Printing the explicit photo of a woman stabbed by her husband was the right thing to do. Sadly, it didn’t work.

Commentary

The woman is topless, lying face down on a hospital bed. Out of her back, a little above her waist, protrudes the wooden handle of a large knife. Only a small part of the blade is visible; the rest is buried deep into her abdomen. There is remarkably little blood, but the photograph is no less horrifying. It’s a harrowing sight.

Click to enlarge

It appeared on the front page of last Friday’s Habertürk, one of Turkey’s most popular newspapers, intended to raise awareness of domestic violence in the family. The woman in the photograph, who later died, was beaten regularly by her husband.

A carefully-chosen, striking photograph in a mass-circulation newspaper can sometimes do in a day what a well-organised pressure group can’t in a year: it can whip up public anger, steal the agenda and force someone somewhere to start changing a law.

This photograph, which you can see for yourself by clicking the link at the bottom of this post, is certainly shocking enough to do that. But it didn’t work: a week has gone by since that edition of Haberturk went to press, and yet more Turks appear angry at at the editor for printing the photograph than at the husband for wielding the knife.

Women’s rights groups gathered outside Habertürk‘s offices to protest on Sunday demanding a withdrawal and apology from Fatih Altaylı, the paper’s editor. Think of the children who saw it in all its lurid detail, they said. Mediz, a media monitor for women’s rights, called the photograph “the ultimate stage in pornography” (referencing Habertürk‘s headline, “the ultimate stage in violence towards women”) and said the newspaper had become a perpetrator of the violence by publishing it. Even Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the prime minister, disagreed with the decision.

But Mr Altaylı has been bullish. “I would have printed this even if it was a photograph of my own mother. In fact, I would have enlarged it,” he wrote in an editorial on Saturday. “I printed it so that my 11-year-old daughter could see, at her young age, the violence that a male-dominated society inflicts on women. I printed it so she could learn to reproach those who remain silent.” An article in the Wall Street Journal has him go further:

Mr. Altayli described women’s-rights organizations that protested outside the newspaper’s offices Sunday as “idiots” who knew nothing about “real life” and what it took to make the government act. “I knew people would criticize me, that they would say I was cruel, but someone had to do it,” he said in an interview on Tuesday. “Another six women have been killed since her.”

The figures given by the Wall Street Journal are chilling enough: 42 percent of Turkish women say they have suffered physical or sexual abuse from their partner. Nearly half of those victims didn’t tell a soul what happened; an astonishing 92 percent didn’t seek what little help the authorities can give. Şefika Etik, the victim in the Habertürk photograph, was one of the rare few who actually took refuge at a safe house before her husband came calling a reconciliation. He had a bunch of flowers, Habertürk reports, and was extremely sorry. Within an hour of her return home, the knives came out.

This photograph was printed to horrify and provoke, and it succeeded on both counts. The anger at Mr Altaylı has been palpable. Journalists from Habertürk and rival papers alike have written to criticise the decision to publish. One commentator writing in Bugün, a centre-right daily, questioned Mr Altaylı’s apparent conversion to feminism by trawling through some of his earlier journalism, which includes some unflattering stories about a long-distance runner who had an affair with her personal trainer.

But however sinister Mr Altaylı’s motives may or may not be, and even if he only wants to sell more newspapers, he has brought prominence to a shameful truth about the place of women in Turkish society. In too many marriages Turkish women are “bequeathed” into the moral ownership of their husbands. Mr Erdoğan’s government has shied away from daycare projects to help mothers back into work, abolished a cabinet portfolio for women’s rights in favour a Ministry for Families, and frequently calls for newlyweds to aim for “at least” three children. These policies reflect a deeply conservative streak in Turkish society that promotes the family unit over the individual; Mr Altaylı’s critics, many of them liberal-minded, are guilty of pretending that strain doesn’t exist.

Last modified: Sunday 15 February 2015