Misogyny of the state
The powerful, award-winning documentary Dying to Divorce tackles femicide and violence against women in Turkey. Mark Brown spoke with the film’s producer, Sinead Kirwan
Much has been said in recent years about the rise of right-wing, populist governments in a series of countries across the world. These range from the regime of Vladimir Putin in Russia, to those of Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Donald Trump in the United States, Mateusz Morawiecki in Poland, and, of course, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey.
One might argue that too little has been said about the implications of these administrations for the rights of women. In the case of Turkey, a powerful, new documentary, titled Dying to Divorce, exposes the link between a deeply reactionary socio-political agenda and an increase in femicide and violence against women.
Created by a team led by director Chloe Fairweather and Edinburgh-based producer Sinead Kirwan, the film was released in March of this year. It has already won the coveted Jury Prize at the Monte-Carlo TV Festival and the Amnesty International Award at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival.
The documentary, which was filmed in Turkey between 2015 and 2020, considers the cases of a number of survivors of extreme misogynistic violence and the efforts of campaigning lawyer Ipek Bozkurt to obtain justice for women within the Turkish legal system. It is, at its outset, a harrowing watch.
Early in the film we meet the phenomenally brave Arzu Boztas. Married, against her will, at the age of 14 to a man 10 years her senior, she asked for a divorce from her abusive husband after he suggested he take a second wife.
Rather than face the “shame” of being divorced, her husband shot her in all four limbs with a shotgun. She lost both her legs and the use of both arms.
Kübra Eken was a successful television journalist with Bloomberg in London. She moved to Istanbul to live with her husband, who also worked for Bloomberg.
Two days after giving birth to their child, during an argument, Kübra’s husband hit her four times on the back of the head, leaving her paralysed. His lawyers attempted to connect Kübra’s paralysis to her difficult birth, which required a caesarean section.
Despite medical reports proving that her injuries were caused by trauma sustained from blows to the head, Kübra’s husband received a sentence of only 15 months imprisonment. This was reduced for “good behaviour”. At the time of the completion of filming of the documentary, he had served no time in prison.
Dying to Divorce puts the issue of femicide and violence against women in Turkey in the broader context of political developments in the country. When I meet producer Kirwan in Edinburgh, she tells me that the film she and Fairweather ended up with is very different from the one they envisaged back in 2015.
“When we started making the film we thought they were going to be able to change the law to make it much harder for men to get away with attacking their partners”, Kirwan explains. “We really thought that was going to be our film.”
Instead, they found that long-standing misogynistic ideas in Turkish society were becoming hardened within the political and legal systems of the country. We see President Erdoğan decrying the notion of equality of the sexes, insisting instead that God has given women the role of motherhood.
In the courts, sentences for male violence against women are routinely decreased. In society, femicide and domestic violence are on the rise.
Speaking from prison, Arzu’s husband cites his consistent support for Erdoğan as evidence of his good character. He demands “justice”, by which he means his release from jail.
“Arzu’s husband is enraged”, the producer explains, “because he still doesn’t think he did anything wrong. He thinks it’s outrageous that he’s in prison for shooting his wife.
“He doesn’t deny shooting his wife, but he thinks it’s outrageous that he’s been sentenced to 25 years in prison.”
For Kirwan, attempts to put this terrible state of affairs in Turkey down simply to the influence of Islam are something of a red herring. Erdoğan’s conservative and populist Justice and Development Party (known in Turkey by its initials, AKP) does have strong associations with orthodox Islamic forces within the country.
However, Kirwan stresses that the culture of repressive attitudes towards women within Turkey is, first-and-foremost, “a cultural thing, not a religious thing.” Indeed, she continues, “it’s a culture that exists all over the world.
“Recently there was a massive scandal because Turkey has withdrawn from the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention for the Prevention of Violence Against Women. It’s very difficult for the British government to criticise Turkey on that, because it has never ratified the Convention itself.”
Kirwan suggests that even in the case of Arzu, her husband’s attempt to justify his horrific violence on religious grounds is a “mask”. His real motivation, she argues, is “tradition and patriarchy.”
The case of Kübra makes it even clearer, the producer says, that ideas of misogyny and male supremacy, rather than religion, drive the culture of violence towards women in Turkey. “Her husband is a modern, essentially secular, wealthy Istanbulite.”
There is an undeniable logic in the producer’s insistence that defence of women’s rights in Turkey should not be seen as an opportunity to single out the Islamic faith for attack. After all, just as Erdoğan opportunistically claims the mantle of Islam, so Putin boasts of his Orthodox Christian credentials, Modi of his Hinduism, Morawiecki of his Roman Catholicism and the generals in Myanmar of their Buddhism.
Indeed, despite his obvious deviations from Christian morality, Donald Trump courts evangelical Christians in the United States. His anti-abortion rhetoric, coupled with his appointment of anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court, continues to embolden legislatures in conservative Republican states.
In Texas, for example, the state legislature recently passed a law forbidding termination of pregnancy beyond the sixth week (a point at which many women don’t even know they are pregnant).
In the Turkish context, the failed coup attempt of 2016 plays a major role in the on-going attacks on women’s rights. “It became clear quite quickly that the coup was going to be used as a pretext to arrest anyone who disagreed with the government”, says Kirwan.
“If protests are banned, how do you protest for women’s rights? If referendums are being rigged, how can you pass laws that the government doesn’t agree with?”
In the period following the coup attempt, lawyer Bozkurt became increasingly aware of lawyers, including friends of hers, being arrested by the authorities. These people tended to work in areas such as human rights and domestic violence.
“If progressive lawyers are arrested, who’s going to do the pro bono domestic violence cases?”, asks Kirwan. “The space for opposition has really been squeezed. It’s an erosion of democratic rights.”
We see an example of that erosion in the film. The 2019 International Women’s Day march in Istanbul was banned by the authorities and tear-gassed by the police.
“There’s always been a Women’s Day march in Istanbul”, says the producer. “It’s only recently that it’s started to be attacked and tear-gassed by the police.”
There was a similar kind of shock, she continues, when, citing Covid restrictions, the Metropolitan Police used force to disperse a vigil on Clapham Common on March 13. The vigil, mainly of women, was in commemoration of Sarah Everard, the 33-year-old marketing executive who had been murdered by a serving police officer.
“What the example of Turkey shows is that you can’t take anything for granted”, Kirwan comments. “If you create an environment of complicity towards violence against women, if you create an atmosphere where people are afraid to go against judges and the perceived ideology [of the state]… you are creating the conditions in which violence against women will increase.”
All of which underlines the importance of Fairweather and Kirwan’s film. The documentary has had public screenings in Ankara and Istanbul, much to the encouragement of many Turkish women.
The producer remembers women commenting on the importance of bringing people together to see the film and discuss the subjects it raises. “They talk about how domestic violence is an isolating experience.
“Coming together to see that other women are going through the same thing, and overcoming the same thing, hasn’t really happened before in Turkey. It’s really empowering for the women involved.”
That empowering of women, and that challenge to the outrageous sense of impunity that accompanies male violence against women, is needed far beyond Turkey’s borders. Dying to Divorce has been screened on TV and at festivals in numerous countries, including Canada, Germany, Sweden, Belgium and Greece. It has yet to make its UK debut.
A powerful, horrifying and inspiring piece of documentary filmmaking, it deserves to be shown on cinema and TV screens everywhere. Kirwan and colleagues are gearing up for a run of screenings throughout the UK to coincide with International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25.
Let’s hope this remarkable film receives its Scottish première then, if not before.
This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on July 25, 2021
© Mark Brown