Confinement to home imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic increased violence against women in all countries. In Turkey, where femicides had reached alarming levels long before the pandemic, not a day goes by without a woman is killed

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Foto: Unsplash/ Theodoris Katis

Some recent reports indicate that confinement to home imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic increased violence against women in all countries. In Turkey, where femicides had reached alarming levels long before the pandemic, not a day goes by without a woman is killed.

The AKP government has responded to this increasing trend of violence against women by policies that erode women’s gained rights and further aggravate gender inequalities. Most recently, President Erdogan publicly announced that withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention is under consideration. The Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence is known as Istanbul Convention, because it was open to signature in Istanbul in 2011. Turkey was the first country to ratify it, and a Turkish feminist scholar became the first President of the expert committee monitoring the implementation of the Convention. Given Turkey’s leading support for this human rights convention, the sharp shift in policy is difficult to understand.

Other puzzling policy shifts includes changing the status of the world heritage Haiga Sophia from museum to mosque. Since a part of this historical site had been open to daily prayers at least since 1991, and the area is full of mosques, including the beautiful Blue Mosque literally across the street, it is curious why Haiga Sophia has become a public policy issue.

We think these policy shifts should be viewed as manifestations of a multi-layered political strategy. The goals involve changing the political agenda, appeasing and pleasing the party’s shrinking core conservative constituency, realizing Erdogan’s grand plan to restore the Islamic identity of the Ottoman state in Turkey, and prolonging his rule.

The ongoing economic crises – revealed in massive unemployment, colossal foreign debt, and steady decline of Turkish lira and aggravated by the pandemic – eroded the political support enjoyed by Erdogan and his party. Economic problems, combined with the protracted engagement in Syria and the opportunistic sponsorship of the Libyan conflict, have destabilized their power base in the country and status abroad. Losing the control of key municipalities in the 2019 local elections exhibited the electoral discontent. Thus, turning to policies with cultural messages, which cost little financially but stoke the national pride, expansionist dreams, and masculine assertions of certain groups, intends to divert attention from the problems and reinforce the conservative base’s support.

Moreover, Erdogan has been committed to reversing the secularist trend established in 1923 by 2023. Channeling economic and educational resources to raise “pious generations,” he became increasingly vocal about his plans for “Islamization” of the country. Now, in the face of eroding public support, repressive Islamist policies are pursued not only toward an ideal but also as an existentialist, survival strategy. Catering to the demands of organized religious networks, he tries to hold on to power by resuming once postponed conservative gender policies.

Gender policies of the AKP have always reflected contradictory elements and a dualist approach. When it came to power in 2002, the party continued with the legislative reforms initiated by earlier governments in response to the demands of women’s organizations and to meet the European Union membership criteria and international treaty obligations. In addition to a significant criminal code reform, a law aiming at prevention of violence against women was enacted. In 2006, then Prime Minister Erdogan issued a circular mandating all public entities to take measures to combat violence against women. 

Even then, however, the AKP-controlled municipal governments and the Directorate of Religious Affairs kept running “marriage” workshops and issuing booklets that recognized women mainly as mothers and home makers and promoted male control. More important, the gender equality provisions of laws were seldom implemented, and Turkey’s global ranking on various United Nations indexes of gender equality dropped significantly under the AKP rule. 

As Erdogan and his party gained more confidence, patriarchal gender norms and their religious justifications became increasingly explicit in their discourse and policies. Erdogan started to proclaim that men and women are not equals “by nature” and to refer to career-oriented women as “not natural” and not able to understand or appreciate the importance of motherhood in Islam. 

Sanctity of the family and motherhood have been always prominent aspects of the party’s gender ideology, but pro-natalist discourse and policies became increasingly overt. Claiming it would stimulate economic development, Erdogan started to urge women to have three or five children. He also objected to birth control, family planning and baby formula for being un-Islamic and declared abortion, which has been legal since 1983, as “murder.”

Although Erdogan characterized “discrimination against homosexuals” as “inhuman” and spoke in favor of the legal protection of “homosexuals’ rights and freedoms” during the 2002 election campaign, it did not take long to turn against them. Open endorsement of patriarchal gender norms led several AKP leaders, cabinet members, and the Directorate of Religious Affairs to issue statements that refer to homosexuality as a “sickness” that spreads at the peril of children and families. LGBT+ pride marches have been banned for successive years. Now, the Istanbul Convention’s non-discrimination clause that opposes discrimination based on any ground, including sexual orientation and gender identity, is used to frame the Convention as a device of promoting homosexuality and disintegrating family.

The AKP’s various parliamentary draft bills, attempting to ban abortion, constrain caesarean births and legitimize child marriages, had been shelved after protests by women’s groups. But they are being revived now. The party’s current legislative agenda includes restricting divorced women’s alimony rights and granting a supposedly one-time amnesty to those imprisoned for sexual abuse of minors if they married the victim – a policy opening the door for child marriages for girls, if the age difference between the man and the girl does not exceed 15 years. 

The AKP government, which once engaged with women’s groups in legal reforms, including the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, now not only undermines these groups and their rights claims but also responses to their protests by unleashing state violence. Women, however, maintain their commitment, resilience and solidarity.

The AKP’s war on women has provoked protests in various corners of society, including pollical parties, the business community, and even the AKP members and constituency – particularly women. In fact, even a pro-government women’s organization, KADEM, which includes a daughter of Erdogan on its board, spoke in favor of the Istanbul Convention. Its various statements, however, reveal the organization’s narrow understanding of women’s rights and rejection of LGBT+ identities.

On the other hand, over 300 other women’s and LGBT+ organizations have established a joint platform. Seeing all gender-based discrimination and gender-inequalities as intertwined components of patriarchal system and ideology, the Women’s Platform for Equality (ESIK) seeks the protection of everyone’s rights, without discrimination. Women’s organizations in Turkey are commended by many for constituting the most resilient and effective opposition to the AKP government’s increased authoritarianism and encroachments on human rights.

Women activists are reaching out across the isles and communities, as they did in pressuring the parliament for legislative reforms in the past. Since the AKP was brought to power largely by the diligent work of women, who were engaged in door-to-door canvasing, a move by these discontented women to join the resistance can show the AKP that the concessions made to conservative Islamist men are not acceptable and will not save the party.

Read the article in Italian