ISKENDERUN, Turkey – A vicious acid attack perpetrated by a man on his ex-girlfriend in Turkey which severely disfigured her face and left her partially blind has triggered a wave of solidarity with her and criticism of the government for its lack of measures against sexist violence.
Berfin Ozek was ambushed by her alleged assailant Casim Ozan Celtik who threw sulfuric acid in her face as she returned home in Iskenderun, southern Turkey, after a day spent studying.
“I didn’t deserve this, this is not my face,” she said. “This is the face of the disgrace of our society.”
The attack took place on January 15 and images recorded by a security camera showed how Celtik, who was arrested hours after the attack and is currently on trial, grabbed Ozek and threw a liter and a half of acid at her, melting her skin and causing her to lose the sight in one eye and partially blinding the other.
“l got off the bus then l was walking to home. Meanwhile l was looking at my phone and l saw someone,” she said. “I thought he will pass then l looked at his face. He tried to grab my phone. And then he started to pour the bottle of sulfuric acid on my face. Then he ran away. At that time it was hard for me to breath.”
Her assailant had been harassing Ozek since she ended their relationship a year earlier.
Ozek was immediately hospitalized for four months but since then has had to return to live at home, in a slum neighborhood of her seaside hometown of Iskenderun.
Ozek wants to study psychology at college but has had to leave school, so a social media campaign was launched to support her, bringing her situation to the attention of a wider public.
Shortly after the attack, the Women of Iskenderun social platform launched a solidarity campaign to help raise funds and its actions reached the Turkish Parliament where the government, in the hands of the AKP Islamist party, said it would cover the costs of the medical treatment.
The Ministry of Health said it would step in to offer financial aid for her treatment in a private hospital since her family could not afford the price of reconstructive surgery.
The 19-year-old has said that she hoped to recover some of her former appearance and is about to begin surgical treatment that will last a year and a half and see her undergo at least five operations.
“After a few months, Berfin has recovered her spirit and strength, she found a good surgeon who will take charge of her case,” Ozek’s lawyer, Mehtap Sert, told EFE by telephone.
“It is not a question of aesthetics, but one of male violence,” Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said during his visit to Ozek in a hospital.
Koca said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was “following this case closely.”
While acid attacks are not common in Turkey – there have been a dozen in the last decade – this case has spurred great controversy in Turkish society which has interpreted it as an escalation of violence against women.
“Attacks against women are on the rise because no preventive action is being undertaken by the government,” Sert said. “Many cases of attacks, rape or harassment against women are ignored by the authorities.”
Several newspapers critical of the government have seen in this case a means of pointing out the lack of progress in the fight against male aggression.
Even media that tends to follow an official line have criticized the situation, albeit in a more generic way and without pointing to the executive as being responsible.
During the traditional Women’s Day rally on March 8, Ozek’s case was cited in placards and slogans as protesters denounced the attacks and murders of women at the hands of their partners or ex-partners.
According to the “We’ll Stop Femicide” social platform, 440 women were killed through gender violence in 2018, while 141 women were murdered and hundreds assaulted by men in the first four months of 2019.
Women rights organizations are campaigning to pressure Erdogan’s government to enforce laws protecting women’s rights in Turkey.
They have denounced the difficulties in documenting the increase in violence against women because the authorities do not publish official data, although figures from several NGOs reveal that femicide and aggression are up to three times higher than in other European countries.
“Thanks to the people who are supporting and trying to help me,” Ozek said.