Istanbul Convention: Violence, Women and Turkey by Sevgi Doğan

Turkey’s future is quite gloomy. Every day, with new news and new unimaginable political initiatives, Turkey is moving further back from where it has reached. Pessimism, aporia, opposition’s political impotence and lack of foresight, scaremongering are leading the country expeditiously into dark times. this situation as well is dragging this unique country to nowhere. As president R. T. Erdogan and his politics is heading to the bottom, he is taking the country with him. It seems that Turkey will not get out of there without seeing its worst. But while we are already paying heavy prices, this weight may become more intolerable and the consequences may be unexpectedly violent. The new political tactics or strategy stemming from the Hagia Sophia debate has now taken its place on the agenda with the Istanbul Convention. Is the ever changing political agenda due to an effort to hide the dark side of the economy? What is the Istanbul convention? Why did it show up just now? Why has the Convention – signed by the AKP itself – now become a debated topic? Can it be read as one of the steps of authoritarian governments to gradually eliminate democratic declarations thus evolving into a totalitarian and fascist shape? Which reason would likely be able to get out of Istanbul Convention while domestic violence against women has increased in different parts of the world as one of the dramatic consequences of the Covid-19 during lockdown? What does it mean Turkey’s will to exit from the Convention at this dramatic time when its protection is more needed? Are there any logical reasons for Turkey’s demand for this exit?

What is Istanbul Convention?

“The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence” is called Istanbul Convention because it was signed in Istanbul which began to be discussed on May 2011 and entered into force on the 1st of August 2014. It is the first international convention which has aimed at protecting women’s right among the legal framework opposing violence against women. . It was signed by 45 of the Council of Europe Member States and sanctioned by 34 of them. Turkey is the first country ratifying when it was opened for signatures. The convention is made up of 80 articles. The first article states that “The purposes of this Convention are to: a) protect women against all forms of violence, and prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence; b) contribute to the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and promote substantive equality between women and men, including by empowering women; c) design a comprehensive framework, policies and measures for the protection of and assistance to all victims of violence against women and domestic violence; d) promote international cooperation with a view to eliminating violence against women and domestic violence; e) provide support and assistance to organisations and law enforcement agencies to effectively cooperate in order to adopt an integrated approach to eliminating violence against women and domestic violence.”

Since the 1990s, the Council of Europe began to make many attempts to protect women against violence. After years of studies and research, the conclusion was that women exposed to violence in any place should be protected and should benefit from this protection at the same level, and that a number of legal standards should be established. In 2008, a group of experts formed by the committee of Justice Ministers of the Council of Europe began to work on the first draft of the International Convention to prevent violence against women and domestic violence. In 2010, the first draft was ready and it was opened for signing in 2011. 34 countries, including Turkey, signed, ratified and implemented the convention. 12 countries signed the convention but did not implement it. The European Union signed it in 2017. The Convention mandates that the prevention of violence against women must turn into a state policy. It also suggests that preventing and forestalling violence against women can be made possible by gender equality.

So far, no country has demanded an exit from the convention. In recent days, many countries have been demanding to withdraw from the convention, Turkey included. Among these countries, apart from Poland, there are Croatia and Serbia. In Poland, there were manifestations against the demand of leaving the Istanbul Convention and the same occurred in Turkey. The Istanbul Convention became the target of nationalist, conservative and populist rhetoric in Poland. The fundamental discourse does not change on a global level: it is seen as a threat to the traditional family structure. If one takes a look at the motivation of ratification, we can see their anti-gender aspect:

“In May 2020, the Hungarian legislature refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention, objecting to its definition of gender as “socially constructed.” [Guardian] Latvia’s Constitutional Court is examining the Istanbul Convention’s compatibility with the country’s constitution, following delays in its ratification. [Baltic News Network] Bulgaria’s Constitutional Court held, in 2018, that the Convention was not compatible with its domestic legislation with regard to the definition of gender, and Bulgaria has not ratified the treaty. [NYT: Poland] The United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women described Bulgaria’s interpretation of the Convention’s definition of gender as a “misinterpretation” and urged it to reconsider. [OHCHR Press Release] Slovakia’s legislature, in November 2019, also rejected ratification of the Convention. [COE Newsroom: Slovak Republic] The COE Commissioner for Human Rights has recently urged Moldova to proceed with its stalled ratification process. [COE Press Release].

