The monsters among us

The monsters among us

Özgecan Arslan was a 20-year-old female university student living in Tarsus, Mersin, a town close to the Mediterranean Sea. Last week, she took a minibus as usual to go from her home to school. But she never came back. Three days later, her dead body was found in an empty field. It was mutilated and burnt.

Soon, the police arrested the driver of the minibus, a 26-year-old man named Ahmet Suphi Altındöken. He confessed the murder and the rape that came before it. “I wanted to rape her, but she did not allow it,” he said, complaining that his poor victim scratched his face with her nails. “Then I stabbed her,” he said, only before chopping off her hands and burning her body, “just not to leave evidence.”

This monster first was alone in his crime, but he soon found two culprits: his father and a friend. They helped him burn the body and dump it away.

This was such a cruel, appalling, disgusting crime that it triggered a big social reaction in Turkey. Tens of thousands, mostly women, hit the streets to mourn for Özgecan and condemn her murder. They also pointed out that this was not an isolated incident, but one of the countless tragic episodes of sexual violence by Turkish men. On Twitter, under the hashtag “#sendeanlat” (“tell your story”) women from all walks of life began telling their stories of sexual harassment.

Some say this tragedy will perhaps become the trigger for a more powerful feminist movement in Turkey, which I would very much hope for. For this to succeed, though, first we should understand the problem well.

One thing that is certain is that sexual violence and harassment is a global problem. In the United States, for example, some 18 percent of women experience sexual assault at some point in their lifetimes. In other words, this is a problem with human (especially male) nature.

Yet some societies also have cultural attitudes that justify or tolerate this problem. Unfortunately Turkey, like Egypt or India, is one of them. This is a deeply patriarchal nation in which many men feel entitled to dominate women. In milder forms, this comes out as a dictating father or husband. In more extreme forms, it comes out as sexual harassment and violence.

Does Islam, and the Islamism of the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP), have anything to do with this? Since Turkey is now passionately polarized, you can find lots of anti-AKP voices who will rush to say, “Yes, of course.” That can be a bit unfair, though, since this is centuries-old problem, and the AKP, despite its family-obsessed conservatism, have taken steps to prevent violence against women.

Yes still, there is something that the Islamic conservatives within the AKP universe (and elsewhere) should see. Some among them tend to depict the visibly Islamic (i.e., veiled) women as the “moral” ones, while implying that the Western-looking women are somehow less “moral.” Of course, they don’t mean to imply that these women are fair game for harassment, let alone rape. But in the minds of the not-so-religious but traditional “tough guys” in their cultural universe, this easily turns into a blank check to aggressively approach these Western-looking women in sexual ways, for they are assumed to be promiscuous anyway.

In short, while punishing the monsters among us in the heaviest terms, we also need a national soul-searching to eradicate the culture that helps breed them. That is the least we can do to respect the tortured soul of Özgecan Aslan and save others from falling prey to the same fate.