For women in Turkey, the struggle continues – Elifcan Çelebi and Ebru Ece Özbey


As of today, the Istanbul Convention ceases to be in force in Turkey. But that’s not the end of the story.

Elifcan Çelebi

On March 20, Turkish President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan issued a midnight decree canceling Turkey’s ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and domestic violence. The Istanbul Convention, signed by 45 countries and the European Union collectively, is based on four pillars: prevention, protection, prosecution and integrated policies.

Turkey was not only the enthusiastic host of the convention negotiations ten years ago, mainly due to the advocacy campaigns and social mobilizations of the women’s movement, but also the first signatory and, indeed, the first country. to ratify it in 2012 in parliament, supported by aligned legislation, Law no. 6284. To be the only country to withdraw from the convention so far would therefore be as ironic as it is tragic – endangering the law enacted in reference to it but now confusedly presented as an alternative.

Turkey, Istanbul convention
Ebru Ece Özbey

Populist target

There is evidence that the convention brings positive changes, such as funding shelters for women fleeing intimate partner violence and national helplines. Its field of action extends to the rights of children and LGBT + people, in the context of gender inequalities and gender-based violence. It has become a target for right-wing populist leaders in recent years, alongside attacks on other gender-based rights and the undermining of democracy.

Announcing the decision to step down in March, the Turkish presidency torturely claimed that the convention’s original intention to promote women’s rights had been “hijacked by a group of people trying to normalize homosexuality”, making it “incompatible. ”With“ social and family values ​​”. from the country. The statement referred to six EU member states that had not ratified the convention (Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia) and Poland, which had taken steps to withdraw, having detected a alleged attempt “by the LGBT community to impose their ideas on gender on the whole of society”.

ErdoÄŸan has set his sights on gender issues for some time, commenting tirelessly that women are “not fit to do men’s jobs” and “incomplete if they reject motherhood,” during which they “should have at least three children ”. The centrality of the family as the supposed foundation of society and the glorification of traditional gender roles and supposedly Islamic values ​​have been defining characteristics of ErdoÄŸan’s conservative ideology – and that of his Party for Justice and Justice. development (AKP) – in the social and cultural fields.

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Institutionalized ideology

In recent years, this ideology has been institutionalized and encouraged by the Ministry of Family and Social Services – which has undergone a remarkable transformation from a women’s ministry to a “family” ministry – as well as by non-governmental organizations. (GONGO) organized by the government. , the Directorate of Religious Affairs and various pro-government media promoting Islamic beliefs. Lobbying by religious groups, with their powerful ties in government, apparently influenced the decision to withdraw from the convention.

A feminine GONGO, Kadın ve Demokrasi DerneÄŸi (KADEM, Association Femmes et Démocratie), founded by ErdoÄŸan’s daughter, Sümeyye, even introduced an essentialist Islamic conception of “gender justice”, as opposed to “western” gender equality. Although part of the anti-gender backlash, her stance on the convention was different from claiming that it undermined family (by encouraging divorce) and traditional social values. KADEM supported the convention as a necessary tool to prevent violence against women. After the government’s decision, however, he said the convention had “become a subject of social tension,” showing that even the most modest fringe of government cannot support an autonomous position on women’s issues.

The growing anti-gender influence on the public agenda has manifested itself in social indicators. In the World Economic Forum’s latest gender gap report, Turkey ranked 133rd out of 156 countries. While Turkey’s Minister of Family and Social Services – the only female member of the current cabinet – called the increase in violence against women during the pandemic “tolerable,” a recent report by We Will End Femicide Platform revealed that there were at least 300 feminicides, as well as 171 suspicious female deaths, in 2020 alone.

Storm of controversy

The March decision sparked a storm of controversy. Women’s and LGBT + movements staged massive protests in several cities. Human rights lawyers have argued that international agreements cannot be terminated by simple presidential decision. decree. And opposition parties, bars and the Women’s Platform for Equality, a coalition of more than 300 women’s and LGBT + organizations, have asked the State Council to overturn the decision.

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After a long wait, the Council of State rejected the appeal on Tuesday. Turkey’s highest administrative court asserted that the “authority” to ratify and overturn international treaties rested with the president, not parliament, which immediately sparked a debate on the judiciary’s ability to hold to account. executive and legislative authorities.

Harsh international criticism came from the President of the United States, Joe Biden, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Marija Pejčinović Burić. These expressions of concern, however, did not translate into sanctions or other actions against Turkey.

Nationally, meanwhile, opinion polls indicate that the majority of the population does not support the withdrawal decision. In a poll in March, 52.3% of those polled disapproved of it. Another poll confirmed public support for the convention while revealing that opinion on women’s issues was becoming more liberal over time.

In a broader context, the worsening recession in the face of the pandemic, rising unemployment and loss of confidence in judicial and democratic institutions have strengthened opposition forces in Turkey. The 2019 local elections and recent poll results confirm that the AKP is losing support.

The rights of women and LGBT + people are under constant attack in Turkey. Yet the country has unique social and historical dynamics, regardless of the illiberal tendencies of the current government and populist hostility to gender equality. The cancellation of the Istanbul convention, effective from today, is an unexpected but unsurprising result of the AKP’s authoritarian and conservative policies, which have gathered momentum over the past decade. . Responses from society and opposition groups gave hope for change, however, ErdoÄŸan’s speech reémarket unifying the women’s and LGBT + movement in Turkey – which includes fragmented groups with very different views – behind the same goal.

Turkey, Istanbul convention

Elifcan Çelebi is a doctoral candidate at the Max Planck International Research School on the Social and Political Constitution of the Economy (IMPRS-SPCE) in Cologne.

Turkey, Istanbul convention

Ebru Ece Özbey is a doctoral student at the Max Planck International Research School on the Social and Political Constitution of the Economy (IMPRS-SPCE) in Cologne.


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