Poland’s and Turkey’s will to leave the convention, which regards violence against women as a matter of human rights, can have serious and dangerous consequences. Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić expressed her explicit concerns:

“Announcements by government officials that Poland should withdraw from the Istanbul Convention are alarming. The Istanbul Convention is the Council of Europe‘s key international treaty to combat violence against women and domestic violence – and that is its sole objective. If there are any misconceptions or misunderstandings about the Convention, we are ready to clarify them in a constructive dialogue. Leaving the Istanbul Convention would be highly regrettable and a major step backwards in the protection of women against violence in Europe.”

In Turkey, too, ultra-conservative and religious groups are pushing Turkey to move towards the same path. The main objection to the Istanbul Convention is shaped around gender issue and gender equality. The Conservatives want to leave the Istanbul Convention because of their anti-gender equality stances. In Turkey, women have fought and struggled for too long in order to obtain their rights. And now they are faced with the risk of losing these rights they obtained after long struggles.

A short history of women’s struggle in Turkey

“The Istanbul Convention is born out of women’s blood.”

Turkey is divided into two different positions about the Convention. On the one hand, there are those claiming that it might destroy “the” family, on the other hand there are others considering it as an achievement. These cleavage can be observed within the conservative wing too. To put it differently, AKP’s (The Justice and Development Party, president Erdogan’s political party) own base is not unanimous. Among those who have ratified the convention there is president Erdogan’s daughter, Sümeyye Erdoğan Bayraktar who is the vice presidency of KADEM (Association for Woman and Democracy). KADEM announced its support for the Istanbul Convention. Those who are in favor of democratic progress within the AKP or within the conservative faction, to say those who have no issues vis-à-vis the Republic oppose the withdrawal agenda. indeed, some religious associations and congregations are pressing the government to opt out of the Convention, always promoting otherization, polarization, authorization, and enmity. Why to rush away from the implementation of a convention enabling to face these terrible realities and take precautions while women’s murder is every day on the spot , while violence results in murder, while the epidemic has increased violence and women’s murder? Withdrawing from the contract would mean 1) to strengthen Turkey’s anti-democratic and anti-law dimension, thus approaching totalitarianism; 2) that the state would be exempt from obligation on violence against women and domestic violence.

Women’s organizations or feminist NGO, on the contrary, see the Convention as an unquestionable achievement. Women’s struggle to obtain their rights in Turkey has its own particular history, and although it would be difficult to be explained here, we can briefly recall it. The women’s movement dates back to the late Ottoman period. Women’s rights to be elected and to elect were officially gained in 1934, although it is thought that these rights were obtained by the establishment of the Republic, the struggle for women at the end of the Ottoman period had already taken its place on the stage. Since the 1870s, in relation to the West, Ottoman women have made some claims: rights first of all, such as the right to education, the demand for the end of polygamous marriage, the right to speak and to write, the demand to be respected within the family, and the right to work. During this period, women began to issue their own magazines, write their own novels using their own names, engage in discussions with men and form associations. Although some reforms were made in the military and state level like Tanzimat reforms (1839-1876) during the late Ottoman period, men were very conservative about reforms and women criticized them for their attitude.

