AHMP Letter to the New York Times, November 19, 1995

To the Editor of The New York Times:

This letter is written in response to Celestine Bohlen's November 12th article on Turkey's ban on religious head scarves by female attorneys in courtrooms. That the targets of this discriminatory prohibition are Muslims, and that its objective is secularization, should not trigger our society's knee-jerk Islamophobia and serve to confuse the important issue here. The ban should not be framed as a struggle between the forces of progress in Turkey, struggling to expand individual rights, and the forces of religious fanaticism. Rather, the irony here lies in the fact that Turkey's lawyers (an intellectual elite which, more than any other group, should embody the vanguard of a democratic society's civil, religious and political freedoms) is the very group attacking these liberties.

More importantly, there is a hidden dimension to this controversy that Ms. Bohlen has overlooked: the ban is as much a woman's issue as it is a religious one. Particularly disturbing for Americans s the fact that the ban not only involves the Turkish Government's religious discrimination of its citizens but that it further involves the denial of a woman's right to choose for herself something as personal as her headdress.

This underscores a disturbing reality in Turkish society; that despite multi-million dollar grandstanding by Turkey's public relations spindoctors about how western a nation Turkey has become, replete with a handsome female prime minister as a showpiece, Turkish women remain second-class citizens and are subjected to even more insidious violations of their rights than the gender-specific religious ban reported on by Ms. Bohlen.

Among the most notorious and widespread of such practices is the imposition of forcible virginity control examinations. The Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project recently released a report condemning the Turkish Government for the imposition of these highly intrusive involuntary medical procedures on Turkish women.[*] The women subjected to these range from women applying for government jobs, female state dormitory residents, female complainants in sexual assault investigations and female hospital patients, to female political detainees and criminal suspects in police custody. In the case of female detainees of political crimes (which under the now infamous Article 8 ``Anti-Terrorist Law'' often include activities as innocuous as writing in the Kurdish language or publishing a news item regarding the military's ethnic cleansing of Kurdish villages) the forcible virginity control examinations take on a more menacing dimension. As stated by a Human Rights Watch Summary of the Women's Rights Project report:

In the case of political detainees, the exams are themselves abusive. Women victims of virginity exams report that the exams are degrading and often painful. In most instances, they involve the actual or threatened use of force and the insertion of a speculum or hand into the vagina. In one case Human Rights Watch investigated, two female journalists were detained for their suspected political activity and twice forced to undergo virginity exams after a state doctor threatened, ``You better do this or they [the police] will force your legs apart for you.'' Political detainees are often taunted with the exams' results, threatened by guards that they will have their ``virginity removed'' (the report documents cases of custodial rape) and, on occasion, are subjected to exams as a form of punishment.

The summary further states that the report:

details how [the] police abuse their power to monitor public behavior by detaining women arbitrarily and forcing them to undergo exams to determine their virginity or whether they have engaged in recent sexual activity. In August 1992, Istanbul police detained a thirty-nine year-old grandmother and two of her friends while they were eating in a restaurant. Never charged, the women were subjected to vaginal exams against their will and held in state venereal diseases hospital for over one week.

Even more disturbing than the forced virginity controls is that (according to a September 1994 report by the UNHCR):

women in detention are susceptible to rape by the security forces or the police in order to force information out of them, such as the case of a woman suspected of collaborating with the PKK, who claimed to have been raped by six men from Istanbul's anti-terrorist squad in December 1993, and was subsequently forced to sign a deposition to the effect that the rapists were not policemen but that the rape had been committed by another young man detained the same day with her (Inter Press Service, 7 February 1994). Another source indicates that a woman lawyer belonging to the Turkish Human Rights Association reported being ``slapped, kicked, stripped, hosed with freezing water, and sexually insulted'' during interrogation (Index on Censorship, July/August 1994).

Turkey's endemic repression of women, and in this case of its female attorneys simply because they happen to be exercising their Muslim faith, should no longer be ignored. As Turkey is one of the U.S. Government's third largest recipients of foreign aid, averaging over one billion dollars in military and economic assistance a year, and as Turkey is actively lobbying for inclusion within the European community, Americans have a right to demand of fellow NATO-member Turkey genuine reforms in the area of women's civil and political rights.

Very truly yours,

Maria Ressos, Esq.
Associate Media Director

[*] Human Rights Watch, Women's Rights Project, A Matter of Power: State Control of Women's Virginity in Turkey, Vol. 67, No. 7, June 1994

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