The Istanbul Convention: Our Struggle for Equality

Article

In the middle of the night on March 20, 2021, a presidential decree was published in the Official Gazette, announcing Turkey would withdraw from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention. The decision came as a shock since no consultation process occurred before the withdrawal attempt, no one was informed and the decision was taken and put into force solely by the president.

Istanbul convention

Despite many protests from the women’s movement, bar associations and opposition parties, the government made the withdrawal notification to the Council of Europe (CoE) on March 22, and it was instantly published on the CoE website. If the decision remains in force, Turkey will withdraw from the convention on July 1. Turkey has attempted to annul a basic human rights convention that was opened to signatures in Istanbul, therefore carrying the city’s name, and was first signed by Turkey in 2011.

As the women’s movement, bar associations, human rights defenders argue, the decision was made through an unconstitutional and unlawful process since presidential decrees cannot be used to withdraw from basic human rights conventions[1]. The convention was adopted by the Turkish parliament in 2011 with unanimous vote, meaning the decision also repudiates parliament’s will, which has since become largely ineffective after Turkey’s presidential system went into effect in 2018. Besides arguments regarding the unlawfulness of the decree, the decision is also illegitimate. Violence against women (VAW) in all forms is highly prevalent in Turkey, where women are brutally murdered every day by men who are their partners, ex-partners, husbands, ex-husbands or other men in their proximity[2]. Protection orders are not well implemented, women are murdered despite protection orders[3], impunity is common in cases of VAW, women’s shelters are not qualified or empowering, and law enforcement officials, judges, and prosecutors are not trained on gender equality or the Istanbul Convention. We know public officials appointed to protect women and prosecute cases of gender-based violence (GBV) have patriarchal attitudes towards women. As Mor Çatı states in their bi-monthly Coronavirus Pandemic and VAW report, public officials resist implementing laws and regulations to prevent VAW. Women who appeal to the police for safe shelter are rejected on the basis of the pandemic, they are given innacurate information, restraining orders are rejected, women are advised to reconcile with their husbands and in shelters, women are ill-treated by shelter workers[4].

The women’s movement has been calling on the government to correctly address the root causes of male violence and eliminate the social structures that entail GBV to fully and effectively implement the Convention, and the protection Law no. 6284, which is based on the Convention. So, why did a country that has not properly implemented the Convention, and has failed to protect women against perpetrators of VAW, withdraw from a convention that is the most updated and holistic text on violence prevention?

Historical background

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government's attacks on women's rights and gender equality became systematic and institutionalized through policies that do not see women as equal citizens and identify women with family and motherhood. The shutdown of the Women’s Ministry in 2011, which was replaced by the “Ministry of Family,” the attempt to restrict the 10-week legal abortion right to 4 weeks, and suggestions in the Parliamentary Commission on Divorce Report issued in 2016, such as the de-criminalization of child, forced or early marriages, attempts to restrict women’s alimony rights, compulsory family mediation in divorce cases, and serious limitations on issuing protection orders in violence cases, are just a few signs that constituted a road map for the attacks against women's rights. Such efforts continued with several attempts to amend gender-related provisions of the Turkish Penal Code, Civil Code and the Law no. 6284 (the main domestic law on preventing violence against women and domestic violence) and other issues highlighted in the Divorce Commission Report explained above. These attempts to annul women’s and children’s rights in laws have not succeeded thanks to the powerful struggle of the feminist movement, however on the basis of implementation, we see women’s rights are restricted. Among the most apparent prohibitions is women’s legal right to abortion. Abortion on demand, which is legal up to 10 weeks into pregnancy, is only implemented in 10 out of 295 public hospitals, according to a research conducted by Kadir Has University[5].  

The controversies regarding the convention had been promoted by religious, biased, and anti-gender groups, newspapers, columnists, government institutions and fundamentalist opposition parties for some years in Turkey. In 2019, in a meeting with pro-government organizations, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said “the Convention was not obligatory, and it could be annulled” upon the demand of a prominent fundamentalist group. Anti-gender groups have been attacking the convention, arguing that it is destroying (even bombarding) the traditional family, that gender is an ideology to promote homosexuality and it’s a threat to Muslims and society. The Human Rights and Equality Institution of Turkey (TİHEK) has also played a crucial role in undermining the concept of human rights despite having been established as a state institution to actually safeguard human rights. TİHEK has conducted family symposiums on the “rights of the family” and worked as an anti-gender propaganda tool against the Istanbul Convention. Global anti-gender strategies were adopted by the government and fundamentalists to subvert human rights concepts using the same instruments human rights defenders use to advance and safeguard our rights. 

The Withdrawal Process from the Convention

Attacks against the Istanbul Convention heightened in July 2020, when AKP General Vice-President Numan Kurtulmus announced the ratification of the Convention was wrong because its gender and sexual orientation terms were incompatible with traditional values. Discussions around the withdrawal of the Convention were met with outrage and instigated polarization even within the AKP. The AKP government had to take a step back following strong reactions from the public, notably women, LGBTI+ organizations, various politicians, international networks, municipalities and the private sector. Since then however, LGBTI+ people and organizations have been constantly targeted by government officials to the point that even the rainbow flag is almost criminalized in Turkey. The withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention was then once again pursued, this time with the Presidential Directorate of Communications presenting the “normalization of homosexuality” as the cause for the withdrawal in a statement, justifying hate speech against LGBTI+ people.

