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Dying to Divorce

Billed as a film about femicide in Turkey, Dying to Divorce is much more. The two cases on which it chooses to concentrate are not of the hundreds of Turkish women who are murdered by their partners but of two women who survived to fight.

When Arzu found that her husband had a mistress, she asked for a divorce. After first reacting violently, he then agreed to accompany her to the divorce court. This is when he shot her – first in the legs, then in one of her arms. We follow her as she struggles for justice – not just to win punishment for the brutal attack on her, but to gain access rights to her own children.

Kübra was once a vibrant news presenter for Bloomberg. She returned to Turkey for a wedding which seemed to have been made in heaven. One day, she asked her husband if she could ring her father. He struck her four times from behind, rendering her unconscious. Although she retained her mental facilities, her speech was so damaged that a judge rejected her evidence because he thought that she was mentally incapable.

We follow both women as they prepare for trial, supported by the indomitable lawyer Ipek Bozkurt. As Arzu gains a visit from her children, it is important to her that her artificial legs arrive on time, so that things can look as they were, and her relationship with her kids can be as close as possible to how it was before. There is a touching moment when her daughters hug her new legs.

Of course the ex-husbands contest the cases. There is an audio clip from prison where Arzu’s husband insists he did nothing wrong. And there is a strong chance that they will get away with it. Where a woman claims one thing and a man the other, it is clear who the court will usually support. And even if the man is prosecuted, his sentence compared to others is risible.

One of the strengths of Dying to Divorce is that it does not concentrate on individual cases or the wrongs of individual men, but locates the problem inside the rise of the increasingly authoritarian régime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. For the sake of the documentary, it identifies three dates as being of crucial importance.

The first is 15th July 2016 – the date of the failed coup in Turkey. Erdoğan used this to crack down on all forms of opposition. This was followed by the referendum on constitutional reforms in April 2017. At first it looked like Erdoğan’s attempt to grant himself more control, including the power to appoint judges, would fail. Then unstamped ballots were allowed, and he won a narrow victory.

The final date was at least in part one of resistance. On International Women’s Day, 8th March 2019, women and men in Turkey joined their counterparts throughout the world in demonstrating against women’s oppression. In Turkey, the demo was banned and we see footage of the police firing what looks like tear gas into the crowd. Defiantly, the protestors carried on, chanting something like “If I want a divorce, it’s none of your business”.

Although the film is not afraid to point the finger at individual abusers, it also shows a systemic problem. Increasing state violence legitimizes violence within the family. We see the link more directly when Arzu’s husband tries to explain his acts by saying that he loves women, indeed men should kiss their mothers’ feet – a quote taken wholesale from an Erdoğan speech.

At a Q&A afterwards, a Turkish speaker insisted that this is not just a Turkish problem (a point also made by director Chloe Fairweather in an interview I did with her last week). This is true in two senses – firstly, because rising right wing authoritarianism is happening not just in Turkey, but in Brazil, India and the USA. Secondly, even in “liberal” democracies, femicide is still rampant.

In the past couple of years, I can think of 3 or 4 films that I’ve seen which deal with the subject of so-called “honour killings” – a synonym for femicide that attempts to blame Muslims. These films come from different countries – Germany, France, Austria – but each contains a crucial scene showing the murder being planned inside a mosque. The message is clear – femicide is a danger, but it’s not “our” people who are responsible.

Dying to Divorce clearly avoids this pitfall. One the one hand, it shows the specific developments in Turkish society which shows the social and political developments which mean that femicide is currently a specific problem within Turkey (clue: it has nothing to do with Islam). On the other, it makes clear that this is a threat that affects us all and is intrinsic to all societies which treat women as second-class citizens. Wholeheartedly recommended.

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