Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

  • العربية
  • English
  • Français
  • Bahasa Indonesia
  • اردو

Laying down the arms; hearing battered women’s voices

Latifa Akay

‘Give women free guns!’  - It was one of those headlines that catches your eye, but not in a particularly good way. I read on with a feeling of unease I have learnt to associate with discussions of domestic violence in Turkey. The head of a women’s shelter, Şefkat-Der, it transpired – had suggested that women in fear of their lives be issued with licensed guns and receive state-funded shooting lessons as a last ditch effort to cut down on the murders of women.

Unsurprisingly such a notion struck me as problematic and I decided to write a piece on the story. I spoke to the head of the organization, a Mr Bulan, later that day. He seemed pleased with his newfound renown and stressed that this was not an attempt to solve violence with violence, but a measure to be resorted to in the most desperate of circumstances. No call for an open killing spree then. In a society where many women murdered by their partners have been painfully aware of the end they were going to face for months, or even years, before they were murdered (see the case of Ayse Pasali) – Bulan argued that at least guns would empower women to protect themselves when no one else will. If every man in Turkey learns how to use a gun during the course of military service – why should women not receive the same education, he demanded.

When Sefkat-Der was founded in 1997, they proposed family counselling and mediation as an effective means to tackle domestic abuse. Their evolution in less than two decades from this point to one of advocating arms was if nothing else, symbolic of the wretchedness of the situation; in 2011 the Turkish justice ministry announced that there had been a 1,400% increase in the number of reported cases of violence against women in the home over the period of a decade.

However, my overwhelming intuition about such a notion was that it lacked awareness of the deep-rootedness of the patriarchal structures ensnaring women, and the pervasive forms of gender discrimination woven into the very fabric of society.

What I found most problematic about the issue was Bulan’s assumption that a battered woman who has killed would be readily able to evade a murder charge by pleading self-defence or provocation. The outcome of court cases from across the globe has shown time and time again that women who kill abusive spouses face solid institutional barriers when it comes to reducing murder charges.

The defence of provocation has historically relied on a ‘loss of self-control’ which until very recently has been rigidly required by UK courts to be both instantaneous and temporary, criteria which exclude the battered woman who, for example, may have killed her husband as he slept or at another moment of relative ‘calm.’ The ‘cumulative’ provocation experienced by victims of years, if not decades, of psychological, physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of a partner has routinely been deemed irrelevant by courts as it lacks the ‘immediacy’ required to satisfy defences.

While courts in the Commonwealth nations have in recent years accepted what has been termed “battered woman syndrome” – a recognition that the history of an abused woman who has murdered her spouse may be integral to her actions - the fact remains that in cases where abused women kill their husbands, they are typically convicted at the same rate as others accused of murder

The court system in Turkey is certainly not awake to gender equality, a reality reflected by the fact that aggressors of domestic violence routinely get away with literal murder. For this individual then to suggest that women can look to such a system for support, struck me not only as misguided, but also incredibly irresponsible. The understanding of ‘provocation’ by the Turkish judiciary is unfortunately more likely to empathize with the experience of a man who attacks his partner because he dreamt she had cheated on him (yes, it happened), than a woman who murders her partner in a supposedly ‘unprovoked’ context after a lifetime of harrowing abuse.

This touches on the broader issue at hand which is that even when countries, such as Turkey, have progressive domestic violence legislation, this often has little bearing in practice because institutions such as the police, the executive and the judiciary remain faithful to old patriarchal traditions, such as the assumption that family matters are private and should remain as such. Feminists have long flagged up the shortcomings of a purely ‘formal’ brand of equality (limited to law and letter), advocating instead for a real transformation of opportunities, institutions and systems away from male-determined paradigms of power. Judiciaries for example can play a powerful role in breathing life into progressive legal frameworks and dismantling negative stereotypes.

Attempts to alleviate domestic violence must necessarily be focused on setting such change in motion and interrogating patriarchal norms. The suggestion that women be armed paradoxically reinforces such norms. It concedes to a reality where men’s violence and dominance is a given and the only way to contend with it is to match it.

The idea that increasing the number of guns in circulation in society could in any way benefit women is also problematic. While more males than females are killed or wounded by gun violence, gun crime, as with every human rights violation, has a gendered dimension.

It has been noted that the fact that the act of shooting takes mere seconds - and also that it is more normal for men to carry guns on their person – means that the ‘state of fury’ (loss of self-control) qualification required for the defence of provocation can be more readily pleaded than with other modes of killing. It does not seem outlandish to suggest that were a woman in such a situation to shoot her husband that the use of a gun as a weapon may paradoxically work against her and ‘pre-meditation’ may be assumed because women do not stereotypically carry guns.

Across the world guns are associated with masculinity and pride and are utilized to exercise control over women’s lives and sexuality. In Turkish society guns are commonplace; celebratory shots are routine at weddings where bullets may well outnumber balloons. A suggestion that battered women should be issued with guns to use as a ‘last resort’ ignores the reality that the mere presence of a gun in the house poses a threat to every member of a household and that a gun that enters the house in the hand of a woman could end up pointing at her head. The idea that a vulnerable and desperate woman can somehow secrete a weapon in her house and have it conveniently at hand to ward off her advancing spouse precisely at the moment it is required is an illusion.

Eminent feminist Cynthia Enloe once penned that ‘Wars don’t end simply, and wars don’t simply end, wars have their endings in families.’ While referring to the post-conflict moment at the time of writing, there is something about Enloe’s words that ring true even in times of ‘peace’ in the context of militarized and masculinized societies. Disarming is generally a precursor to any peace and the pursuit of peace in the home is no different to any other. Using or indeed threatening with a gun may well have saved the lives of some battered women.  However, it is not the place of an ill-informed man to confidently proffer such a suggestion for all without first considering the wider implications that these women, as murderers, would have to face in a system that does not recognize the ‘gendered’ nature of their experiences.

Domestic violence remains acceptable and accepted in societies all over the world. In reality it is only through addressing the myths, stereotypes and assumptions engrained in the fabric of our societies that this acceptability can truly be interrogated. Hearing women’s voices is central to such a shift and it should go without saying that this voice should not have to emanate from the sound of gunfire.

Latifa Akay is a Turkish-Northern-Irish feminist and writer.

Peace and Security