Machismo and His Demons

By Alev Scott
  • Alev Scott
    Alev Scott was born in London to a Turkish mother and a British father. After graduating in Classics from Oxford in 2009 she worked in London as an assistant director in theatre and opera before moving to Istanbul in January 2011, where she now works as a freelance journalist for the British press. She is the author of Turkish Awakening: A Personal Discovery of Modern Turkey, published in March 2014 by Faber&Faber, and is currently writing a book which retraces the lost communities of the Ottoman Empire.

A man comes home, briefly greets his young daughter, and sits down to eat his evening meal. Hovering behind his chair is his wife, watching as he takes the first bite. Something is wrong—she knows it and dreads his discovery. He lowers his fork. “No meat?” Silence. “Where is the meat?” The wife, anguished, pleads her usual defense: “How can I buy meat? You never give me any money!” The man turns in his seat, lifts his heaped plate and throws it with force through the open window beside him. They both listen as it crashes onto the street below.

This story was told to me fifty years after it happened, a perfectly humdrum little tragedy set in urban Turkey. Why did the man humiliate his wife like that? Because she had failed to disguise the proof of his inadequacies, as dictated by the universal expectations of society—his failure as a man to support his household. Her meat-less dinner mocked him. In that strikingly Neanderthal scene, man failed to secure meat and lashed out at woman, clawing back his self-respect. The story’s miserable coda is the wife’s attempt to defend her husband’s behavior to their daughter years later: “It wasn’t his fault. It was his mother’s fault, she spoiled him because he was her only son.”

Fifty years later, Turkish society has changed in many ways, but the endemic abuse of women—and its justification—remains. I was reminded of this story by the recent case of a Turkish man who killed his wife with a pan because there was not enough salt in his food. The case was a passing reference in a report on growing violence against women in Turkey: between 2013 and 2014, the number of women murdered jumped by 31 percent, an increase only partly explained by better reporting of such cases. Broadly speaking, over the last decade Turks have been getting richer and more connected, young people attend university in greater numbers, new political parties form, yet sexual prejudices and pressures remain steeped in the fabric of society. Abuse against women is not restricted to ‘disadvantaged’ families; it happens across all social strata, and it seems to be getting worse.

Why the recent spike in murder rates? An improved economy,more women with university degrees, and a sharp rise in urbanization have carried their own complications. Analysts suggest that violence occurs because newly educated women are defying their partners’ expectations, seeking work outside the home, or because rural communities are cramming into the more pressurized environment of the city, where women are unavoidably ‘tainted’ by public life. Divorce is on the rise, and around a quarter of reported cases of violence occur after a woman has asked for divorce or separation from her partner. Most significantly, economical growth slowed down in 2013, which could partly explain the increase in murder rates among conservative families accustomed to a newly comfortable lifestyle and struggling to maintain it. In this downturn period—which is ongoing—working men have been failing to earn enough to keep their families afloat, resenting the spending habits of their wives (whom they prohibit from working), and taking out their frustrations with fatal consequences.

Perhaps the greatest contributing factor to sexual violence is the current leadership in Turkey explicitly encouraging the conservative values of its voting base. When the president declares that “men and women are not equal,” many of his listeners nod sagely in agreement. They nod because this inequality has long been taken for granted; the collective personality of the Turkish family and its gender hierarchy has endured for generations. Worst of all, because the realm of the family is both private and universal, it is not something individuals (of either sex) can challenge openly—they cannot discredit a unit to which they should remain loyal, especially if they think its troubles merely reflect the norm. This leads us to the chilling conclusion that rates of violence are likely even higher than reported.

Entrenched patterns of violent male behavior are not restricted to Turkey, though the current level of violence is unacceptably high. Author Elena Ferrante describes the phenomenon of normalized domestic violence in 1970s Italy in the second book of her Neapolitan quartet. Here, the narrator realizes why her usually defiant friend, Lila, accepts her new husband Stefano’s beatings without complaint:

The explanation was simple: we had seen our fathers beat our mothers from childhood. We had grown up thinking that a stranger must not even touch us, but that our father, our boyfriend, and our husband could hit us when they liked, out of love, to educate us, to re-educate us. As a result, since Stefano was not the hateful [ex-suitor] Marcello, but the young man to whom she had declared her love, whom she had married, and with whom she had decided to live forever, she assumed complete responsibility for her choice. 1Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name, trans. Ann Goldstein (New York: Europa Editions, 2013), 52.

Islam is often singled out as the inspiration for male violence in Middle Eastern communities; it is not. Religion masks and excuses male violence in doctrine; the real culprit is an ago-old culture of machismo, a culture which rewards aggressive and controlling male behavior at the expense of both sexes. It is visible everywhere but particularly prevalent in countries from the Middle East to the Mediterranean to Latin America, and today, it is the key that many activists, artists, and analysts are seeking to understand abusive patterns, from child marriage to domestic violence to prostitution rings. The Mexican journalist and activist Lydia Cacho, who investigates and campaigns against sex trafficking, voiced a plea for a universal change on Open Democracy three years ago: “We must address masculinity issues. We need men to question how they perceive violence as the only means of solving conflicts, because that is what they have been taught. We need men from around the globe to question each other’s view of manhood, of eroticism and their perception of women.”

