By DAN BILEFSKY and SEBNEM ARSU
ISTANBUL — Gokce, a soft-spoken 37-year-old mother of two, has lived on the run for 15 years, ever since her abusive husband tracked her down, broke down her door and shot her in the leg six times after she refused to return to him.
Stoic and prematurely graying, she said her husband had since kidnapped her mother and stabbed her brother, trying to force them to reveal her whereabouts. She repeatedly turned to the police. But, she said, they chided her to return to her husband. Once, after her husband came to pick her up at the police station, she said she heard an officer advise him to break her legs so she could not escape.
“Our state is the No. 1 enemy of women,” Gokce said recently at a women’s shelter here in Istanbul, declining to use her last name for fear of her husband. “I was 14 when my husband started to abuse me, and now I’m 37, and I am still living in fear for my life despite all my cries for help.”
While reliable statistics are hard to come by, given what Turkish experts say is the serious underreporting of domestic violence here, rights groups point to a recent spate of high-profile attacks against women to raise the alarm that Turkey is backsliding on women’s rights. They say women’s progress is being undermined by Turkey’s flagging prospects for European Union membership and a Muslim-inspired government that is increasingly embracing the conservative values of the Arab world it seeks to lead.
So bleak is the situation that this year one outreach group suggested that the state should simply arm women and provide shooting lessons.
Fears that the governing party is diminishing women were fanned this month when President Abdullah Gul approved a controversial bill that extended compulsory education to 12 years but allowed home-schooling after the first eight, which critics said could encourage the practice of taking child brides. The government rejected such criticism, saying the changes brought Turkey in line with international education standards.
The culture wars over women’s role in Turkish society also reflect tensions in a majority Muslim country where the state’s official secularism is clashing with an ascendant class of religious conservatives. With their rise, rights groups say, men appear to be increasingly acting with impunity against women.
Last year there were 207,253 cases of deliberate injuries to women across the country, compared with 189,377 in 2010, according to official data collected by the National Police Headquarters in the capital, Ankara, and provided to Vildan Yirmibesoglu, the general secretary of Kader, a leading rights group.
A United Nations report published last July indicated that the incidence of domestic violence against women in Turkey topped the percentages in the United States and Europe. The report — based on data from a 2009 Turkish government study in which 12,785 women were interviewed across 12 regions — said 39 percent of women in Turkey had suffered physical violence at some time in their lives, compared with 22 percent in the United States and between 3 and 35 percent in 20 European countries.
In February 2011, Turkey’s justice minister shocked the country when, in response to a parliamentary question, he said that there had been a staggering increase in the murders of women, from 66 in 2002, to 953 in the first seven months of 2009. But while the change is large, the numbers are still relatively low for a country of 80 million, possibly skewed by underreporting. After the governing Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in 2002, determined for Turkey to join the European Union, women’s rights were a priority. Laws that discriminated against women were removed. Others were added: rape within marriage was criminalized, and life sentences became possible for perpetrators of so-called honor killings. But analysts say women are now losing ground.
While the governing party insists that it is simply socially conservative and pro-family, Nigar Goksel, a senior analyst at the European Stability Initiative who wrote a major study on women in Turkey, argued that rising domestic violence and women’s low participation in the work force (at 28 percent, less than half the European Union average) reflected that family integrity was valued over a woman’s individual rights.
“The government started off as an unlikely feminist but has dropped the ball,” Ms. Goksel said. “Equally, the Arab Spring is pulling Turkey in a more conservative direction.”
Mr. Erdogan, a pious Muslim, attracted the ire of many feminists here when during last year’s election campaign he called on women to have at least three children and argued that birth control advocates sought to weaken Turkey. With subsidized child care rare, many women protested that he was pushing them back into the kitchen.
Ayse Bohurler, a founding and leading member of Justice and Development, said that the education of women had improved under the government, which she said was also taking a strong stand against domestic violence. Others argued that claims of a sexist society smacked of hyperbole, given that women in Turkey hold prominent positions in business and politics, and that the country has even had a female prime minister.
In March the Turkish Parliament passed a variety of legislation friendly to women, including a law forcing husbands deemed abusive by the courts to wear electronic monitoring devices and allowing the police to issue protection orders if a family court or prosecutor is unavailable. The police are also to receive training on women’s rights.
But legislation, however well intentioned, may not be enough to change mentalities in an abidingly patriarchal nation, or to ensure that new laws will be fully implemented.
For instance, every municipality here with more than 50,000 people is required by law to have at least one women’s shelter. But the current count nationwide is just 79, a number that is woefully low for a nation that size, rights groups say. One local official in Ankara recently told a conservative women’s group that opening more was ill advised since they enabled women to leave home, according to a member of the group.
But finding protection is proving elusive.
In one murder case last year, a woman named Arzu Yildirim was shot eight times by her partner in the middle of a busy Istanbul street, even though, women’s rights groups said, she had filed for legal protection more than 10 times. A copy of her most recent letter of complaint was found in her blood-stained purse.