When the humanitarian shelter Şefkat-Der, a religious organization, was founded in 1997, the group proposed mediation and family counseling between couples as a means to rectify situations where a woman was suffering violence at the hands of her husband.
This week, the very same group that advocated sitting around the table as a means of dealing with domestic violence less than two decades ago is proposing that women in fear of their lives should be issued with guns as a last-resort attempt to cut down on the murders of women.
A proposition that speaks volumes for the current predicament of women’s rights in Turkey, the comments were made by the chairman of Şefkat-Der, Hayrettin Bulan, who suggested that women should receive state-funded lessons at shooting ranges and if at risk, be issued with free, licensed guns, at a demonstration in Taksim last week.
“We have a state that says it will protect women but in reality does nothing,” he said. “Rarely a day goes by when we don’t hear of woman butchered by her partner, yet the state’s response is ‘We can’t assign every woman a policeman.’ What we are suggesting then is that women be provided with lessons at shooting ranges and free, licensed guns so that they can protect themselves when no one else will. At least then if she is attacked, she can threaten and she can protect her children. If nothing else she can buy herself time,” he explained.
Bulan’s proposal, which coincided with the release of a harrowing set of statistics from the women’s rights platform Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız (We Will Stop The Murders of Women) -- revealing that 208 women have been murdered in the past nine months in family-related violence and 73 percent of women who applied to the state for protection this year have not been granted it -- has received a mixed yet predictable response of disapproval, amusement and, for the most part, dismissal.
Is arming women the way forward?
Hülya Gülbahar, a lawyer and women’s activist told Sunday’s Zaman that unlike other measures Şefkat-Der has recommended to women, such as carrying pepper spray or practicing a martial art to boost self-esteem, bringing guns into the equation introduces a new element that is dangerous for everyone and may backfire on the women involved. “The aim is to defend and protect women and stop violence; bringing guns into this equation will not help anybody. To arm women with guns will create a whole different set of problems,” she said.
Allen Scarboro, a sociology professor at İstanbul’s Fatih University, was critical of the proposition. “Issuing guns would simply extenuate this problem. An increased number of guns leads to an increase in violence. The more firearms that are in circulation in society, the more people will be killed; this is a reality,” he told Sunday’s Zaman. He added that imagining that guns will protect the women to whom they were issued is overly idealistic.
In comments to the Sabah newspaper, Ayhan Akcan of Umut Vakfı (the Hope Foundation) said that Bulan was propagating the view that violence can solve violence. “To attempt to solve this problem with guns is to adopt the mindset of the offenders themselves,” he said.
Speaking in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman, however, Bulan said that solving violence with violence was the last thing Şefkat-Der was trying to do. “As an organization we are against guns. In an ideal world guns would only be in the hands of the police and the army for when absolutely necessary, but I am proposing this idea as a last resort in a desperate situation. Many women who have been killed by their partners in Turkey have been painfully aware of the end they were going to face for months, or even years before they were murdered. With every story of another murdered woman, hundreds of other victims are wondering to themselves, ‘Will it be me next?’ Is this a reality we can stand for? Every man in Turkey learns how to use a gun when he completes his military service. Why should women not receive the same education?” he demanded.
Certainly Bulan’s suggestion -- combined with the startling evolution of an organization that began 16 years ago as a conciliatory religious body, and now calls for women to be armed -- has, if nothing else, resonated on some level with those who are fed up with the patriarchal structures that dominate Turkey. Akcan of the Umut Vakfı continued to tell Sabah that arming women would be a scheme that would “masculinize them,” a remark in itself embodying the very essence of the rigid patriarchal patterns prevalent in Turkish society.
Indeed, despite the outlandishness of Bulan’s suggestion, various commentators, while not supporting Şefkat-Der’s proposal, have come out and said that it is not possible simply to dismiss it as foolish. The co-coordinator of the pioneering İstanbul-based Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR) group, Karin Ronge, told Sunday’s Zaman that Bulan’s proposal can be seen as a “symbolic outcry” reflecting the hopelessness brought about by a state unwilling to implement strong enough mechanisms to sufficiently protect women.
Yet what such commentators cannot support is Bulan’s unfounded claim that, should a woman kill her partner after he attempted to take the life of her or her child, she will certainly be able to evade a murder charge by claiming self-defense. “If a woman murders a man who is on the verge of killing her or her child, then she has acted completely in self-defense and the court should recognize it as such,” he said.
Self-defense or self-destruction
Researcher and women’s rights activist Pınar İlkkaracan spoke to Sunday’s Zaman about the issue. “Firstly I have to say that I value Şefkat-Der’s care for women who have been killed by their husbands when the state is doing nothing,” said İlkkaracan. “As an NGO which has over 15 years of experience, Şefkat-Der has come to an understanding that violence is not stoppable after a certain point and, moreover, if women do not attempt to protect themselves, then no one will,” she said. “However, the idea of a woman getting a reduced sentence is not realistic because we do not have gender equality in our courts and, further, domestic violence is not recognized as legally valid grounds for lowering a sentence,” she explained.
What Bulan fails to acknowledge in his action plan is the fact that thousands of abused women around the world have been convicted and locked up for killing their abusers, despite having pleaded “self-defense.” Courts in the Commonwealth nations have in recent years accepted what has been termed “battered woman syndrome,” a phenomenon which recognizes that the history of an abused woman who has been accused of homicide may be integral to her actions. Although not a legal defense as such, battered woman syndrome can support the legal defenses of provocation, self-defense, diminished responsibility or even insanity.
Dr Önder Bakırcıoğlu, a lecturer at Queen’s University, Belfast, explained in written comments to Sunday’s Zaman that a battered woman cannot take the law into her own hands unless the state is unable to prevent an imminent and lawless attack. “An armed response must be absolutely necessary and proportionate to the aim sought, that is to ward off the unlawful attack,” he added.
Yet despite the existence of such provisions, pleading self-defense remains a drawn-out and unpredictable process, leaving the plaintiff at the mercy of the judiciary.
Holly Maguigan, professor of law at New York University Law School, was quoted in The New York Times in September as saying that in cases where abused women killed their husbands, they were typically convicted at the same rate as others accused of murder.
For Bulan to encourage blanket reliance on a court system that routinely lets the aggressors of domestic violence get away with literally “murder” is thus not only misguided, but also irresponsible.
What Bulan’s suggestion in all its rashness does represent, however, is the wretchedness of the point to which Turkey society has come with regard to domestic violence. As a stark year for women’s rights in Turkey draws to a close and the plight of the country’s silent and unheard victims hangs in the balance, one thing is certain: The only voice given to these women should not be emanating from the sound of gunfire.