Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


Alyson Cole

Committee Members

Paisley Currah

Carol C. Gould

Leonard Feldman

Eylem Ümit Atılgan

Subject Categories

Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Political Science | Political Theory | Women's Studies


Femicide, Turkey, Biopolitics, Gender-based Violence, Speech Acts, Provocation Defense


This dissertation investigates femicide (i.e., the murder of women enabled by institutionalized gender norms) as a structural, rather than an interpersonal problem. Applying the insights of the critical femicide literature to the understudied case of Turkey, it seeks to understand the contemporary origins and operations of deadly gender-based violence in contexts where the state pledges to protect all citizens’ lives. Rather than scrutinize why males kill females, I problematize institutional processes that render women disposable by asking how. How is killing women with impunity normalized, enabled, and institutionalized? What roles do state apparatuses and agents play in perpetuating femicide? What is the relationship between the sovereign’s political right and the masculine “right to kill”? Post-2002 Turkey, where authoritarian politics and heterosexist gender ideology are intertwined, provides a critical case study to answer these questions.

Hundreds of women are killed annually in Turkey. Despite skyrocketing femicide rates in the country, state actors fail to institute necessary measures to prevent it. Tolerance of perpetrators, victim-blaming, the lack of access to justice for the disadvantaged, and negligence are defining characteristics of Turkey’s femicidal context, where the anti-violence laws and international conventions’ provisions are not implemented effectively, and gender-based violence is not prosecuted thoroughly. This situation is exacerbated by a conservative government that seeks to replace moderate egalitarian laws and policies with regressive ones, which put women further at risk (e.g., making it more difficult to report violence). These institutional practices are legitimated by the ruling elites’ frequent public statements, which reconstruct the standards of feminine propriety, promote conventional gender norms, and reinforce gender hierarchy. This institutional and discursive context leads perpetrators to think that it is their “right to kill” women who do not comply with their ascribed gender roles.

Documenting and theorizing the processes that enable the killing of women without significant social or legal repercussions, I develop an engaged theory of femicide. I propose that femicide is a systemic violation of women’s right to life enabled by a specific exercise of state power, which I term, letting kill. “Letting” signifies deliberate acts by the representatives of the state’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches, which do not kill women, but permit others to do so. Thus, my theorization of letting kill highlights that the state actors who do the “letting,” and individual perpetrators who do the “killing,” are equally implicated in the crime of femicide. Though the state actors do not singlehandedly cause the problem of gender-based violence, they create the conditions that facilitate it through material institutional practices that increase women’s precarity, discursive practices that justify gender hierarchy and violence, and criminal justice practices that institutionalize gender norms and materialize impunity. Cumulatively, these practices create a femicidal feedback loop, signaling to perpetrators that violence against women has institutional legitimacy. The first chapter lays out this theoretical framework, contending that letting kill is an exercise of biopolitical sovereignty that exposes already vulnerable populations (women, in the case of femicide) to violence committed by actors other than the sovereign itself.

The following chapter focuses on the first pillar of letting kill, material practices of state institutions that risk women’s lives. I call the entirety of these practices governing through gender—a governmental strategy that helps the ruling elites address crime, as well as other social and political problems, gain the support of their constituencies, and avert the crises of legitimacy by deploying and strengthening gender norms that put women at risk. When this technique of governance is deployed by lower-level bureaucrats, it effectively suspends the law by failing to implement national and international regulations or by implementing them in ways that exacerbate the problem of gender-based violence. At higher bureaucratic levels, governing through gender takes the form of policies that prioritize the institution of the family over women’s safety and legislation that revokes/replaces the laws that were in place to secure gender equality and deter violence. In the aggregate, gendered governmentality often amounts to ineffective anti-crime policies, moralizes and individualizes a political problem, and presents strengthening conventional gender roles and the heterosexual family as the solution to gender-based violence.

The third chapter focuses on the ideological framework that legitimizes these institutional practices, as well as the act of killing. It concentrates on political speech that reproduces the discourses of feminine propriety and its role in rendering women disposable. Drawing from Austin’s theory of speech acts, I examine the performative consequences of politicians’ statements. These consequences include creating further discursive opportunities that jeopardize women’s safety, informing institutional practices or the lack thereof, and influencing the listening subjects’ reactions. Based on a critical discourse analysis of politicians’ gender-related declarations, I build a theory of the speaking state, which illustrates the operations of the state’s speech that blurs the line between the symbolic and the material. I argue that these speech acts contribute to an economy of disposability by magnifying the valence of dominant gender norms and reassuring their audience that gender hierarchy is both desirable and necessary. They demonstrate certain masculine performances to correct improper performances of femininity rather than deterring similar or more violent practices by citizens.

The final chapter analyzes the last pillar of letting kill, criminal justice practices. I argue that by interacting with perpetrators, victims, lawyers, and families, criminal courts institutionalize the norms of feminine propriety and materialize impunity. Penalty reductions based on provocation defenses are among the most criticized criminal justice practices since they create a culture of impunity, instructing perpetrators about how to defend murdering women in ways that secure them favor in the eyes of judges. While I concur with these critics, I stress that penal responses, i.e., securing higher punishments, would not solve the problem of femicide. Sentencing practices constitute only one aspect of the problem of femicide since criminal courts also reproduce gender hierarchy in their decisions that do not treat perpetrators leniently.

Taken together, these chapters demonstrate that femicide is an inherently political crime both in the feminist (pertaining to gendered power relations) and Weberian (concerning state power and institutions) senses of the term. My theory of letting kill contributes to the efforts to expand the boundaries of the discipline of political science, which has broadly failed to recognize gender-based violence as a “political” phenomenon.

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