At times, it is easy to fall into despair about anything changing for women in this country. In July, the murder of 27-year-old university student Pınar Gültekin brought new visibility to the dire issue of violence against women in Turkey. Since that time, there has also been a vigorous debate over the Istanbul Convention (a key piece of legislation ratified by Turkey in 2012 that protects women’s rights) after prominent AKP figures expressed a desire to withdraw from the agreement. This comes as 27 women were murdered just this past August.
Yet there are also signs that the ground is shifting. A recent poll by the research company KONDA reveals how much attitudes to violence against women is changing in Turkey. According to a report released on August 20, in 2015 the number of people who agree with the statement “Men can both love [their romantic partner] and beat them” was 20%. As of 2020, this number is only 6%. Similarly, 45% of those surveyed in 2015 believed that it was acceptable to break the law to protect your family’s honor, whereas that number is 21% today. In 2015, 80% said that women should pay attention to what they wear at school and at work in order to avoid facing violence and harassment. Today only 32% agree with that statement.
Finally, despite months of propaganda against the Istanbul Convention by fundamentalist conservatives, the percentage of people who think that Turkey should pull out of the Istanbul Convention is only 7%.
These changes in attitudes should be seen as a direct result of Turkey’s feminist movement. At a time when social movements of all kinds are beleaguered by repression, feminists in the country represent one of the main forces vocally challenging this darkness. As women continue to be murdered with impunity, feminists refuse to be silent.
One good way to gauge how the feminist movement has transformed commonsense perceptions of gender in Turkey is to look at the entertainment industry. Recent statements by actresses and musicians show an increasing willingness of celebrities to speak out on issues long raised by feminist activists: body image, the right to enter relationships without public interference or judgment, and violence against women. While one may question how sincere or effective such statements are, they both influence public opinion and reveal how much society at large has been influenced by feminist activism.
For example, actress Hazal Kaya, famous for her roles in the TV shows Aşk-ı Memnu and Bizim Hikaye, was featured on the cover of Elle Turkey’s September 2020 issue. Her interview touches on the harmful effects of societal beauty standards. She describes how she went to a photoshoot for the cover of another magazine after having gained some weight. When the issue came out, she realized that her photographs had been taken from the cover and buried in the middle of the magazine. Similarly, she states, the television industry does not give roles to overweight women. “This is just one way [women] are devalued,” Kaya asserts, and it pushes women to take dangerous weight-loss pills or to eating disorders.
This is not the first time Kaya, who is the daughter of a feminist activist and lawyer Ayşegül Kaya, has been vocal about feminist issues. In 2018, she revealed that while acting as the lead role in the soap opera Adını Feriha Koydum she refused to play in a scene that showed her character being forced to take a virginity test. The scene was dropped from the show, but Kaya experienced harsh critiques and trolling for this decision.
Earlier this month actress Berrak Tüzünataç, known for her roles in Elveda Rumeli and Fi, clashed with the entertainment and gossip magazine Kadraj over its sensationalist coverage of her current romantic relationships, describing how she has dated the ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends of her friends. On Twitter, Tüzünataç came out with guns blazing, writing: "Leave me alone already. I'm sick of your libel and your lies. We don't have to explain anything about our lives to you." While these statements were against people prying into her private life, it does point to a larger issue of condemning people for their romantic choices. For those who are not rich and famous, such interference can often lead to violence.
A similar critique was made by musician Can Bonomo after he and his wife Öykü Karayel were spotted vacationing in Çeşme with the couple Bartu Küçükçağlayan and Merve Özgüle. The gossip pages of newspapers made a fuss about the fact that Karayel and Küçükçağlayan used to date. Bonomo’s statement to reporters in front of a restaurant in Etiler show the potential costs of such seemingly trivial gossip: “Yes, we went on vacation together. There’s nothing to say about this. It’s the year 2020! Later we cry, saying “violence against women,” “femicide.” It’s because you’re doing this kinds of things on television. Let’s not do it anymore.
From judging people based on their appearance to who they date and where: all these attitudes contribute to a wider culture that allows women to be called into account for their bodies and private lives. Certaintly, clapping back at sexism and conservatism by the soap opera industry or paparazzi is not enough to prevent femicides. Yet when those who have a platform use is to raise awareness about feminist issues, it is a sign that the movement is slowly but surely transforming the culture.