Turkish Islamists say laws protecting women threaten the family

Turkish Islamists have launched a campaign against a European convention and a domestic law combating violence against women, saying they empower LGBTI groups and aim to destroy the institution of the family. 

The heated debate is one a several areas where splits have begun to emerge within the Islamist movement led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with criticism even reaching a conservative women’s organisation founded by his daughter.

The story begins with the years of abuse suffered by Nahide Opuz after she married in 1995. Her husband battered her, attempted to run her over with his car and stabbed her. The police repeatedly ignored her pleas and allowed her husband to remain at large, until in 2002 he shot her mother dead.

Opuz took Turkey to the European Court of Human Rights, and in 2009 Turkey was convicted for failing to protect her despite her attempts to exercise her legal rights. 

The Opuz verdict set a precedent and served as the basis of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.

Dubbed the Istanbul Convention after the city where it was signed in 2011, the regulation obligates signatories to combat discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as to take precautions against domestic violence, compensate its victims and sentence perpetrators proportionally.

Turkey was the first to ratify the convention, in 2012, and it was soon promoted by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its women’s groups.

The Opuz verdict also led to the 2011 founding of Turkey’s Ministry of Family and Social Policy, which worked with women’s organisations to devise a 2012 law (Law 6284) that aims to protect women and children subject to or threatened with violence.

But in recent weeks, as mainstream Turkish discourse has been gripped by anti-Westernism, many Islamist analysts and politicians have come to see the convention and the law as part of a European conspiracy to erode the integrity of the Turkish family, which has in turn put pressure on Turkey’s LGBTI+ community and those working to curb domestic violence.

Sema Maraşlı, a conservative writer known as a strident opponent of feminism, went so far as to suggest the ratification of the Istanbul Convention had brought forth a “punishment from God” on the AKP after it lost the June 23 Istanbul mayoral election.

Maraşlı’s views are far from unique. Şakir Tarım, a columnist for the Islamist daily Milli Gazete, said the convention was a plot by Europe to “subvert society through women”. Another Islamist columnist, Tayyar Tercan, warned that it would one day lead to the legalisation of gay marriage. Some Islamist columnists went so far to call the convention “women’s terrorism”.

Erdoğan said in a meeting last month that the Istanbul convention was not binding, according to Elif Çakır, a columnist in the Islamist opposition Karar newspaper. A representative of the Women and Democracy Association (Kadem), whose vice president is Erdoğan’s daughter, then tried to speak at the meeting, but was booed down by the crowd.

From then on Kadem, which according to Çakır had so far enjoyed a kind of immunity due to its links to the president, became fair game. Yusuf Kaplan, a columnist at pro-government Yeni Şafak, last week called on the administration to end projects with Kadem.

“The protection of the family has become a national security issue,” Kaplan said in a tweet, tagging Sümeyye Erdoğan’s husband Selçuk Bayraktar. He also accused Kadem of receiving funds from the charity of billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros.

Bayraktar said Kaplan supported the integrity of the family and called the allegations of links to Soros defamatory. Sümeyye Bayraktar attended a Kadem press conference last week where Kadem’s president, Saliha Okur Gümrükçüoğlu, said that the term “gender equality” was not understood properly and that her organisation preferred the term “gender justice”, as gender equality “failed to reflect the wealth of differences between women and men”.

But the press conference failed to quell criticism. Abdulkadir Karaduman, one of two members of parliament for the Islamist opposition Felicity Party, called the Istanbul Convention a “monstrosity” designed to shatter the family. 

The criticism only became more bigoted from there. İhsan Şenocak, who was removed from his post by the Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet, for preaching that women studying at university would go to hell, said the convention legitimised an immoral life “not even fit for animals”.

AKP member of parliament Hacı Ahmet Özdemir told a newspaper in that “no human being has the right or authority to use the organ for excretion as a sexual organ”.

Some conservatives have taken to describing feminism and homosexuality as “types of terrorism”, while a statement from the Kurdish Islamist Free Cause Party called the laws a European plot to “culturally subjugate” Turkey and legitimise “unimaginably sick sexual fantasies”.

The clash between conservatives and the communities defended in the laws was brought to the fore by Ali Erbaş, head of the Diyanet, who in response to last month’s LGBTI+ Pride March in Istanbul said “perversions” had started to enter the public agenda of the world, and recently in Turkey too.

Erbaş argued that the Pride March “went against creation” and “eliminated parenthood”, and as such, people of all faiths should stand against “same-sex persons who give up on being parents and marry each other”.

But for all the furore over supposedly encouraging homosexuality, almost all notable LGBTI+ organisations in Turkey have been targeted by the state for “immoral conduct”, and Pride events have not received permission to go ahead in many cities, including Istanbul, since 2015. 

Before then, the Istanbul Pride March had become a yearly fixture celebrated by tens of thousands a year after gaining official permission in 2003, and drawing some 100,000 people in 2013.

Ankara-based LGBT rights organisation KaosGL faced a bid by the provincial governor’s office to shut it down in 2005, and Lambda Istanbul, a similar organisation, endured repeated lawsuits and was shut down twice before the Supreme Court reversed the verdict in 2009.

Sema Kendirci Uğurman, head of the Turkish Women’s Union and one of the architects of Law 6284, urged all political parties to ensure the laws are upheld. She said the criticisms were bigoted and had been made by those who feared women’s empowerment.

Activist Arzu Aydoğan of the Women’s Solidarity Foundation said the Istanbul Convention was being ignored. That view was backed by a Council of Europe report that said Turkey had cleared a path for “early marriages”, kept insufficient legal data on violence, failed to prevent double victimisation, restricted women’s NGOs and issued short restraining orders.

“We fought tooth and nail for everything we achieved,” said Aydoğan. “We still fight. There is great solidarity among women here, and that is what they truly fear.”

© Ahval English