content warning: violence against women, violence and hate speech against LGBTQI+ groups
At midnight on Friday 19th March, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree to withdraw Turkey from the Istanbul Convention. Although international politics is often mired with little understood conventions and agreements, this one is worth paying attention to. The Convention was founded in the Turkish city of Istanbul and signed by over 40 European countries 10 years ago, and it helps to combat violence against women and girls. It requires participating governments to prevent, investigate and punish violence against women. Additionally, its implementation process is subject to monitoring and evaluation. Turkey’s withdrawal from this treaty represents the governments turning its back on women’s fundamental right to live a life free from violence. It signifies a step backwards in international feminism and therefore has consequences for women everywhere.
Why has Turkey withdrawn?
The Turkish government have stated they will tackle violence against women domestically. This is a thin veneer covering the fact that the government is betraying women to appease a conservative support base. Turkey is a secular country with an Islamic history, which means that its governance is not solely rooted or based on the teachings of Islam. Recently Erdogan has been increasing his socially conservative rhetoric, in part to maintain his grip over the country by appealing to more right-wing Islamic groups that denounce ‘liberal’ social policies. Elected in 2014, Erdogan has been increasing his hold over Turkish politics and the country has seen its democracy erode.
38% of women in Turkey have been subject to violence by a partner in their lifetime. This number is only growing as more Turkish women have suffered violence during lockdown. Femicide (the murder of women because they are women) has tripled in the past ten years. Yet these issues are not on the agenda of the Turkish government, who state that the Convention ‘undermines family structures’. Additional critiques of the Convention by Erdogan and his supporters include bizarre accusations that it encourages divorce. Although the focus on Turkey’s withdrawal has largely been on the implications for violence against women, (which is a huge aspect of the issue), this is an intersectional problem. LGBTQI+ groups have faced persecution, with Turkish opposers to the Convention saying it ‘promotes homosexuality’ through it’s article stipulating that discrimination will not be tolerated against groups based on their gender identity or sexual orientation (among many other categories). Additionally, the accusation that the Convention undermines family structures implies that cis-heterosexual families are the norm that should be strived towards. This is a worrying trend in Turkey’s official rhetoric, with the Interior minister recently calling protestors against an unelected university rector ‘LGBTQI perverts’.
This narrative is not solely seen in Turkey. In Russia, Putin enacted a Russian Family Policy in 2013, making it illegal to promote LGBTQI+ narratives to children under 18. This law is apparently to preserve traditional family values and promote social conservatism. Yet proponents of laws such as these care little for family values. In reality, this type of legislation is used as a political weapon to demonise LGBTQI+ and intersectional feminist groups in society to appease a socially conservative support base. In President Erdogan’s case, this clumsy attempt has backfired.
Withdrawal won’t be easy: domestic and international backlash
Thousands of people took to the streets of Istanbul and Ankara (the nation’s capital) to protest against the president’s decision. Below is a video of protestors chanting “apply the convention, let women live”. The withdrawal of Turkey has led to an open discussion of women’s experience of violence, and has seen women’s rights groups such as We Will Stop Femicide Turkey mobilise opposition.
Although Turkey has suffered a declining quality of democracy, this does not mean it has been eradicated, as evidenced by the backlash from opposition politicians. The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (Turkish: Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi aka CHP) have said they were proud to be part of the Istanbul Convention and have railed against the president’s decision. CHP MP Aylin Nazliaka argued that claims to tackle the issue domestically make little sense as the domestic laws reference the Istanbul Convention, and therefore have less impact when this is removed. The deputy chair of CHP, Gökçe Gökçen, critiqued the decision, saying it was letting women be killed, whilst Istanbul’s mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu stated that the withdrawal, “tramples on the struggle that women have been waging for years”. The decision to withdraw has now been taken to Turkey’s constitutional court, where it could be overturned.
The measures have increased the ever widening gap between Turkish and EU policy. Turkey is a candidate country of the EU, but is unlikely to join the Union any time soon. Many prominent European MPs have condemned Turkey’s decision. Turkey and EU relations have been growing frostier as Erdogan continues to erode democracy and ignore EU policy in favour of partnerships with countries such as Russia, which may mean that the institution has little sway over Turkey’s elite. President of the European Comission Ursuala von der Layen called for support for the Convention on Twitter:
President Erdogan has seen wavering support due to his undemocratic reforms and a declining economy that has been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic. His foolish attempt to indulge a conservative support base has backfired. The international community, domestic opposition, both in the Turkish parliament and by its citizens, may be enough to alter the government’s decision, especially as the Constitutional Court’s decision remains to be seen.
There is some cause for hope. Yet Turkey’s withdrawal is not an isolated case, nor does it only impact a singular group (Turkish women). When analysing violence against women, it is vital to note that women are not passive victims of violence. Violence is often conducted by cis-het men and is perpetuated by a political structure that values cis-het men over all other groups in society. Additionally, women are active agents of change (as has been shown in this case) in challenging the structures that violently oppress them. The Istanbul Convention and other international gender and LGBTQI+ legislation has been the result of the tireless work of activists fighting for recognition, equality and the incorporation of all-encompassing terms in international law. Countries withdrawing from these conventions undermine the work of these activists. Spokesperson for President Erdogan, Fahrettin Altun stated that the Istanbul convention has been “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalise homosexuality”. This wrongly implies that LGBTQI+ groups are ‘making a lifestyle choice’ rather than just living their lives, which denies the experiences of many and can lead to violence. The rhetoric of governments such as Turkey and Russia that LGBTQI+ and feminist issues are somehow ‘European’ politics that can be opted out of in favour of ‘traditional’ values is dangerous. These conventions and laws must be protected, defended and expanded on to create a safer and more equitable world for all.