While Turkey mourns and grieves over the death of Ozgecan Aslan, the 20-year-old student who was brutally murdered last week when she resisted a bus driver’s efforts to rape her, I cannot help thinking of the work and heartache of courageous Turkish artist Sukran Moral. It is Moral perhaps more than anyone who has brought awareness to the suffering of women, both culturally and politically, in her homeland. With performances, videos, photographs and installations, she has spotlighted the horrors of domestic and honor violence, the inequality of women in marriage, and the sexual objectification of women that exists not just in Turkey or in the Middle East, but across the globe.
Now, in the face of Aslan’s murder (her attacker beat her, stabbed her, and cut off her hands while she was still alive before burning the body) and the blatant misogyny of the current administration, Moral’s work seems more relevant, more poignant, and more crucial than ever.
Take, for instance, her installation “Welcome to Turkey,” in which a pregnant mannequin bride, her dress covered in blood, stands above a blood-stained mattress. Accompanying the installation is a series of postcards, with statements about Turkey: “Turkey is second in Europe in the number of child brides,” states one, and another, “Turkey is 118th among 148 countries in the index of development based on gender.”
Or there is the 2010 “Love and Violence,” which Moral described in Mashallah News, “It was a very complex piece on violence against women and little girls. I staged a performance where I took the role of a torturing mother who abuses her own daughter doing her homework. She throws the books around, beats the little girl, cuts off her clitoris, makes her wear a horrible chador, weds her to a much older man, whips her and eventually stones her to death. Lots of people asked me whether this is true: do they really excise the clitoris of little girls in Turkey? Luckily, it’s not done here. But the practice is still in place in many countries across the world.”
What does occur in Turkey, as she noted when we spoke in 2013, is the violence. “During the first 11 months of 2012, 147 women were killed, 123 were raped, 208 were subjects of violence and 126 were sexually harassed,” she told me. “The tragedy of these hate crimes against women do not point to a positive progress.
Marriages of underage girls grow in numbers and the government thinks it has the power to decide for women what to do with their bodies.”
These problems have deepened under the current administration, led by a president who has openly expressed disdain for notions about female equality. Noted the Wall Street Journal on February 18, “Women’s rights activists say the patriarchal attitude of top politicians keeps women’s status low.
‘The government favors family integrity over women’s rights, and there’s still massive impunity concerning violence against women,’ said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, the New York-based rights group, adding that women get killed even while under state protection.”
Much of this revolves around Turkey’s unique position bridging East and West, especially at a moment when the secular legacy of Ataturk faces off against a rising fundamentalist, Islamist movement and the Islamist government of Tayyip Erdogan. Compared to most Muslim, Middle-Eastern countries, after all, Turkey comes out ahead when it comes to women’s rights; but compared to the Western world, it trails far behind. Hence depending on which side you stand on – those who support Erdogan’s fundamentalist movement or those who oppose it – Turkey is either doing well or doing badly. But for those of us who believe in Western principles of equality and justice, who stand for the principles of the Enlightenment, Aslan’s brutal, hideous murder has become a symbol for the abuse of women not just in Turkey, but around the world.
Which again is why I think of Sukran Moral’s work as a voice in an otherwise too-still wilderness, an art world in which most of what you hear has to do with numbers and sales records and art fair attendance figures, and most of what you see has little humanity left in it at all. (Paul McCarthy butt-plugs. Jeff Koons elephant dishes. Even Lisa Yuskavage’s hypersexualizations.) When Moral created her performance ‘Married, With Three Men,” in which she married three men from a Turkish village on the Syrian border, she described it as (among other things) “the first time the villagers could criticize their own traditions through modern art.”
Maybe it’s time for the rest of us to do the same.
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