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To end Turkey’s silence on domestic abuse, a famous pop star told her own story

Turkish singer Sila Gencoglu filed abuse charges against her boyfriend, Ahmet Kural, launching a national debate about violence against women. (Ergun Haktaniyan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

ISTANBUL — When Sila Gencoglu, one of Turkey’s biggest pop stars, walked into an Istanbul courtroom a few months ago and filed abuse charges against her actor boyfriend, it set off the kind of media frenzy Turks were expecting but also something more rare: a national debate about violence against women.

The news media published photographs of her bruises, a doctor’s report on her injuries, and the panicked text messages of a woman next door who said she heard the beating. A message Gencoglu posted on Instagram gave a voice to the large percentage of Turkish women who do not report abuse — and provided a model, she hoped, of how to fight back.  

“It is not easy to go out on the street and yell, ‘I have been abused,’ ” she wrote. “I am going to use the rights given to me by the law.”  

Gencoglu’s boyfriend, Ahmet Kural, a well-known comedic actor, has denied her accusations. When the trial starts in two weeks, it will be a high-profile test of landmark legislation introduced seven years ago by the government that was supposed to better protect women and children from abuse.   

Though the law has provided survivors with greater rights, there have been numerous problems with how it has been carried out, including a lack of reliable data on its effectiveness and a reluctance by Turkey’s judiciary to punish men for abuse, according to women’s advocacy groups and a European experts’ panel. The law has also been undermined by a years-long, countervailing effort by the Islamist-led government to reinforce traditional roles for women in society, women’s rights groups say. 

Last year, 440 women were killed by men across Turkey — the majority by their partners or male relatives, according to a women’s rights group called We Will Stop Femicide. Societal pressure to keep a family together and notions of honor in Turkey often prevent women from reporting abuse, says Tuba Torun, an activist with the group. About 89 percent of domestic violence survivors in Turkey do not contact authorities, according to a major government-funded report published in 2015.  

Even before her trial begins, Gencoglu’s impact on the public debate has become apparent, Torun said. “One Sila incident brought the attention to domestic violence we have been working on for years,” she said. “She brought so much volume to the issue.”

Gencoglu said the abuse occurred in late October at Kural’s apartment, where he allegedly dragged her on the floor, hitting and kicking her multiple times in an attack that lasted 45 minutes, she told the Turkish daily Hurriyet. A woman next door heard the violence and texted her boyfriend at 4 a.m., in messages that were included in the indictment.

“Ahmet Kural is beating a woman in his home. It’s really bad,” she wrote. “I’m really scared.”

The witness said she heard Kural say: “I’m going to kill you.” 

Gencoglu, who is known by her first name in Turkey, is a singer, songwriter and published poet who has been a fixture on the pop charts for more than a decade. Within days, Gencoglu’s post about the alleged assault had spread on Turkish social media, posted by the country’s leading celebrities and Gencoglu’s legion of fans. Kural faced a storm. 

A Turkish bank, Yapi Kredi, severed its relationship with the actor, who had been the face of its advertising campaign. “The allegations being made do not follow in line with our ethical line as a bank,” the financial institution said in a statement.  

And as Kural’s lawyer protested his client’s innocence outside the Istanbul courthouse in November, the actor, standing at his lawyer’s side, was met with jeers. “Until today, my client has expressed multiple times that Sila Gencoglu’s claims are unfounded, that he will wait for the judicial process and his right to defend himself in a fair trial must be respected,” said Sibel Aydin, the lawyer.  

Rezan Epozdemir, Gencoglu’s attorney, expressed optimism that the harsh reaction to Kural was part of a changing tide in Turkey but said that momentum was critical “so that violence against women will not be normalized.” 

“As a woman who has experienced violence, as an artist that is known by the public, she could have kept silent,” Epozdemir said of his client. “Ultimately, that would have been the easiest thing to do. She didn’t have to go after legal remedies. She didn’t have to put her career at risk.” 

But support for Gencoglu has not been unanimous. One evening news anchor, trying to cast doubt on her testimony, aired a video of Gencoglu with her friends on a night out after the alleged assault, in which the pop star is seen singing. An interview with Kural that was published in the pro-government Sabah newspaper framed him as a sympathetic man who has been misunderstood. 

“Can the man who makes all of Turkey laugh be this bad?” a reporter asked the actor.   

In 2011, as it sought to join the European Union, Turkey’s government was the first to sign the Istanbul Convention, a European initiative to combat violence against women and ensure equal legal protections across the continent. There was pushback from conservatives, with some commentators referring to it as the “home-wrecking law” or as part of a Western plot to damage Turkish notions of family and society.  

An independent European monitoring group reported that a “lack of any reliable official data fuels the perception that the authorities might not be willing to take the matter seriously enough and to face their responsibilities openly.” 

Instead, it is up to independent outlets and groups, such as Torun’s anti-femicide platform, to keep a tally — a task that has become more difficult as Turkey’s government has cracked down in recent years on nongovernmental organizations. 

Turkish women have faced increasing violence as their mobility and financial independence has grown. “Men’s inability to accept women taking their destiny in their own hands, for example when they apply for a divorce, ranks among the first reasons invoked to justify gender-based killings of women,” the European monitors said.  

Despite the heat Gencoglu brought to the issue of violence against women, other recent cases have attracted far less attention.  

In late December, a woman’s corpse, its arms and legs bound, was found in a garbage bin in the southern province of Hatay, Turkish media reported. Around the same time, Pinar Coban, 31, a world-ranked female bodybuilder, was shot and killed by her boyfriend in the western city of Izmir, authorities said. The boyfriend killed himself, Turkish media reported.  

“Humanity should be ashamed,” her father, Mustafa Coban, told Turkey’s state-run news agency.  

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