From Batman to Istanbul, women break the silence on sexual abuse

A 15-year-old from Batman and several well-known writers from Istanbul broke the silence on sexual abuse and received support from women all around Turkey.

The award-winning Turkish drama “The Persona” (Sahsiyet) paints a grotesque picture of the imagined Anatolian village of Kambura, whose residents pride themselves on their loyalty to their homeland and solidarity with each other. But this solidarity is based on a secret – the collective rape of a 12-year-old.

Comparable to Lars von Trier’s “Dogville” in the sense that it eerily displays the “banality of evil” among ordinary folk, the series tells the story of 12-year-old Reyhan seduced by a local boy who claims to want to marry her but then “offers” her to his friends. Raped for two years by everyone from her teacher to the town’s judge, the girl commits suicide. The town rapidly forgets about her, until a man who had been a court clerk at the time (played masterfully by Haluk Bilginer who received a Emmy for the role) starts shooting the rapists one after the other. 

This dark tale pales in comparison to numerous similar stories on the ground in Turkey, where sexual abuse of children has been rising, particularly in Istanbul and in refugee camps. 88.2 per cent of sexual abuse cases are committed by people the children know and – often – trust. 

The last case that has made it to the headlines came from the Southeastern town of Batman, where 15-year-old P.Ö. spoke out after “eight months of rape” and unwanted pregnancy. As doctors are obliged to report underage pregnancies, P.Ö. was referred to the prosecutor’s office where she filed a complaint against a 19-year-old who had promised to marry her, raped her and then forced her into sex with – at least - one of his friends. 

Earlier press reports, including one by Jinnews, included claims that the girl, who lived in the Gercüş district of Batman, had been raped by 27 people, including local civil servants and state-employed village guards. According to a statement by the Batman Public Prosecutor’s Office, there have been two arrests and several more people under suspicion. Yet the Prosecutor’s Office denied that public servants, police or soldiers were amongst them. While there’s a news blackout from the Prosecutor’s Office, reports imply that the girl was forced to have sex with several men, some of which were introduced to her by her “suitor.” Political parties and human rights groups pledged to follow the case to ensure that the rapists would be swiftly brought before the law and punished.

Raped and exploited

Civil society is right to be concerned about impunity or late justice. Only a month ago, a court in the southern city of Hatay handed heavy imprisonment sentences to four men who had repeatedly raped a 13-year-old girl in 2014. By the time the case ended, the men – who were given between 37 to 28 years of imprisonment – had fled the country.

In 2010, two schoolgirls aged 12 and 14 were first abused by the school principal and then scores of others – tradespeople, public servants, police and all notables from the Southeastern city of Siirt who had heard that the girls were no longer virgins. Their abusers paid the two girls – who belonged to an impoverished family with seven children - a few liras or a chocolate bar. Two years later, one of them confessed the situation to a teacher. Later, other girls who had been abused by the principal came forward. Still, it took years to bring the principal and the other culprits to justice because the whole town attempted to cover up the shameful story. 

If the list goes on endlessly, but the details seldom vary – the perpetrators prey on the vulnerability of underage girls mostly from impoverished families and capitalize on their defencelessness and “shame” once the girl is no longer a virgin. Silenced by threats (“We will kill your father and sell you to a brothel if you utter a word,” the rapists told the girl in Hatay) or scared by the authority of their rapists (the school principal as the case in Siirt), the girls are exploited for years. Worse, particularly in small, conservative towns, the exploitation becomes “normalized” as more and more people take part in the rape, exploitation and “revictimization” of the victim.

Robust mechanisms but few data

According to the Out of the Shadows Index that was developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Turkey scores 56.7 out of a hundred in its response to child sexual exploitation and abuse, with a score of 56.7. This score is the same as that of the Philippines and just below that of Uganda (57.3).  The EIU report, released in 2019, maintains that while Turkey has some robust legal framework against child sexual exploitation in prostitution, child rape and child trafficking, there are serious concerns regarding child, early and forced marriage, both regarding the current legislative provisions, and through draft bills that have been proposed by the government, it adds.  

More gravely, the judiciary system takes forever, mainly because in several of the high-profile cases, the local court acts more in the interests of the town’s menfolk than that of the victim’s. A striking example of this was the 2002 Mardin case in which 27 people – including top bureaucrats – abused a girl for years. When she eventually filed a complaint, the local court gave minimal punishment to the men because the intercourses were “consensual” and the girl’s virginity had been intact. The two women had sold her into anal sex because they feared that they’d get into trouble if she got pregnant – or perhaps planned to sell her virginity at a higher price later on. The court case lasted 11 years – long enough for the girl to become a lawyer herself – and to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights. 

The Turkish literary scene’s #metoo moment

But it is not only children, the impoverished and the uneducated that are shamed into silence. The same week the Gercüş case swept the headlines, Turkey’s literary world underwent its #metoo moment on social media as several women broke the silence on their past harassment at the hands of the award-winning author Hasan Ali Toptaş. 

It started with the Tweet of a user called Leyla Salinger accusing Toptaş of harassment, which was followed by a very concrete anecdote from the writer Pelin Buzluk, who said that she had to lock herself into the toilets to escape Toptaş’ assault. Toptaş admitted what he had done and issued a public apology.

The harassment charges against Toptaş – and two other male writers – snowballed as women poured in with their stories in literary, academic and journalistic circles on the Turkish Twittersphere. Journalist Lube Ayar wrote that she went to see the editor of her paper (no names given) to discuss a permanent post, only to get the response, “I am talking of taking you to lunch in Paris and you are asking me for a job. How shortsighted can you get? Don’t you realize how much I can help your career?” Ayar’s disclosure would surely not be the last – Leyla and the gang have started a new email address through which women can expose men in the world of arts, literature and media who harassed them. The address and the hashtag were aptly called “uykuların kaçsın,” loosely translated as “don’t dare sleep a wink.”

September 10, 2021 Turkey's small festivals