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Turkey: European Union court ruling could expand women's rights

Publisher EurasiaNet
Publication Date 17 June 2009
Cite as EurasiaNet, Turkey: European Union court ruling could expand women's rights, 17 June 2009, available at: [accessed 21 January 2018]
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Nicholas Birch: 6/17/09

A European Court of Human Rights ruling in early June could turn into a landmark decision that opens the way for the expanded protection of women's rights in Turkey.

In the case, the ECHR found that Turkey had failed to adequately prosecute a man who brutalized his wife and her mother for a decade before shooting his mother-in-law dead. "The general and discriminatory judicial passivity in Turkey created a climate that was conducive to domestic violence," the court stated in a press release, ordering Turkey to pay the 37-year old plaintiff, Nahide Opuz, 36,500 euros ($42,000).

Women's rights activists in Turkey welcomed the decision, which is the first time the European Court has ever ruled that domestic violence constitutes gender discrimination. The decision is binding on all EU members.

"This is exactly what I was hoping for," said Pinar Ilkkaracan, co-founder of the Istanbul-based women's rights group Women for Women's Rights. "It says clearly that ... laws are not enough. The state has failed ... in not providing mechanisms for protecting women under threat."

Turkish politicians, meanwhile, responded more ambiguously to the decision. "This is not a final decision, Turkey has the right to appeal," Aliye Kavaf, the minister responsible for women's affairs, said on June 10, emphasizing that Turkey had no monopoly on domestic violence.

The chairwoman of the Turkish parliament's equal opportunities commission, Guldal Aksit, was more outspoken. "I would like to point out that this claim was made in 2002 and the [court's] decision appears to have been based on 2002 conditions," Aksit said on June 11. "Since 2002, both the government and civil society groups have done a lot on the women's rights issue.... I see the court's disregard of this as deeply unfortunate."

Aksit has a point. Turkey began updating laws on domestic violence in 1998, and since the passing of a new Criminal Code in 2004, now has legislation which is little different from its European neighbors. In 2004, there were only eight shelters in Turkey. Now, they number around 50, and more are currently under construction.

But similar arguments made at the hearing on June 9 were treated with skepticism by a panel of judges. "Why is Ms. Opuz's mother dead then," the Swedish judge Elisabet Fura-Sandstrom asked lawyers representing Turkey, who cited the 1998 laws.

On four occasions after 1996, Ms. Opuz and her mother complained to the police about the husband's violent behavior, which ranged from beatings deemed life-threatening by doctors, to running both women over with a car. Twice, courts let the husband off with a fine.

Sentenced to 15 years in jail in March 2008 for the 2002 murder of Ms. Opuz's mother, Huseyin Opuz was released pending an appeal. "He continues to threaten my client, but the police withdrew protection after only three days," lawyer Mesut Bestas said in a telephone interview.

In its press statement, the ECHR registered its "grave concern" that Turkish authorities "continue to display inaction" in the case.

Women's rights activists say that part of the problem lies in Turkish authorities' slowness in putting new laws and regulations into practice. According to a circular issued by the prime minister's office late in 2007, all towns with a population of more than 50,000 are obliged to build women's shelters, said Hidayet Tuksal, founder of the Ankara-based women's rights group Capital Women's Platform.

"The trouble is that there are no sanctions for those which do not, [and] municipalities see this as discretionary," Ms Tuksal said. The sense that they can get away without doing what they are told, she adds, is strengthened by a widespread official ambiguity towards women's rights in general.

"Everywhere, I hear the same thing [from municipalities] – 'our men would be very upset by this,'" she added.

It is not just Turkish officials who remain ambiguous. A third of respondents in a study on "Radicalism and Extremism" published late this May said they thought wife-beating was "permissible." Of 12,800 women interviewed in 2008 by researchers working for Turkey's Directorate on Women's Status, 41 percent said they had experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partners.

"There is an urgent need for action," says Hulya Gulbahar, chairwoman of Ka-der, an association lobbying for greater female representation in politics. She went on to criticize senior officials' defensive response to the ECHR decision. "On the day that Guldal Aksit described [the Opuz case] as isolated, newspapers reported three stories of women who had been subjected to violence from their husbands, despite the fact they had gone to the police for protection."

According to the Istanbul-based human rights news service Bianet, 34 Turkish women died at the hands of their partners in May. With domestic violence in the limelight since the ECHR's decision, Turkish media outlets have given broad coverage to a recent case, in which a 17-year old from the southeastern town of Siirt was thrown from the sixth floor of a building by her brother and then stabbed by her uncle on June 11 for talking to a boyfriend the family didn't approve of.

A fabric awning cushioned the girl's fall, and bystanders intervened before her uncle could finish her off. She is now recovering in a hospital in the nearby city of Diyarbakir, Nahide Opuz's hometown.

Ms. Opuz is no longer in Diyarbakir, having fled into hiding after the murder of her mother. Speaking from outside the European Court in Strasbourg, Mesut Bestas gave curt responses to questions about his client's response to the case. "She is happy, but she will be happier if her ex-husband is put in prison again," he said.

On the significance of the court case, he was much more expansive. "European legislation on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and right to life is clear, but when it comes to the issue of women's rights, the legal framework is murky.... This trial begins to shed light on that murkiness."

The legal practice director at the London-based International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights, Andrea Coombers, described the decision as a belated landmark for European law. Describing gender-based violence as discrimination "is what the rest of the world has thought for at least a decade," she said. "It is a significant step in the right direction by the European Union."

Editor's Note: Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.

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