The rhetoric used in anti-Istanbul Convention campaigns in Europe are almost the same as those in Turkey. Anti-gender, far-right groups have been contesting the Convention through arguments that it is a threat to the family union, it is against traditional family values, it promotes homosexuality and same-sex marriages. Gender has become a target for groups that insist on the essentialist and religious understandings of gender roles. These groups are actually against all human rights and support the establishment of authoritarian regimes based on discrimination and exclusion. In addition, they use violence as a tool to oppress the most disadvantaged groups, namely women, children and LGBTI+ people in the domestic sphere without any state intervention. They also target and try to weaken all opposition, including civil movements such as the women’s movement and LGBTI+ movements by forming GONGOs. Attacks against the Istanbul Convention should be seen in this regard, as attempts to institutionalize a right-wing hetero-patriarchal world order with religious biases. In Turkey, the fundamentalist attacks against gender equality and our hard-won rights fit in this framework. It should also be noted the AKP imposes traditional roles on women such as taking care of children, family members and the house while working in underpaid, flexible and precarious conditions to contribute to the family economy, if needed. AKP policies throw all the burden on women in regards to care work, whereas establishing qualified, free and accessible daycare centers is state’s responsibility. The government instead of allocating the budget to create daycare centers for children and the elderly; promotes care work as women’s duties in the family, with the justification that women have innate responsibilities upon creation.

As Kadir Has University research shows, most women believe in gender equality, and young women even have higher awareness of the issue. Seventy-six percent of women say domestic violence is a reason for divorce, 79 percent think more women should participate in political parties, while 46.1 percent reported they have never worked in their life. Women who are not employed reported they left their jobs due to a lack of support in care work linked to marriage. Another study also shows that one out of every four women in Turkey identify themselves as feminists[6]. However, gender stereotypes of masculinity tend to change slower and awareness is weaker since government policies are against gender equality, or the groups challenging patriarchal masculinity are not very visible.

Solidarity Beyond Borders

As the economic crisis deepens with the worsening pandemic situation in Turkey, the political atmosphere becomes even harsher as all our rights are being targeted. The withdrawal attempt from the Istanbul Convention with an arbitrary decision can be read as an attempt to weaken the women’s movement in their struggle for gender equality and a life free from violence since the women’s movement is seen as one of the strongest political opposition forces in Turkey. In particular, young women in Turkey strive for equal participation in all areas of life, in which  everyone can make their own decisions about their own lives and bodies.

Nevertheless, the AKP government insists on imposing traditional gender roles, where women are confined in the traditional, hetero-patriarchal family as mothers and caregivers who mostly work for low wages in precarious situations while the government consolidates its power by polarizing society, all while leaning further towards autocracy. Feminist and queer ideas, discourse and politics have become widespread and mainstream in popular culture, especially in the digital space. This is why far-right movements are both targeting the dissemination of concepts and images through censorship and criminalization in addition to targeting our legal rights. The patriarchy’s attack is immense, not only in Turkey but across the globe, and is against the idea of freedom and equality. However, our power and solidarity is also extensive and transcends borders. The transnational feminist movement has shown great support and solidarity with women and the LGBTI+ community in Turkey, reminding us that we are never alone.

 

[1] According to Article 90 of the Turkish Constitution, the ratification of international treaties shall be subject to adoption by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey by a law approving the ratification. Turkey ratified the Istanbul Convention on 24th November 2011 through Law number 6251 by unanimous vote in the Grand National Assembly. No annulment decision has yet been made by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey on Law no. 6251. Put another way, the Istanbul Convention is still in force.

Additionally, legal experts argue under Article 104/17 of the Turkish Constitution, “fundamental rights, individual rights shall not be regulated by a presidential decree. No presidential decree shall be issued on matters which are stipulated in the Constitution to be regulated exclusively by law. In the case of a discrepancy between provisions of the presidential decrees and the laws, the provisions of the laws shall prevail. A presidential decree shall become null and void if the Grand National Assembly of Turkey enacts a law on the same matter.” Therefore, the Presidential Decree numbered 3718 is manifestly unlawful, unconstitutional, and invalid.

 

[2] The state does not share aggregated and reliable data transparently on VAW. Recently, the Ministry of Interior published a post on its website, claiming there was a “decrease” in cases of deliberate murder compared to 2006, arguing women’s murders have decreased as well. According to the statement, 267 women were killed by their husbands, partners or someone in their family in 2020. https://www.icisleri.gov.tr/kasten-oldurme-olaylarinda-son-15-yilda-315lik-dusus-saglandi.  Bianet, an independent online newspaper that collects and publishes a monthly tally based on a compilation of news in local and national newspapers. reported that in 2020, at least 284 women were killed by men, and another 255 women’s murders occurred under suspicious circumstances. Some femicides are disguised as suicide by men who kill women, and since public officials do not investigate these cases thoroughly, they are not included in the state’s femicide statistics. https://m.bianet.org/english/women/237858-men-kill-at-least-284-women-in-2020

 

Can the last sentence be clarified? What does suspiciously mean? And are those 255 part of the 284 or are they additional?

[3] In 2019, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) MP Filiz Keresteciıoğlu submitted a parliamentary inquiry for a Parliamentary Investigation Commission to be formed to investigate why women are being murdered despite their protection orders. https://t24.com.tr/haber/hdp-li-kerestecioglu-ndan-koruma-kararlarina-ragmen-oldurulen-kadinlarla-ilgili-arastirma-onergesi,822521

[6] Being a Woman in the Pandemic research conducted by Women for Women’s Human Rights – New Ways show that 1 out of every 4 women describe themselves as feminists.

https://kadinininsanhaklari.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Salg%C4%B1nda-Kad%C4%B1n-Olmak-Uzun-Rapor-Final.pdf