It is not exactly news that woman assault is an epidemic in countries everywhere around the world. Male partners routinely escalate their violent ways when their spouses threaten to leave the relationship. Women are often killed when they attempt to flee–hence the title of this documentary, Dying to Divorce.
But even those most well-versed in the facts and figures regarding violence against women will gain some valuable insights via this film. Director Chloe Fairweather details not only the appalling cases of two women severely damaged by their male partners, she makes connection between authoritarian regimes, the toxic masculinity they promote, and the inevitability of wife assault.
The location is Turkey, where President Erdoğan is seeking to increase his powers via referendum and using his well-equipped police to suppress the opposition. In an infamous speech, a snippet of which appears at the film’s outset, he celebrates the innate inequality between and men and women, allowing at the same time that men should kiss their mothers’ feet.
One in three Turkish women experience wife assault, the highest ratio among all economically developed countries. Lawyer Ipek Bozkurt, a leading activist with the group We Will Stop Femicide, is shown representing two wife assault survivors. When Arzu asked her husband for a divorce, he shot both her legs and one arm so that she can’t use them. Kübra had an argument with her husband that so infuriated him he hit her on the back of the head four times causing severe brain damage. Her mind works, but her speech is impaired. In both cases, the attackers claimed innocence and as the cases drag on, easily get custody of their children because the mothers are too injured to care for them.
The cases and the women’s struggle for justice unfold as Erdoğan leads his 2016 coup and mounts his campaigns to bolster his powers. All political protest is banned. Police in riot gear shut down a a major International Women’s Day march, even though, and this is important, it never explicitly addresses Erdoğan’s authoritarian overreach. As the referendum nears, Bozkurt’s friends, including feminists, are labeled terrorists and rounded up by Turkish police.
Another incident most pointedly demonstrates the link between Erdoğan and woman abuse. One perpetrator argues that he would never hurt the mother of his children. “How could I do that,” he argues. “We should kiss mothers’ feet.”
I wish that Fairweather were more skilled at shooting photos on cell phones. Images designed to demonstrate women’s injuries fail to register. But it’s a small problem in a film with a passionate premise, a sophisticated political analysis and incredibly courageous women.
Dying to Divorce premieres at Hot Docs 2021.