Starting from July, the withdrawal of Turkey from the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women entered into force. Feminists sound a warning: this event may be a spark, encouraging further withdrawals and reinforcing the hands of misogynist and homophobic groups in Europe

What women
say in Istanbul

8 min read
Foto: Unsplash/ Guillaume Bleyer

On March 20, 2021, it was announced that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a presidential order, declaring Turkey’s withdrawal from the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. A later statement noted that the withdrawal would enter into force on July 1. The withdrawal announcement surprised many, because the Convention, also known as Istanbul Convention, was an element of pride for the Turkish government.

In May 2011, the government of Turkey, headed by the then Prime Minister Erdogan, hosted the international meeting that opened the Convention for signatures. In March 2012, Turkey became the first country to ratify the Convention. Soon after its ratification with the full support of all political parties in the Parliament, the Law on the Protection of the Family and Prevention of Violence Against Women was adopted as a step towards implementing the Convention. A Turkish feminist scholar became the first president of GREVIO, the agency that monitors the implementation of the Convention. 

The withdrawal decision stirred criticisms and protests both in Turkey and abroad. Legal scholars and bar associations stressed that the President exceeded his authority and thus his withdrawal was unconstitutional. Noting that the authority of withdrawal lies with the Parliament that ratified it, major opposition parties (the CHP, the HDP and the IYIP), several bar associations, women’s organizations, and individual women appealed to a high court, the Council of State, for the annulment of the Presidential Order. Women also used the streets and social media to protest, reject the legality of the withdrawal, stress the importance of the Convention, and display their commitment to fight for it.

On the tenth anniversary of the Convention, on May 10, 2021, women all around the world  joined their protests to show their solidarity. Several international NGOs and intergovernmental organizations, including the officials of  the Council of Europe, the European Union leaders, and the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, as well as the White House, criticized the decision. Again, using the Convention’s tenth anniversary as an opportunity, 19 embassies in Ankara issued a joint statement of concern

The most pronounced protests and resistance were displayed by feminists in Turkey, who challenged the decision as individuals, organizations, and networks. In fact, expecting such an act, women had been working diligently to thwart it. President Erdogan and his party (the AKP), which has been in power since 2002, have never had a genuine commitment to gender equality and women’s rights, and around 2010, they started to employ a homophobic, pro-family (read traditional gender roles), and pro-natalist discourse. This discourse established the foundation for a series of bills and policies that targeted LGBT+ and women’s rights.

As the government attacked a different hard-won right every other week, women tried to encounter them by joining forces. In 2020, as women’s groups were fighting against the government’s plans to restrict women’s alimony rights and to issue a special amnesty for men who married minors on the grounds of protecting family (but essentially pardoning rapists, forcing children to live with their rapists, and opening the door for legalizing child marriages), some governing party officials started to bring-up the need to consider withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention. The Convention has been criticized by reactionary Islamist groups and their media, claiming that it promotes homosexuality and threatens the union of family.

Desperately needing the support of these groups, government officials assumed their discourse. To confront these attacks and coordinate women’s resistance, women organizations, which were already working together, established the Women’s Platform for Equality (with Turkish acronym, EŞİK) on August 1, 2020.

Composed of more than 340 women’s and LGBT+ organizations and including nearly 150 supporting organizations, EŞİK has become a major opposition voice and a force for collective action. It immediately protested the Presidential Order of withdrawal and appealed to the Council of Europe, listing the laws and established procedures violated by the Order; but it also protested the Council for quickly accepting Turkey’s withdrawal without exploring its legality. Several women’s organizations from EŞİK also applied to the Turkish high court for the annulment of the withdrawal decision.

Since the new presidential system of Turkey entails an exceptionally strong executive, and Erdogan impertinently expanded and exceeded his constitutional power to undermine the authority and autonomy of all other state institutions, the Council of State’s reaching a verdict independently was unlikely.

Still, women tried every venue to draw attention to the gravity of the withdrawal decision. A rally held on June 19 mobilized nearly 6,000 women from different parts of the country, despite the pandemic conditions and the delayed state permission, and they launched a social media campaign, criticizing the high court for not responding to the multiple appeals and for avoiding its responsibility. The Council of State finally came up with a verdict, only the day before the withdrawal would take effect, and expectedly it upheld the President’s decision. And on July 1, the day Turkey’s withdrawal entered into force, as women all around the country were protesting, the President announced a new, the fourth, plan of action to combat violence against women.

The plan - including nothing new, repeating the content of the previous three plans that were not implemented, and falsely claiming that it was prepared through consultation with all interested parties and a range of civil society organizations - can be only taken as an attempt to appease the discontented segment of the AKP’s female constituency 

This withdrawal decision, as well as the reactions it generated, have important national and international implications. In Turkey, it shows that the government, weakened by several crises, which were caused by its own policies or mismanaged (e.g., enormous external dept, stagnant economy, devaluation of the national currency, Covid pandemic, Syrian refugee crisis, and authoritarian governance), and facing a shrinking constituency, is desperately clinging to its reactionary Islamist and ultra-nationalist supporters by pursuing a conservative and highly gendered cultural policy agenda.

It also shows that while Erdogan’s authoritarian and arbitrary rule scared and silenced many, women will not let their rights erode without a fight. Their efforts to confront the misinformation campaigns against the Istanbul Convention during the last year helped change the public opinion. According to a major nationwide survey conducted in July 2020, a significant majority of the public (64%) did not favour withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention, and only 17% favoured it. Another study conducted a month later showed that the number of those who supported a withdrawal shrank, constituting only 7% of the population.

Turkey’s withdrawal from the Convention is significant also for showing Erdogan’s departure from international human rights norms and tendency to isolate Turkey. His act, however, can weaken the Convention internationally, as well. Out of 47 members of the Council of Europe, the Convention has been ratified only by 34 European states.

Poland, which ratified the Convention in 2015, witnessed government arguments in favour of withdrawing from the Convention much before such discussions emerged in Turkey, and similar campaigns take place in other member countries of the Council. Thus, Turkey’s withdrawal may be a spark, encouraging further withdrawals and reinforcing the hands of misogynist and homophobic groups.

This is why what has been happening in Turkey should be treated as an international problem and addressed accordingly. Women in Turkey and in other countries are well-aware of these grave international implications and have been already emphasizing the importance of transnational solidarity and cooperation. They establish an example for the others to follow.

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