Turkey is a nation which gave full political rights to women, including the right to vote and to be elected, locally in 1930 and nationwide in 1934, eleven years ahead of France and Italy. However, laws stipulating that women need permission from their husbands to work outside of the home or to travel abroad were only repealed in the nineties. None the less, Turkey was also the first country to sign and ratify the Council of Europe’s treaty to prevent violence against women and domestic violence which is named after its own city, the Istanbul Convention, in 2011. It is also a country, however, which ranked 130th among 149 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index in 2018. Recently, news that Turkey intends to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention has created shockwaves globally.
The reality of Turkey’s complex relationship with women’s rights is that behind the façade of state feminism, laws protecting women have never been fully implemented. The recent #ChallengeAccepted trend, in which women have been sharing black and white selfies on social media, has spread awareness of the horrifying rates of femicide in Turkey, with countless women being murdered by men in honour killings or out of jealousy. The campaign group ‘We Will Stop Femicide’ began tracking the murders of women in Turkey after discovering that the government does not keep records. Their data shows that despite Turkey signing the Istanbul Convention in 2011, femicide has drastically increased over the years since, with 474 deaths in 2019 alone, almost double the rate of 2013. In most of those cases, the perpetrator was the husband or partner of the victim. In the remainder, they were a family member or stalker.
With the social media campaign sparking global discussion about women’s rights in Turkey, more women have come forward to share their experiences. Many claim that having approached the police for help when they were experiencing domestic violence, they were simply turned away. Protests have also broken out across the country, with women marching together in solidarity. In particular, the brutal murder of Pınar Gültekin in July of this year by a male stalker sparked outrage. Whilst President Erdagon acknowledged the crime, writing on Twitter, ‘I despise all crimes against women’, police were accused of using disproportional force against protestors. In coastal Izmir, some detainees claim to have been beaten and mistreated in custody. Protests demand not only justice for the victims of femicide, but also urgent reform to the justice system. When it comes to sentencing, men who claim that they acted on impulse, or who claim to be religious and dress smartly in court, are handed reduced sentences so often that there is now a term for it – ‘tie reduction’.
At the core of the women’s rights issue is the tension between Turkey and western ideology regarding gender roles. With Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), President since 2014, there has been a push towards a more conservative Islamic agenda and certain religious sects have become more vocal. Increasing transparency of political figures’ attitude towards women’s rights, with sexist comments being made publicly, has led up to the decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. A key issue with the Convention is that it defines the term ‘gender’ as ‘the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.’ Some countries consider this definition too broad and fear it could be interpreted to make way for the allowance of a third gender. It also requires political parties to allow teaching on non-stereotyped gender roles, which can be regarded as an attempt to enforce a liberal western lifestyle in more traditional societies. Turkish political figures have prevented Turkish women from understanding what the convention really stands for by presenting it as the enemy of the family, arguing that it enables women to desert their homes and that it even encourages homosexuality.
With the social media campaign attracting a global audience to the events in Turkey and rising tension between protestors and law enforcement, immediate action is required. ‘We Will Stop Femicide’ makes five demands of the Turkish government to resolve gender inequality:
1) The president, prime minister and the leaders of all political parties should condemn violence against women.
2) The protection law No. 6284, which aims to protect the family and prevent violence against women, should be officially implemented.
3) Their legislative proposal to add an additional clause to the Turkish Penal Code regarding ‘aggravated life imprisonment’ should be accepted.
4) A Ministry of Women should be founded.
5) A new constitution that prioritises gender and sexual orientation equality should be implemented.
Whilst these present a comprehensive plan for reform, it is unlikely that they can all be implemented in the near future. Now, the Turkish government need to demonstrate the intention of drafting a new human rights treaty to replace the Istanbul Convention, which equally respects the social and religious culture of the nation and the human rights of its female citizens. Ultimately, the government cannot continue suppressing women’s desires for liberation without triggering further conflict; compromise is essential.