Turkish Women Tweet #MeToo, but is Anyone Listening?

By: Joanna Birkner, THO Non-Resident Fellow

For Turkey, perhaps MeToo wasn’t meant to be.

In the year since the allegations against media mogul Harvey Weinstein ignited the #MeToo movement, the crusade has transcended the scope of Hollywood to ripple across the globe.

From South Korea to Sweden, powerful men fell like dominos. In Arabic speaking countries it was “Ana Kaman,” Italians called it “Quella Vola Che,” and “Yo Tambien” became a rallying cry of women in the Spanish speaking world.

However, in Turkey, the movement has failed to launch. That isn’t to suggest that Turkish women have ignored outrageous acts, like the brutal attempted rape and murder of Özgecan Aslan in February 2015. The 20 year old was stabbed and clubbed to death by a minibus driver after she fought back against his attempt to rape her.

Four days later, on February 15, Bilgi University law professor İdil Elveriş tweeted, “Can you use the sentence beginning, ‘because I am a woman’ and the hashtag ‘sendeanlat’ to write examples of things you experienced only because you were a woman.”

The movement seemed to gain traction in Turkey when later that day actress Beren Saat tweeted about her own experience using Elveriş’s suggested hashtag “sendeanlat,” which has been translated as “tell your story,” encouraging women to come forward with their experiences.

What resulted was an outpouring similar to the MeToo movement. Angry and emboldened, women in Turkey took to social media to share their accounts of sexual intimidation and harassment, as well as the preventative measures they rely upon to stay safe.

More than 600,000 #sendeanlat tweets were posted to Twitter in the week following Aslan’s murder, according to Twitter’s API reference index.

Why then does the movement remain so undeveloped in Turkey? With so many women speaking up, it seems almost peculiar that the movement never manifested into meaningful reform or accountability. In the wake of Aslan’s murder women were speaking out, but no one was held accountable and no legal justice was served. High profile women like Beren Saat never named their harassers in public and, to date, there have been no men of Weinstein’s stature who have faced repercussions or public scrutiny for his actions in Turkey.

The failure to launch MeToo comes down to conservative traditions and lack of political support.

In the days following Aslan’s murder, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan referred to violence against women as the “bleeding wound” of the country.

Erdoğan’s support for the movement abruptly ends there. He famously remarked at a summit in Istanbul in 2014 that gender equality “is against human nature” and has asserted that any idea of “feminist motherhood is unacceptable.” In 2016 he added that “working women who avoid motherhood disavow womanhood [and] humanity.” Erdoğan’s rhetoric, as well as his policies, have discouraged many Turkish women from asserting themselves as fully equal to men.

Unsurprisingly, Turkey ranked 131 of 144 countries listed on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index 2017, which ranked countries by women’ s economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

Women make up less than one third of the Turkish workforce and just 14% of parliament. Erdoğan’s ruling AKP party is represented by only 11% women. With so few parity measures in place it comes as no surprise that the Turkish Enterprise and Business Confederation said in March that some 120,000 women are forced to leave their jobs annually to take care of children or dependents.

In practical terms, the situation of Turkish women is roughly comparable to the circumstances women experienced in the US half a century ago. On virtually every issue that matters to women, from educational, work and political opportunities, to access to battered women’s shelters, to the difficulty of obtaining a divorce, Turkish women face disadvantages compared to the rights accessible by many European and American counterparts. Given Erdoğan’s stance on gender equality there is little likelihood things will change under the current political regime.

If change is to happen, the anger sparked by Aslan’s killing and similar crimes must generate a sustained national dialogue on gender rights and a lobbying effort that Turkish politicians cannot ignore.

On February 16, 2015 Erdoğan said, “I want to express my wish that the sensitivity sparked over Özgecan’s case will launch a new beginning.” It’s up to Turkish women, and the men who support them, to turn this lip service into meaningful change. It can happen.