Turkey takes a step backwards on violence against women

Turkey takes a step backwards on violence against women

Feminist groups protest Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention in the Turkish city after which the treaty is named, on 1 July 2020.

(Marga Zambrana)

When it passed a series of laws on gender equality in the 1920s and 1930s, giving women among other things the right to vote, Turkey was far ahead of its time. Many women in Western countries wondered then why they were worth less than women in Turkey.

Almost a century ago, the Republic of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk embarked on a radical project of secularisation and westernisation which freed women from Islamic law and placed them in the centre of social life. Polygamy was banned and women were granted the right to divorce, to custody, to education and to inheritance. Women were freed from the harem and allowed into the ballrooms where they could dance with men in public. Atatürk even set an example of integration within his own family: one of his adopted daughters, Sabiha Gökçen, became the world’s first female fighter pilot in 1937. Five decades later, in 1983, Turkey legalised abortion, once again ahead of many Western democracies.

Contrary to orientalist stereotypes of Turkey in the West or the idealised vision of the Ottoman Empire evoked by today’s conservative and religious factions in Turkey, the groundwork for women’s liberation was laid in the Ottoman Empire a century earlier with a series of surprising reforms to inheritance and education law.

In keeping with that tradition, Turkey hosted the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention in 2011 and became the first out of a total of 45 mostly European countries to sign the first binding agreement against violence against women and domestic violence, regardless of sexual orientation (safeguards for LGBTI people are included in the Convention), based on prevention, protection, taxation and integrated policies. Ankara ratified the Convention and passed its own corresponding Law 6284 in 2012.

Then, Turkey became the first country to leave the treaty.

“We don’t want to be killed!”

On 1 July 2021, the effective date of Turkey’s withdrawal from the Convention, thousands of women demonstrated in the country’s largest cities. The slogans on their signs included “Enforce the Istanbul Convention. Let’s put an end to femicide” and “Turkey is a giant cemetery for women.”

Amidst a sea of multi-coloured flags, lilac masks, rainbows, loudspeakers and drums, some signs displayed photographs of a dozen or so recently murdered women. Demonstrations by Turkish feminists and LGBTI activists, long a fixture on Istanbul’s famous Istiklal Avenue, have become increasingly fierce since current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began his Islamist and conservative drift more than a decade ago.

“I’m here because I don’t want any women to die in Turkey. If they withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, no woman will be safe here,” says Sibel, a 23-year-old demonstrator.

“We’re here to defend our rights as women because they want to take them away from us, same as with the LGBTI community. It’s so scary now to be a woman in Turkey [more so for non-heterosexual women]. No one is protecting us,” says another protester, Zeynep, 19, carrying a rainbow flag on her shoulders.

The previous week, police had attacked the Pride Parade in Istanbul and other Turkish cities with surprising levels of violence, making 47 arrests, the highest number on record. This comes at a time when attacks on the LGBTI community are increasing.

Gone are the days of the 2013 Pride Parade following the massive anti-government protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, which saw 100,000 LGBTI demonstrators, the largest number ever in a Muslim-majority country.

On 1 July, Turkish LGBTI lawyer and activist Yasemin Öz, co-founder of the Kaos Gay and Lesbian Association, spoke about the negative consequences of her country’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention at the Generation Equality Forum in Paris in front of French President Emmanuel Macron.

“There were no other speakers from Turkey at the opening ceremony,” Öz told Equal Times. The forum brought together leaders from government, including US Vice President Kamala Harris, and the private sector and local and international NGOs to discuss gender equality strategies. “The fact that they invited a feminist and LGBTI activist instead of a senior Turkish official is kind of a diplomatic message from international leaders about which side they support,” she continues.

As Öz explains, Turkey’s Law 6284 represents “a vital measure for preventing domestic violence.”

“Women are done obeying the patriarchal roles imposed on them for centuries. They want equality. But those roles won’t be changed overnight. A lot of men resist change and put even more pressure on women. This pressure shouldn’t exist. The Istanbul Convention and global human rights standards provide a message and a roadmap to help build equality,” she adds.

As the president has no legal authority to pull the country out of international treaties, the Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, had the final say on withdrawal. But according to analysts, the court yielded to a political decision, a further sign of erosion of the separation of powers.

An increase in gender-based violence

The deterioration of women’s rights has become increasingly evident. “Especially over the last 15 years. For decades women have struggled and have ultimately been able to gain rights such as voting, the right to stand for elections [passive suffrage], education, property and work. But women are now once again being forced back into the private sphere,” says Nuray Karaoğlu, president of KA.DER.

Her organisation supports female candidates seeking political office. The name kader, which means ‘destiny’ in Turkish, was deliberately chosen by the women of the group who wish to write their own destiny. KA.DER recently conducted a street survey beginning with the question “What is feminism?” The answers they received ranged from ignorant to derisive: “misogyny,” “spinsters who ask for rights because they can’t take care of themselves,” “the rights being demanded by strange women who live with cats.”

Feminist organisations fear that withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention will also place law 6284 in jeopardy and they predict a continued increase in violence against women. According to Öz, the consequences started becoming clear immediately following withdrawal from the treaty, with some police stations and courts rejecting complaints from women who had suffered gender-based violence.

