• Issue 2017 / Special 2017

    Erdoǧan’s Most Vulnerable Victims: Women and Children

    Sophia Pandya

    Human rights violations in Turkey
    have increased exponentially in the aftermath of the July 15, 2016 attempted coup.
    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan blamed the plot on the Hizmet (Gülen)
    movement, and seized the opportunity to throw many of those he considered as
    opposition in jail. In all, over a hundred thousand people have been arrested, despite
    a lack of evidence against the vast majority of those detained. The UK Foreign
    Affairs Committee states there is a lack of credible evidence the movement was
    behind the coup,[1]
    and Fethullah Gülen, Hizmet’s founding figure, flatly denies involvement.

    Nonetheless, since
    July 15, women have been subjected to an uptick of a variety of intimidation
    strategies, including rape, the threat of rape, harassment, and other forms of
    violence—not only by Erdoǧan’s AKP-led (Justice and Development) government,
    but also by civilians emboldened by the new climate in which macho, hyper-masculinity
    and misogyny have become widespread. Many women whose families are affiliated
    with the groups currently targeted by the crackdown (i.e. Hizmet participants,
    Kurds, Alevis) have reported experiencing psychological trauma. Unsurprisingly,
    the political turmoil has also negatively affected children in a myriad of

    Declaring a “state
    of emergency” (still in place for an indefinite period of time), and abandoning
    the European Convention for Human Rights, Erdoǧan has also fired thousands of
    educators, police, judges, prosecutors, journalists, and shut down (or taken
    over) schools, universities, businesses, and media outlets.[2]
    On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the attempted coup, he sacked 7,000
    more in a single day.[3]
    This unprecedented onslaught is widely termed the “purge,” and the Turkish
    president appears willing to refashion the very fabric of society through
    oppression and violence. Internationally considered a populist authoritarian, Erdoǧan
    has also incited attacks against those he opposes. Recently, he called for the
    reinstatement of the death penalty and the beheading of those he deems
    responsible for the coup.[4]

    The Turkish
    president is also no feminist: he has stated that women who have not chosen to
    bear at least three children are “deficient” and “incomplete,”[5]
    and that women have a “delicate nature” and are “unequal” to men.[6]
    Not long after the putsch attempt, feminists noted an increase in attacks and
    harassment on the street. Journalist Pinar Ersoy writes that women have been
    “silenced” during the purge, and that women’s groups have been targeted.[7]
    A soccer club executive actually tweeted that the wives of any coup plotters
    should be considered “spoils of war.”[8]
    The lack of women during street protests also speaks to the heightened climate
    of fear.

    During and after
    political conflict in general, women and children are the ones most severely
    afflicted by hardships such as poverty, displacement, insecurity, and sexual
    and domestic violence.[9]
     In the aftermath, men tend to attempt to
    reinstate patriarchal “order,” sometimes through violent means.[10]
    During the purge in Turkey, women from a variety of marginalized communities
    (Kurdish, Alevi, Hizmet-affiliated) have been particularly affected by
    financial difficulties, violence, rape, and demeaning treatment, even during
    and after childbirth.[11]
    A forty year-old lawyer, Frank[12]
    brought his family to the US despite his wife’s reluctance to leave Turkey,
    when he realized that the government was even “jailing mothers with ten day-old
    children.” He added, “I couldn’t take this risk.”

    An estimated
    16,000 to 20,000 women are currently held in prison; in some cases, they’re
    being used as hostages to coerce their male relatives to return to Turkey from
    abroad, and as an intimidation technique intended to silence dissent among
    their families.[13] Tarik,
    a fifty year-old man in the construction business from eastern Turkey, fled his
    homeland but worried about his family being arrested in his place as he is
    affiliated with the Hizmet movement. He stated, “They also started putting
    wives in jail if they can’t find their husbands. So, my family came to the US in
    January.” In prison, women report being subjected to systematic humiliation,
    including naked searches by male guards.[14]
    In a Muslim patriarchal society, a violation of a women’s body is a dishonor to
    her entire family, especially for her male kinfolk who are traditionally
    responsible for protecting her. An acquaintance in his twenties, affiliated with
    the Hizmet movement, told me that his fiancé abruptly broke off their
    engagement after her trauma of spending time in jail.

    For many women not
    jailed or physically hurt, the psychological effects of the purge are nevertheless
    damaging. Fatma, a forty-two-year-old housewife from Erzurum, was briefly detained
    and interrogated about her husband’s Hizmet-related activities. After her
    release, she began having problems with her mental health. She confided,
    “Because my psychological state was so bad, I took medications. I’m still under
    this medication.” Her eighteen-year-old daughter, Hatice, also suffered from
    the stigma when her classmates found out about the allegations against her
    father, and they socially ostracized her.

