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Turkey actvists
Courtesy of Mor Çati

How Turkey’s feminist activists are fighting back against a sexist system

With president Erdogan proposing a bill for suspended child sex offences, generations of Turkish women are pushing back

It’s six degrees in Istanbul, but hundreds of women have gathered on the city’s streets to protest a bill that will be put to parliament later this month. “Çocuk istismarinin affi olmaz,” they chant – ‘child abuse is unforgiveable’. A sea of purple – a feminist colour – the group is wrapped up in winter coats and layers, as they hold placards and banners aloft that read, “withdraw sexual laundering laws”, and “children are quiet, you mustn’t be”.

On January 16, 2020, legislation was proposed by Erdogan’s AKP party, who would suspend child sex offences if the two parties get married and the age difference is less than ten years. In it, men who have been sentenced for committing statutory rape will be released – Turkish newspaper Hürriyet estimates this currently stands at around 4,000.

Despite this, the proposal has been widely misconstrued by UK media outlets, with papers like the Independent leaning on the crutches of sensationalist headlines like, “Marry-your-rapist bill to be introduced by lawmakers in Turkey”, which not only ignore the genuine issues that need to be resolved, but perpetuates western-centric attitudes towards the middle east (ironically, most typically middle eastern countries don’t identify Turkey as ‘middle eastern’), which fuels nothing but racist hysteria. You only need to look at the comments on these articles to see what we mean.

The last time a similar bill was put to the Turkish parliament was in 2016 – one that pardoned men guilty of assaulting a minor if the aggressor married the victim, assuming they had sex without “force or threat”. The bill, which was basically a ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card, would free any man guilty of assaulting a minor was, understandably, put to rest after mass protests across the country pushed it out of parliament.

While Erdogan claims the refreshed proposal is designed to deal with Turkey’s widespread ‘child marriage’ problem, opposition parties like the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and feminist groups (collectively referred to as TCK 103) have stated that the bill in effect legitimises just that, while also systematically allowing for the statutory rape of minors.

In 2019, the Ministry of Justice refused to publish data on child abuse, or share statistics on criminal groups engaged in “trafficking human beings, child abortion, pornography, and sexual abuse”. Previously available records from between 2002 and 2017 were also erased.

“Child abuse incidents in Turkey have risen dangerously in recent years and the government attempts to hide the record of child abuse in the country,” a representative of women’s group Kadın Meclisleri tells Dazed. “The government has played an active role in shielding child abusers in the country. Ministers and deputies of the AKP had protected the pro-government Ensar Foundation, where 45 children had been subjected to sexual abuse in 2016.”

Istanbul-based women’s rights group Mor Çati agrees: “We find it irrational and unconscientious that the state, which is responsible for protecting children, tries to justify the sexual abuse of children for such a reason without even sharing data.”

“With these regulations, the government tries to legitimise child abuse and child marriage. We believe the government must make regulations to prevent child abuse, rather than making arrangements that provide amnesty for child abuse perpetrators. If they dare to bring this arrangement again, all women will again fight against it.”

But the proposition isn’t anything new, and while women’s rights groups in Turkey are confident the bill won’t be passed this time around, many describe it as a “ticking time bomb” waiting to happen. “When the same thing happened in 2016, feminist groups hit back, and the proposal was taken down. Now, it’s 2020 and the same thing is happening – it’ll probably be taken down again, but you never know when it’s going to come back again. It’s a ticking time bomb,” says Hale, an Istanbul-based activist.

Hale traces the bill back to 2013, when the government introduced the 4x4x4 education system, which reduced the compulsory number of years education from eight to four. She explains: “It didn’t appear harmful at first glance, but it has resulted in thousands of young girls being removed from education at the age of 12, which, of course, Turkish officials keep this quiet. The reason for this, we believe, is to prepare young girls for marriage.”

She adds: “The government has also removed laws that say you need legal proof that a child is yours if you have a home birth. So if a girl under 15 gives birth, the families can attribute the baby to someone else in the family.”

Protests and conferences against the proposed legislation were held around the country this month. A date for a second reading in parliament has not yet been set – in the meantime, the feminist activists of Turkey will continue to beat back a system aggressively dangerous to its women.