responsible for violence against women. According to data collected across the world and in Turkey, 63.5% of perpetrators of femicide were women’s spouses or romantic partners. However, another 32% were relatives, including fathers, brothers, and so on. How can one ask a woman, or particularly an underage one, why she did not leave her family if there was violence at home. Levent did not say this directly, but arguments like his play into hands of those who would downplay violence against women.

After a flurry of responses to his tweet, the 51-year-old rocker deleted the post and apologized, claiming he acted out of an excess of emotion. He later changed his mind again, writing, "Ooooffff offff... Enough already, I'm not apologizing or anything! Things have really degenerated. I'm re-posting the tweet." Finally, in a video he expressed consternation as to why he was, to his own mind, treated so unfairly online when all he wanted to do was give some brotherly advice to young girls. He went on to address the mothers of boys, urging them to raise their sons to reject violence. 

One wonders whether all these potential abusers of women have fathers as well, or whether raising children is still considered the sole responsibility of mothers.

Then there is the example of the pop/arabesk musician Berkay, who stated in a recent interview: “Women are angels, gifts that were sent to men by God. We are responsible for looking after them in the best way possible. I’m against violence against women. I have two daughters, if even a strand of their hair touches the ground I’ll burn the world down.”

Such statements are so clearly dangerous as to require little comment. While Berkay appears to be expressing outrage about violence against women, he suggests that women’s lives only have importance to the degree that they give happiness or pleasure to men. Therefore, it is their task to protect these fragile creatures. 

A more puzzling statement was made by model-turned-pop-phenomenon Demet Akalın. She took to Twitter to comment, “How did you fit such a bulky and tall girl in a barrel pouring concrete, what the hell is that?” referring to the gruesome details of Gültekin’s murder in a cavalier manner.

The Şule Çet Solidarity Platform, an organization formed to stop violence against women after the murder of 23-year-old Çet in 2018, responded to Akalın directly: “You’ve given killers advice for [getting] reduced time for good behavior,” by suggesting the murder was a crime of extreme passion.

Fortunately, there are better examples of artists using their platforms for good while using their words carefully because they recognize the power of language. Speaking at a protest in Istanbul on Tuesday, the singer Şevval Sam declared: “If we can’t change the sentences used by those in power, we won’t be able to get our rights. We must change them. People influence each other. It doesn’t matter if it’s regular people, politicians, or celebrities.”

Sam was referring to everyday instances of sexist language, such as the notorious statements against women’s rights made by high-profile figures in the AKP government. For example, President Erdoğan once declared: “I don't believe in equality between women and men. Violence against women is exaggerated." Similarly, speaking against abortion, former Ankara mayor Melih Gökçek was quoted saying: “If a child's mother is raped, what fault is that of the child? Let the mother die."

More recently, AKP figures have been expressing vocal opposition to the Istanbul Convention, officially the “Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence,” a key piece of legislation ratified by Turkey in 2012 that protects women’s rights. 

Şevval Sam is joined by musicians Kalben, Gaye Su Akyol, Tarkan, and many other more aware artists in calling for a rigorous enforcement of the Istanbul Convention and an end to any talk of its cancellation. 

Only then will words transform into action.  

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