Indications that the law may eventually be repealed came in March, when Turkey’s Council of Judges and Prosecutors decided that restraining orders under Law 6284 must be assessed in a way that does not endanger the perpetrator’s health, leaving battered women unprotected in the midst of a pandemic in clear violation of the aforementioned law.

Statistics indicate that violence against women has been increasing in Turkey since Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

According to the Justice Ministry, murders of women increased by 1,400 per cent, from 66 to 953, between 2002 and 2009. A 2009 study also revealed that 42 per cent of Turkish women between the ages of 15 and 60 had suffered physical or sexual violence at the hands of their husbands or partners.

The 2021 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Turkey 133 out of 156 countries.

Recent years have seen an average of 400 femicides a year. In 2018, 440 women were murdered, a quarter at the hands of their husbands. In 2019, the number was 474, the highest in a decade. Most of the killers were partners or family members.

According to the We Will End Femicide platform, the most recent figures are inconclusive. In 2020, the courts registered 300 femicides, though another 171 women were killed under suspicious circumstances, some of which were ruled to be suicides.

Some of these alleged suicides have caused public outcry. In 2018, 23-year-old Şule Çet was raped and thrown from a window by her boss and his friend in the Ankara office where she worked. The killers claimed that she had committed suicide. The court ignored forensic evidence of strangulation, anal tearing and sedatives from the victim’s autopsy. Only after the murdered woman’s family and feminist organisations called for nationwide demonstrations did the courts reopen the case and sentence the two men to 18 years and a life sentence respectively in 2019.

Also in 2018, 35-year-old Ayten Kaya was found hanging in her home in Diyarbakir. The prosecutor concluded that it was a suicide and closed the case. But her relatives do not accept this version: the autopsy did not record the time of death and her body was covered with bruises that had occurred three days before she was found hanging, corresponding with the last time her husband, a seasonal worker, had been home.

The conservative drift: how Turkey got here

Over his two decades in power, President Erdoğan has played several sides, performing a juggling act that does not always work out to his benefit. While he sent Europe a positive sign by supporting the signing of the Istanbul Convention in 2011, he has subsequently fed his voters populism and a return to Islamic conservatism. Some analysts suggest that this could be a strategy to divert attention away from the deep economic crisis his country is suffering. The AKP, which has already lost Istanbul’s mayoralty, needs the support of conservative and nationalist factions who see human rights as an imposition from the West.

In recent years, Erdoğan has urged women to have at least three children, accused feminists of not understanding that “God created women for men,” referred to birth control as “treason” and to abortion as “murder.”

His acolytes in both the government and the press argue that the Istanbul Convention undermined the “Turkish family institution” and “normalised homosexuality,” as presidential spokesperson Fahrettin Altun said in a statement. Altun insists that fighting violence against women will remain on the government’s agenda.

But as Öz argues, the Istanbul Convention has not improved the situation of the LGBTI community but was in fact the only legal document prohibiting discrimination against it.

As Erdoğan’s push for a return to traditional Islamic family values plays out across the country, some cities have issued “marriage guides” which state that beating women is a good means of conflict resolution, that women should not talk while having sex as “this will lead to the child developing a stutter,” and that it is okay for 10-year-old girls to get married.

Although the majority of Turkey’s population initially opposed withdrawal from the treaty thanks to the tireless activism of feminist and LGBTI groups, a recent survey has shown that Erdoğan’s words have influenced not only his supporters but also opposition voters.

While in July 2020 63 per cent of the population opposed withdrawal from the treaty and only 17 per cent supported it, by March 2021 opposition had shrunk to 53 per cent and support for withdrawal had increased to 27 per cent.

The majority of the Convention’s detractors can be found among AKP voters, Islamist groups and right-wing nationalists. According to the Turkish Constitution, “the family is the smallest unit of society,” which is why these groups want to maintain control over women and children.

This religious ideology and the propaganda supporting withdrawal from the Convention have been disseminated and institutionalised by the Directorate of Religious Affairs, the Ministry of Family and Social Services – which described the increase in violence against women during the Covid-19 pandemic as “tolerable” – and government-organised non-profits. One such organisation, the Women and Democracy Association (KADEM) founded by Erdoğan’s daughter Sümeyye, until recently supported the Convention as a tool against violence against women but pulled their support when Erdoğan announced withdrawal last March.

While Erdoğan’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention has caused harm to both gender equality policy and human rights, it has also damaged his position on the international stage.

His decision provoked harsh condemnations from US President Joe Biden, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, among others.

But by becoming the first country to invoke Article 80 of the Convention, which allows signing parties to denounce it, Turkey has also set a negative precedent for several European countries whose conservative and populist governments advocate for the defence of traditional family values. These include Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary, which have suspended ratification of the Convention, and Poland, which is considering withdrawal.

But feminists in Turkey are not giving up hope. As KA.DER founder Şirin Tekeli insists: “the 21st century will be the century of women.” Öz adds: “We only have one life and we are determined to live it now.”

This article has been translated from Spanish by Brandon Johnson