Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, pp. 50-51
By Jonathan Gorvett
BACK IN 2011, Turkey became the first country in Europe to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Combating and Preventing Violence Against Women, now commonly known as the Istanbul Convention.
Back in 2011, too, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) was instrumental in getting that convention through the Turkish parliament.
On Aug. 13 this year, however, that exact same convention was described by that exact same Turkish leader as “putting dynamite in the foundations of the family”—and then cast it as foreign, Western interference in Turkish affairs. At the time of writing, Erdogan was thus poised to take the country he and his party have ruled for the past 18 years out of the convention altogether.
Much has changed in the politics of Turkey and the wider region since 2011. Yet, one thing that has not changed is the pandemic of violence against women. “In the last couple of months,” says Milena Buyum, Amnesty International’s senior Turkey campaigner, “we’ve seen 60 women killed by men in Turkey—or around one per day.”
While no country on earth can boast of a good record when it comes to violence against women—a recent UK survey found one-in-four women experience some form of male violence during their lives—one murder per day is around three times the average for Germany, a country of similar population size.
Indeed, according to data compiled by the independent Turkish press agency Bianet, in 2019 alone, some 328 women were killed by men in Turkey, with more than half of them killed by their husbands or ex-husbands. This does not include some 134 “suspicious deaths” that may well also have been a result of male violence.
Femicides in 2019 were also up 29 percent from 2018, while other forms of male violence—rape, harassment and violence against children—were up 27 percent.
This year has also seen some particularly shocking media reports of femicides, including most recently in July, the brutal slaying of 27-year-old Pinar Gultekin by her married boyfriend in the Aegean province of Mugla. “From secular women to conservative women, from working women to not working, women are angry,” Melek Onder, from the Istanbul-based campaign group, We Will Stop Femicide, told media after a demonstration in Izmir triggered by Gultekin’s murder.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, support for the convention—which is the first piece of legislation worldwide to mandate signatory governments take action against violence against women—stretches across Turkey’s political divide. Conservative, pro-Islamist AKP women have mobilized in its support, as well as their more secular sisters, with large demonstrations held in recent months defending the legislation.
Yet, President Erdogan remains hostile to the convention; his recent about-face playing into a series of other recent U-turns by the president toward conservative and nationalist positions. From his turning the 1,500-year old basilica of Hagia Sophia back into a mosque to recent pronouncements calling for the banning of “non-Turkish” words from the language, these moves may shore up his conservative, male support base—but may come with a heavy price amongst his female supporters.
The Istanbul Convention came out of a series of meetings and debates among the 47 member states of the Council of Europe (COE). This body, founded in 1949, includes the 27 European Union (EU) members, plus a range of non-EU states, stretching from the UK to Azerbaijan. Turkey joined in 1950.
The convention is the world’s first to characterize violence against women as an infringement of human rights and in criminalizing both psychological and physical violence and intimidation. It also obliges signatories not only to address incidents of violence against women, but also to implement preventive strategies.
This has been far from uncontroversial, however, with 11 COE states still having failed to ratify the convention, as of time of writing—including the UK. Major campaigns against it have also been mounted by conservatives in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland.
“There is a perception, a received wisdom in Western countries that it is Muslim countries like Turkey that are repressive against women,” says Buyum, “but other countries, like Poland, where religion has a powerful place, are further down the road to leaving the convention than Turkey is.”
Conservatives across the COE states have found the convention’s definition of gender as “socially constructed roles,” particularly infuriating.
In 2018, the Bulgarian Constitutional Court ruled against the treaty on the grounds that, “If society loses its ability to distinguish between a woman and a man, combating violence against women would remain a formal yet futile commitment.” The AKP’s deputy leader, Numan Kurtulmus, echoed this sentiment in a July TV interview when he said that signing the convention “was wrong” because of “two critical issues…One of them is gender rights; the other is sexual orientation rights.”
The convention, however, makes just one reference to LGBT+ rights, stating that there should be no discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.
The other line of attack by conservatives has been a nationalist one. “I am of the opinion that we are highly capable of drafting texts which honor human dignity, put the family at the center and which are appropriate for our social fabric,” President Erdogan said on Aug. 13. “Instead of translated texts, we need to determine our own.”
Such arguments have been widespread in other, European rejectionist countries, too.
MATTERS OF “HONOR”
Nonetheless, Turkey does have some specific problems. One example is that courts will often accept the defense of “provocation” when it comes to violence against women and against members of the LGBT+ community.
“Honor killings”—when a woman is thought to have disgraced the family’s “honor” by her actions—are also often looked on leniently by the judicial authorities.
Earlier this year, the AKP also attempted to reintroduce to parliament a bill, which it had itself overturned in 2004, that stated if a rapist married the woman he raped, then he would be set free. The bill, however, was halted due to protests that included outspoken statements from AKP women. They have also spoken out against attempts to leave the Istanbul Convention.
“Making the convention a target like this means ignoring the real causes [of murders of women],” an Aug. 1 statement from the Women and Democracy Association (KADEM) read. KADEM’s vice president is Sumeyye Erdogan—the Turkish president’s daughter.
As a sign of how divisive the issue is, a meeting of the AKP’s executive to discuss leaving the convention, originally set for Aug. 5, was postponed to Aug. 13, but failed to convene. At time of writing, no new date for this discussion had been set, giving women campaigners hope that the government will not take any further steps.
“Turkey is deteriorating in terms of its rights and freedoms,” says Bianet’s Selay Dalakli. “If we withdraw, it would be a significant further step, as women will lose their assigned rights. But I don’t believe Turkey can really do this.”
Many in Turkey—and elsewhere—are hoping so, too.
Jonathan Gorvett is a free-lance writer specializing on European and Middle Eastern affairs.
Biden Proposes Interfering in Turkish Politics
Video of an interview New York Times editors held with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in December 2019 resurfaced in August, causing a stir in Turkey. In the video, Biden said the U.S. ought to work with Turkish opposition parties to unseat long-time President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Washington should “embolden them [the opposition] to be able to take on and defeat Ergodan—not by a coup, not by a coup—but by the electoral process,” he told the Times. Ankara swiftly condemned the former vice president’s remarks as “interventionist.”
That Biden so casually suggested interfering in Turkish elections at a time when his own campaign is incensed about foreign intervention in U.S. elections shows the extent to which interventionism is deeply ingrained in U.S. foreign policy. Biden and other members of the bipartisan foreign policy elite need to realize that their foreign meddling is no more justifiable than interference operations run by Russia, China or any other country.