By the twentieth century, the women’s struggle had grown stronger. The number of women’s associations increased. Under the Young Turks’rule, women gained the right to study at the university, to become civil servants and to work in factories. In 1917, due to the Russian Revolution impact, the family decree of 1917 restricted polygamy for the first time in the Muslim world and divorce rights began to be enjoyed. Voting rights were claimed in 1919 as well. After the establishment of the Republic, they wished to give birth to a political party called ‘Women’s People Party’, but they were only allowed to constitute an association under the name of the ‘Union of Turkish Women’. Thanks to the latter, the struggle started during the Ottoman period did not stop during the Republican era. The early years of the Republic were a political period dominated by one-party rule. Women who gained their civil rights in 1926 and the rights to elect and be elected between 1930 and 1934 were restricted like other organizations and they were closed in 1935. However, they won the voting rights and gave the Parliament its first deputy. After this period, however, only with the strengthening and increasing of the left in 1975 the women’s movement took its place in the class struggle. By the 1980s, a new women’s movement, the second wave of the feminist movement, came into the picture. Many achievements were made thanks to the women’s movement in Turkey: reforms in the Civil Code, bringing the establishment of women’s shelters against domestic violence to the agenda, discussing topics such as domestic violence, rape, virginity control, sexual harassment, honour killings, etc. Therefore, current discourses not included in the Convention cannot threaten the aforementioned goals. This would be another intimidating remark to the women’s struggle in Turkey and to Turkish democracy and legal system. Nowadays, women struggle for themselves, their self, or their personality to become accepted or recognized in society. Although they have gained some rights, the patriarchal system seems the main great obstacle to overcome, since without eliminating or overthrowing it, the conservative mentality will always appearas a costant feature.

Misanthropy and misogyny of AKP’s intellectuals

At the manifestation in Istanbul on Wednesday, women expressed their concern with the following slogans: “The Istanbul Convention is born out of women’s blood,” and “We will not allow femicides.” One of the reasons for the controversy over the Istanbul Convention is the rapid rise in domestic violence cases in the country in the past few months. These incidents of violence increased exponentially, especially during the AKP government and since 2012, the number of cases which have required a protection order is 1 million 608 thousand 657. The rate of the women exposed to violence was 39, 3 %. “In 2020, 235 women in Turkey have been killed. In 2019, 417 died in domestic violence cases, according to activist reports.

Then it becomes important to stress why they desire to exit from the Convention. Those supporting this position endure to declare that it does not coincide with traditional values and family structure. They also claim that the convention supports LGBT lifestyle. Among them there are the AKP’s organic intellectuals and AKP’s general president Numan Kurtulmuş According to him, the main problem concerning the Convention are gender and sexual orientation issues. Furthermore, in his view, this convention supports marginal elements such as LGBT and gives them space to operate. He believes that it damages amily and its values. However, there is no clause or expression in the Convention relating to LGBT. But by using society’s sensitivity to this issue, the Convention is being rendered worthless. The Convention emphasizes systematic violence against women, while noting the role of the state in taking measures against misogyny. However, AKP’s approach to the violence against women is based on their aspect of misogyny which represents their general political attitude fostering misanthropy whereas Islam is based on philanthropy including women and children.

Turkey Thinking Platform in which there is conservative, ultra-reactionary and religious Turkish writer Abdurahman Dilipak in particular demanded the government to leave the Convention.He said in one of his speech that “We believe that such a Convention is not in accordance with human rights or the consent of Allah in terms of our own values, and that there is a deception in terms of human rights, and that it is a contract that makes matters worse while trying to be helpful. If a new convention is to be held, the moral foundations of it need to be discussed internationally, not only in an environment overshadowed by political actors or certain lobbies, but in a freer environment. A new Convention is also possible, based on today’s experience.”

As we can see, from the speech, he did not say anything about the reasons why the convention is against even human rights and therefore should be changed! In addition, the Federation of Women’s Associations stated that there were serious obstructions in the implementation of the Istanbul Convention already in 2018.

It has also been alleged that the presence of the Istanbul Convention increased the violence. However, if one takes a look to the phenomenon there is an increase of the conservative and patriarchal mentality in society starting with the AKP hegemony. Here there are two main explanations why the convention is thought to increase violence. First, because the implementation of the convention allows women to protect their rights, it has made it visible through the cases themselves. This enabled the existence of violence come into surface. Therefore, the Istanbul Convention does not enhance violence, but rather helps to make its dimensions visible. The other reason is the AKP’s politics and its language. In other words, increasing violence and making it so visible should be sought through the same AKP narrative. A political party spelling the words of violence, insolence, humiliation, has given power to those resembling them, and violence has thus become easier to be inflicted. Concrete examples are not hard to find. In 2014, Bülent Arinc, the then Deputy Prime Minister, stated that women “will not laugh in public.” President R. T. Erdogan “Men and women cannot be equal. It’s against their nature,” said. Uğur Işılak’ from AKP in one of his speech on TV said that “woman’s nature is to be slave.” Sefer Üstün, a member of the AKP and the head of the Human Rights Commission of the Turkish Grand National Assembly at the time, said: “the one who is raped should not have an abortion. The rapist is more innocent than the victim who had an abortion.” Mehmet Muezzinoglu, member of the AKP, who was once a health ministry, can easily state that motherhood is the only career for women. Another member of AKP says that Turkish woman is an ornament of her house. These examples can be replicated and plainly represent the AKP’s misogynistic politics, while at the same time, they lay the groundwork for the legitimization of violence in the eyes of society. As an organic intellectual of the AKP, Sefer Üstün, a law graduate, have played an important role both in strengthening masculine and patriarchal discourse and in the escalation of violence against women in society.