In Turkey, a new film, Çekmeceler [Drawers], examines violence against women through the perspective of Turkey’s macho culture, specifically abuse as a by-product of repressive stereotypes foisted on Turkish men. It follows the true story of a girl blighted by her father’s obsession with her virginity, a father who constantly accuses her of masturbating and demands to see her underwear (or “drawers,” hence the English title, which is a pun on the wooden drawers which feature as a motif of compartmentalization and secrecy throughout the film). By the time the child, Deniz, reaches adulthood, her father Ayhan’s unrelenting predictions of promiscuity have pushed her over the edge—she gives up assuring him of her chastity and starts taking a vindictive pleasure in having sex with as many men as possible, in one memorable scene turning Ayhan’s framed photograph toward her bed in a gloating gesture of filial revenge. On her thirty-second birthday, she ends up in a psychiatric ward after attempting to circumcise herself.

Months later, she learns that her father has had a heart attack and rushes to his side, accompanied by her mother and her father’s mistress (both of whom have been abused—beaten and urinated on—by Ayhan). He is already dead, but in his hand he clutches a phallic-shaped piece of foam. In the chest of drawers above him are rows of similar pieces: only at the end do we learn that this man, so inexplicably cruel and paranoid, has been twisted by his own feelings of sexual inadequacy.

The film shocked and baffled critics, who half-heartedly compared the depiction of Deniz’s frenzied sexualization to Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac without tackling any of the darker taboos. I interviewed the film’s directors, Mehmet Binay and M. Caner Alper, who said that the media’s lack of coverage of the crucial issues voiced in the film, namely, male insecurity and its ramifications, reinforced the point they were making about silent but damaging social pressures. They were particularly struck by the fact that critics completely ignored the film’s final revelation that Ayhan suffered from micro-penis syndrome, a medical condition rarely discussed or even written about. Also taboo, and much more common, is small-penis complex, a psychological condition that affects men who are anxious about their penis size and often compensate with aggressive behavior. This anxiety is widespread and genuine, as evidenced by the global profusion of spam e-mails offering dubious penis enlargement devices, but is almost always referred to only in jest. Binay said that while filming Ayhan’s death scene, he had to repeatedly ask the crew to stop giggling while the actor, Taner Birsel, clutched his foam phallus, proof that even those professionally involved in delivering the film’s message struggled with the taboo.

It would be easy to accuse the film of a desire to shock, to overdramatize Ayhan’s abuse of his child with labored Freudian imagery. Nevertheless, the plot charts the personal experiences of a close friend of the directors (“Deniz”), and the details – including “Ayhan”’s micro-penis syndrome – have been corroborated by friends of her family. But beyond the specificities of Ayhan’s condition, his torture of himself and others reflects the pressures of Turkey’s patriarchal society to be a ‘man’, and all that that entails. As Binay puts it: “Masculine power, sexual competency, and potency are daunting pressures on every man in a society driven by masculinity. In many cases, the reason behind violence against women can be found in these.”

The obvious danger in this theory is that it can be seen to explain away—even to excuse—the father’s abuse, not only of his daughter but of the other women in his life. One has to carefully scrutinize a film that rationalizes a man’s violence against women via his own weaknesses, arousing the sympathy of the audience in the process. Yet there is surely nothing to be gained from a black and white reading of sexual abuse, a reading that paints the man as a villain beyond redemption and the woman as a victim beyond help, a pattern repeated ad infinitum. In a (hypothetically) more open, less judgmental world, Çekmeceler asks us to imagine an Ayhan that would not be so crushed by insecurities that he has to validate his masculinity by subjugating his lovers and dominating the sexuality of his daughter. It is legitimate to sympathize both with the women he abuses and with him, the abuser, diminished by an oppressively competitive masculine environment.

Last September, actress Emma Watson delivered a speech at the United Nations as part of the “He for She” campaign, in which she specifically spelled out the need to address gender stereotypes in order to tackle discrimination:

We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes, but I can see that they are, and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.

This last sentence seems to sum up Çekmeceler’s central message, and the messages of people like Cacho, who argues that sexual violence will not stop unless men become actively involved in changing their perceptions of themselves, as well as of women. The problem is that many men do not recognize themselves as victims of a patriarchal system—they are, theoretically, at the head of that pyramid. They recognize this even less when they belong to liberal, middle-class families, like the one portrayed in Çekmeceler. Alper says he understands why critics of his film refused to discuss the abuse in any depth. “We sometimes refuse to look at what is nearest to us.”

I watched the film with a Turkish friend, Selin. As we left the cinema, shell-shocked, I struggled to understand the film in light of its startling final revelation. Selin struggled less; she grew up in Istanbul and told me about the (still) common practice among Turkish families of showing off their young boys to visiting relatives: “They call the boy into the room, and he has to pull down his pants, poor thing, and show everyone. Then they discuss it, in front of him, like he’s not there.”

I gape. “What? That’s barbaric.” I grew up in a family of girls, and had never heard of this before. When I ask my Turkish mother later, she confirms it, and says in the community she grew up in, young girls experienced a similar evaluation—less invasive, but frequent appraisals of legs, arms, hands. “Children are totally objectified by their elders,” she told me. “No one thinks it is wrong, or even stops to consider it, it just continues through the generations.”

Reflecting on this phenomenon, on the trauma that must surely result from such childhood experience, as well as the tyranny of its ordinariness, I realize how important it is for films like Çekmeceler to be made. Perhaps Turkey is not ready to absorb such films—yet. But when men of all backgrounds take out their frustrations on the women closest to them, often fatally, surely the time is long overdue to tackle the grotesque social repressions that contribute to the problem. Fifty years from now, I do not want to read about another woman killed for her cooking.