Despite living in one of the world’s most diverse and beautiful cities, I and many other Istanbul teenagers grew up listening to horrendous stories of gender violence. At first, they were distant and about people we did not know. As we grew up, we started learning they weren’t always so far away. Rather, they often happen to people we know and care about, and sometimes we even see them happen. Sadly, hearing and seeing such awful experiences caused us to grow thick skins and feel indifferent at times when we shouldn’t. We intervened when we saw something wrong but did nothing else to change the status quo.
Turkish men and women in general were silent, too. However, every new story in newspapers added a single drop to the bucket. That bucket is now full.
On Feb. 11, when Ozgecan Aslan, a psychology student from a seaside province of Turkey, took a minibus to return home, the driver attempted to rape her. The driver then killed Aslan, burning and dumping her into a riverbed. Following the murder, thousands of people have been hitting the streets with unprecedented anger and grief. At the funeral, women carried the coffin, defying the imam’s orders, saying no man would ever touch Aslan again.
The day after the funeral, hundreds of thousands of women shared their own stories with the new hashtag, #sendeanlat, which translates to “you tell your story too.” Sharing these experiences is unheard of in a country “where the chastity of women is measured by the length of their skirt,” as one of the protesters put it on Twitter. At last, we have started to recognize the problem and call attention to it. But to make any change for good, we must understand what creates the status quo.
First of all, the ruling Justice and Development Party government of Turkey, known as AKP, is an authoritarian, oppressive and polarizing government. Under AKP’s regime, Al Jazeera estimates 28,000 Turkish women were assaulted in 2013 alone. The unreported, everyday cases of harassment, which we have turned blind eyes to, are perhaps tens of thousands more. The former head of the AKP and prime minister, and now the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed just a few months ago, “You cannot bring women and men into equal positions; that is against nature because their nature is different.”
Moreover, the government polarizes the population to the extent that no one knows how to collaborate with half of the population — the group from which AKP fails to receive votes. It is also not by accident that many women’s advocacy groups belong to that other 50 percent of the population. Violence issues are so ingrained into Turkish society that without a sustainable dialogue, any improvement is highly unlikely.
Still, pushing all the guilt onto the current government is shifting the blame. As men, we are at least equally responsible. The problem is deeply rooted in our language and perception. When we hear the word gender, we perceive it as a discussion of women; just as when people talks about race, we think they are talking about people of color or when people talk about sexual orientation, we think they are referring to homosexuality, bisexuality or transsexuality. We simply forget that male is a gender, Caucasian is a race and heterosexuality is a sexual orientation. This shift in perception naturally leads us to see gender violence as a women’s issue and not worry about it much because it doesn’t bother us. However, gender violence is at least as much of a men’s issue. After all, most of the time we are the perpetrators.
We also don’t use language just to disregard the issue but to change the focus. As feminist linguist Julia Penelope explained, we use grammatical structures to shift the guilt from the perpetrator to the victim by using passive voice. We say, “Mary is a battered woman,” and put the focus on Mary, the victim, rather than saying, “John beat Mary,” and keep the focus on the perpetrator. We do this victim-blaming often unconsciously, and shifting the blame to Mary is not going to lead us anywhere. We must talk about John, whom we don’t even use in our sentences anymore.
The first step to improving the status quo involves not being bystanders. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” While we are speaking to each other, we must not stay silent or laugh when someone makes a sexist comment. As educated people with relatively high moral codes, the degradation may stay only in our use of language — and that is already bad enough. However, that troubling mentality can even turn into violence once people’s ethical values decrease, and shamefully we see that happen every day.
There are many men who regard these issues very highly, but simply paying attention to these horrible crimes against women doesn’t offer a solution. We must challenge each other and change the conversation so that perhaps the perceptions and mentalities of today may change in the future. Although there are other deep-rooted sources causing gender violence, changing the conversation is the least I can do on my behalf. I believe I at least owe that much.