As a result of the 2016 coup attempt, the dismissal of polices trained in violence against women has rendered them aggrieved and women’s cases remain under the coup d’etat files. Women’s report of violence have been dismissed because of the plethora of political pending cases.

Of course, not only the AKP, but its collaborator, the ultranationalist party, the MHP, is also against the convention with it politics of misogyny. The fact that the woman is seen as a mere serving being makes you question whether the woman is seen as a human being at all. As human hostility is the characteristic of systems that evolve towards these totalitarian structures, misogyny is also targeted because women’s struggles are seen as an indicator of progressive initiatives. While this convention seeks not only to prevent violence against women, but also to protect victims of all forms of violence within the family, AKP and its policies may allow some laws that open the door to child abuse and trigger violence. Therefore, girls and boys who are victims of violence or sexual abuse are also protected by this International Convention. These convention is also important because it is an obstacle in front of AKP policies which aim to enforce some laws violating human rights.

Still we have hope!?

“Istanbul Convention keeps you alive”

There are many reasons to be pessimist: Covid-19, economic crisis, increase of authoritarian, conservative and patriarchal mentality, political and social repression, racism, immigration problem, increase of violence, individualism, alienation and isolation of individual from society and from other individuals, increase of psychological problem, crisis of family, crisis of belief in old and traditional values etc. But there are also some struggles against this evil. In these struggles, it is worth mentioning women’s struggle. It is very understandable why this capitalist and patriarchal system is very much against women. Without hesitating, we can say that capitalist system is a system of misanthropy as well as misogyny. Women’s struggle has particularly increased in recent years in different part of the world. One of these parts is Turkey. In Turkey, with the demand to leave Istanbul Convention, the squares are filled with women in spite of police crackdown and attacks. Even though police take women in custody, they never give up struggling for Istanbul Convention. Leaflets are distributed all over Turkey (although the police try to block them), and posters with the slogan “Istanbul Convention keeps you alive” are put up in every place. Women almost every day organize a manifestation in different part of Istanbul. In addition, business world emphasizes its support for Istanbul Convention. For example, Sabanci Foundation and Borusan Holding declared that the convention is important because it stresses the equality between men and women. Sabanci Foundation wrote on twitter that “the Istanbul Convention should be implemented effectively so that no other Pinar Gültekins (recently killed by her ex-boyfriend) are killed.”

Another interesting manifestation is coming from Eskisehir Odunpazarı Municipality which began to give the Istanbul Convention with marriage certificate during ceremony. Mayor Kurt said that “The Istanbul Convention is the guarantee of women’s lives, it guides the development of policies that will fully ensure the equality of men and women.” Not just this municipality but many others manifested their support for the Istanbul Convention. For example, Bolu Municipality supported the Istanbul Convention, whose cancellation was on the agenda along with the Bolu women’s platform. These manifestations are very significant at institutional level. Not only non-governmental organizations but also public or government agencies are against the idea of leaving the Istanbul Convention and consider this attempt dangerous.

On the one hand, there are those who suffer from being human, on the other hand there are those who continue to give hope to people and society. The latter’s struggle is crucial to believe in humanity.

Sevgi Doğan

Research fellow at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, and Internationalization Office Collaborator in charge of development initiatives of SAR-Italy (Scholars at Risk) at the Scuola Normale Superiore.