Photographs of a celebrity kissing a bikini-clad woman other than his wife on a yacht off the resort town of Bodrum would normally be relegated to the back pages of Turkish newspapers. But when it emerged that the woman was his adult niece, Turkey was thrust into a painful debate about incest. Much of the ire has been directed at a journalist who wrote about the prevalence of incest within Turkish families.
In the mass-circulation daily Hurriyet, Melis Alphan cited research from the Federation of Women’s Associations of Turkey (TKDF) showing that 40% of Turks were victims of incest. The figure was based on a broad definition that includes both physical and non-physical behavior for purposes of sexual arousal by family members.
“Incest is a taboo and part of the problem is the lack of knowledge about it,” Alphan, who regularly writes about violence against women and children, told Al-Monitor. “I wrote about this because the issue goes beyond the tabloids, beyond merely judging the two people involved as if it has nothing to do with the rest of us.”
But Alphan’s story sparked outrage and she has faced threats over Twitter, she said. Some readers said they would press charges against her under the penal code’s notorious Article 301, which makes “insulting the Turkish nation” a prisonable offense.
A prominent columnist at Alphan’s own newspaper, Ahmet Hakan, questioned the statistic, saying it sounded more like a “discount at a clothing store” than a “believable figure.”
In 2015, the TKDF conducted research for its Turkey Incest Atlas in 56 provinces, but had opted not to publish all of the data at the time due to the sensitivity around the issue. “We believe the reality of incest should be discussed mainly in terms of causes, preventive measures and victims’ rights,” read an open letter it sent to Hakan.
“Considering that objective data on incest and violence against women is impossible to obtain from state institutions, the systematic, reliable and verified statistics from the TKDF are used in research on violence against women and children,” the group stated.
The controversy over the story obscures the reality of rampant violence against women and children in Turkey, where 86% of women said they face physical or psychological abuse by family members, the Ministry of Family and Social Policies reported in 2016.
Traditionally, violence against women and children is viewed as a private family matter in Turkey, making it difficult for activists and authorities to raise awareness about rights and ensure safeguards.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's record of protection for women and girls has been mixed. He has called violence against women “a bleeding wound” in Turkey and vowed to wage a campaign to end it, but he has also deemed women unequal to men.
Last year, the country’s top imam had to retract an embarrassing fatwa on incest issued in response to a question about desiring one’s daughter posted on the website of the Presidency of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet. An unidentified religious scholar had stated, “According to some observances, a father kissing or caressing his daughter with lust has no effect on the man’s marriage,” adding that the girl should be older than 9.
Late last year, the government withdrew a bill from parliament at the last minute that would have pardoned men convicted of statutory rape if they married their victims, following opposition from within and without Erdogan’s ruling party.
Now, parliament is considering a bill to allow muftis to conduct legal weddings, setting off a backlash from women’s rights groups concerned it could facilitate underage marriages and undermine Turkey’s secular constitution. Currently, marriages in Turkey are civil ceremonies, and while those performed by clerics are allowed, they are not legally recognized.
In the meantime, most newspapers are still producing coverage of the celebrity scandal in lurid detail, while a prosecutor has reportedly begun an investigation into the man, a 49-year-old television presenter, and his brother’s daughter, 35, for "immodest behavior," according to media reports.
For her part, Alphan said she would continue to report on child abuse, and today published another piece arguing that acknowledging the frequency of incest is a necessary step toward preventing it. She explained, “My duty as a journalist is to inform the public by accurately reporting problems in society. My sole aim is to improve the situation. How does this amount to insulting the country and its people?”