POMEAS OP-ED, 20 April 2015
There are striking similarities in the responses to rape and murder cases of women in India and Turkey: a predilection for punitive measures without addressing the root causes of violence.
The attempted rape and murder of Özgecan Aslan in February 2015 prompted widespread outrage in Turkey. Resisting an attempted rape on a bus, the 20-year old was murdered by the bus driver, his friend, and the driver's father later colluded in hiding the evidence. A countrywide string of public protests followed in which thousands took to the streets. The protests included a social media campaign allowing women to share their stories of harassment with the hashtags #sendeanlat (you speak up as well) and #OzgecanAslan. The hashtags quickly began trending on Twitter with as many as 3 million tweets after only a few days. Furthermore, Turkish men wore miniskirts in Taksim, Istanbul to protest the stereotype that women who wear miniskirts provoke rape.
The Özgecan Aslan case bears considerable resemblance to the Delhi Gang Rape that occurred on December 16, 2012, when a 23-year-old paramedic, Jyoti Singh, was raped and murdered by a bus driver and five passengers. India saw scores of people filling the streets in protest. The protests continued over months leading to an excellent report by Justice Verma Committee that resulted in the introduction of Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013. In the recent Delhi elections in February 2015, the security of women was one of the issues on the agenda of every political party.
Neither of the cases was the first of its kind. In both Turkey and India, violence against women varies from verbal harassment to rape and honour crimes. In many of the cases, victims are blamed for provoking and inviting violence through "indecent" acts such as leering, overdressing or staying out late. The crux of the matter is why, amid so many similar cases, did the cases of Özgecan Aslan and the Delhi Gang Rape create such uproar in Turkey and India?
Some analysts claim these cases marked tipping points. Others argue that the patriarchal mentality that has always placed the blame on women was unable, on these occasions, to come up with any excuses to legitimize the murders.
In Turkey, Özgecan Aslan was described by former Turkish Minister of Family and Social Policies Fatma Şahin as having an innocent face, or by the leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as an immaculate youngster. A Turkish imam, Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü, contended that she had become a martyr, because she died while "protecting her chastity." Similarly, in India, Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj referred to Jyoti Singh as zinda laash (living dead) while she was battling for her life in the hospital.
A third kind of debate revolves around the class dimension. In both cases, the victims were young, independent, modern women from middle class backgrounds who were on their way home from shopping malls. They were indeed the faces of every young, aspiring woman in the neoliberal system. In a way, many urban women were reminded that this could have easily happened to any of them, which helped mobilize large number of people to protest. This was again reflected in the recent outburst witnessed in India about the documentary India's Daughter.
During the protests in India, several organizations and groups came forward to protest against the heinous incident, and demands were raised such as the death penalty and castration for the accused. While women's groups demanded spaces to assert women's sexual autonomy, fundamentalist groups proposed protectionist methods to keep women away from these spaces, presumably for their own protection. Civil society actors demanded more accountability from the state to make spaces safer for women. There were demands for safer roads, more infrastructural facilities such as streetlights and CCTV cameras and better legislation. These measures only helped to reproduce and reinforce the societal understanding that women are helpless victims who need to be "monitored" and "protected." They hinge on the protectionist approach of patriarchy towards women and further reinforce the image of women as weak and passive.
Similar demands were made in Turkey. While Nurullah Ardıç, a professor at Şehir University, proposed pink buses for women, former Turkish Minister of Family and Social Policies Fatma Şahin suggested castration for offenders, and Minister of Economy Nihat Zeybekçi recommended the death penalty.
In Turkey, capital punishment was banned in 2004 following the signing of European Convention on Human Rights in line with the EU accession process. Prior to that, capital punishment had only been used for political crimes. In fact, there has not been a single case of rape resulting in capital punishment in the entire history of the Turkish Republic. This record suggests that bringing back capital punishment would only serve the growing authoritarianism in Turkey, not women.
Interestingly, one of the recent occasions when capital punishment was used in India was for a rape case in 2004 . Despite its application in the Delhi case as well, rape continues to be a bleeding wound in the country. There seems to be no research or evidence based study to support the deterrence effect of capital punishment. Such harsh measures may even serve to motivate perpetrators to ensure that they disposed of all evidence after a crime. Moreover, such measures place the focus on the perpetrator of the crime and ignore the societal context in which it takes place.
Despite a few positive outcomes such as the increased visibility of the issue of women's rights and genderrelated sensitivity in the media, two years down the line, this approach has had little impact on the lives of women in India. The new Criminal Amendment Act, in spite of its noble intentions, has not been able to reduce or deter crimes against women. The law still continues to act as the post crime intervention which has not affected the way women are perceived or treated in society.
The protectionist approach takes women back to their traditional roles, takes the responsibility away from state machineries to provide safe access to public spaces and restricts the movement of women under the guise of offering them safety. Feminist movements' reliance on criminal jurisprudence makes women hostages of the definitions created by law. This has also provided the state with increased power to reinforce the protectionist approach and play out the role of a patriarch. This political stance has been evident in the election manifestos of major political parties in India which had women's safety as one of their priorities. Various economic schemes floated by the Indian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to improve the condition in the various rural settings have been within the family sphere to encourage women to value their role as daughters and wives.
In Turkey, the Özgecan Aslan incident has also been turned into a political contest as a result of the upcoming parliamentary elections in June 2015. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promised to "personally follow the case so that they (perpetrators) will be given the heaviest penalty", and accused the women who danced for the international One Billion Rising event
of dishonouring Özgecan Aslan's death. Meanwhile, Erdoğan reiterated that men and women are not equal and women should have at least three children, birth control is treason and women's defined position is motherhood.
Other politicians lined up to propose the most severe punishment to perpetrators of violence against women. However, their reactions were short-lived since most were absent during the massive International Women's Day parades that took place across Istanbul on March 8, 2015. The vacuum was instead filled by the left-wing People's Democratic Party (HDP) known for its Kurdish affiliation and support for minority rights.
The cases of Jyoti Singh and Özgecan Aslan proved once again that violence against women does not have any borders. As evident, mainstream politics still prefers to handle these issues on a case by case basis rather than coming up with comprehensive solutions that target the gender-related problems permeating society as a whole.
What women need is not protection but the normalization of their presence in public spaces.
* The article was primarily published at Open Democracy. The link is available here.
** Research Fellow at POMEAS.
*** Feminist activist and an independent researcher working on issues of Sexuality and Law. She is currently working as a consultant with NGOs in India.