    Children exposed
    to political conflict are also in danger of suffering from PTSD or anxiety.[15]
    Currently, over 500 children are being raised in jail by those mothers who are
    among the imprisoned, or left behind when their mothers are suddenly detained,
    in one case in a parking lot.[16]
    Fatma’s younger daughter, Elif, 17, expressed frustration with being displaced
    by the coup. Now attending school in California, she said, “I feel stupid,
    because I don’t speak English. Yes, I cried when I left Turkey, because we were
    living with our grandparents. I miss all my family members. After we left, our
    grandmother got paralyzed because of these events.”

    Tarik also spoke
    to me about the effect the purge had on his children. He explained, “My kids’
    psychological well-being was disturbed because every time my car stopped, they
    worried that the police had stopped us. Police officers with rifles were coming
    to their schools during school hours, like SWAT teams.” When his younger
    daughter finally arrived in the US, she didn’t leave her room for the first two

    Many children
    affected by the coup also found their education disrupted. A sixteen-year-old
    boy was stuck in Seattle, having arrived on a trip with friends, right before
    the events of July 15th. He said that the government had shut his old
    school down, and that if he returned, he would be assigned to a random public
    school. He was unsure about whether or not he would seek asylum in the US, or
    return, but he was most distressed about his family still in Turkey. He explained,
    “I’m sad about my family and their future, and what might happen to them. I’m
    concerned about their security.” Over two thousand educational institutes in
    Turkey have been closed, and tens of thousands of teachers and professors were
    Due to the instability caused both by the purge and attacks by the Kurdish PKK
    (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), intellectuals are fleeing the country, leading to a
    Turkish “brain drain.”[18]

    Women and children
    are the unseen victims of Erdoǧan’s purge, and the effects will doubtless reverberate
    through Turkish society for decades. Those thousands of women jailed are
    acutely vulnerable to physical (including sexual), emotional, and psychological
    abuse. If they have young children, these children are either left behind, or
    they find themselves also behind bars. Those women at home whose male relatives
    are incarcerated risk financial hardship, displacement, and lack of physical security.
    The children at risk face the disruption of their education, as well as anxiety,
    depression, and PTSD. According to psychologist
    Jack Saul, survivors of collective trauma may also experience a sense of
    betrayal and insecurity, shattered relationships, and the inability for adults
    to effectively care for their children.[19] For the most vulnerable
    victims, weaving lives back together again, and moving towards healing, will be
    an immense challenge.

    UK relations with Turkey, House of
    Commons: Foreign Affairs Committee,
    Tenth Report of Session 2016-2017, 36.

    Associated Press, “Turkey Sacks More than 7,000 Civil Servants One Year On from
    Failed Coup,” The Guardian, July 15,

    [4] Joe
    Sterling and Samantha Beech, “
    A year after failed coup in Turkey, Erdogan says 'behead traitors',” CNN, July 16, 2016.

    [5]Turkish president says childless
    women are 'deficient, incomplete',” The
    June 5, 2016.

    [6] “Turkey
    president Erdogan: Women are not equal to men,” BBC News, November 24, 2014.

    [7] Pinar
    Ersoy, “Women are being silenced in Turkey's crackdown,” PRI’s The World, July 19, 2016.

    [8] “Turkish
    Feminists Fear Escalating Misogyny After Coup Attempt,” Telesur, July 21, 2016.


    Raven-Roberts, “Women and the Political Economy of War,” in Women and Wars, ed.
    Carol Cohn (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), 36.

    [10] Jacobs, Jacobson and Marchbank, States of Conflict, 5, 11.

    Journals and Writers Foundation, Women’s
    Rights under Attack in Turkey
    (New York: Journalists and Writers
    Foundation, 2017), 4.

    Names of interviewees have been changed for their protection and privacy.

    Stockholm Center for Freedom, “Jailing Women in Turkey: Systematic Campaign of
    Persecution and Fear,Stockholm Center for Freedom, April,
    2017, 6, 22.

    Stockholm Center for Freedom, “Jailing Women in Turkey: Systematic Campaign of
    Persecution and Fear,Stockholm Center for Freedom, April,
    2017, 10.  

    [15] T.S Betancourt, R. McBain, E.A. Newnham, R.T. Brennan,
    “Trajectories of internalizing problems in war-affected Sierra Leonean youth:
    Examining conflict and post-conflict factors,” Child Development 84: 2 (2013).

    TurkeyPurge, “
    children of imprisoned mothers growing up in jail, yet Turkey celebrates
    Children’s Day,” TurkeyPurge, April
    23, 2017; The Globe Post, “Five Kids Left In Parking Lot When Turkish Mother
    Detained,” The Globe Post, January
    23, 2017.

    [18] Selin Bucak, “Purge in
    Turkey intensifies brain drain,” Financial
    September 22, 2017.

    Ibid., 5-6.


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