Turkey’s ruling AKP divided over treaty on violence against women

Ever since Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) signalled a possible withdrawal from a European treaty aimed at preventing violence against women, opposition and critics have made no qualms about where they stand on the matter.

Women have led protests across the country against Ankara’s plans to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, of which Turkey was the first signatory in 2012, while opposition lawmakers and rights groups have voiced their staunch opposition to such a move.

But a quieter conflict is unfolding over the landmark convention -  the world’s first binding agreement to prevent and combat violence against women - in the ranks of the ruling AKP and pro-government circles.

It all began earlier this month when AKP deputy chairman Numan Kurtulmuş, for the first time in an official capacity, signalled Turkey’s withdrawal from the convention, saying it was “wrong” for Ankara to have become a signatory. But the convention has been on the party’s agenda for far longer.

Kurtulmuş, for the most part was backed by the AKP, which in an hours-long Central Executive Board (MYK) meeting on July 13 covered the convention, with the takeaway that it contradicted Turkey’s moral values and posed a threat to the conventional family structure, according to reporting by Yücel Kayaoğlu, a journalist with Türkiye newspaper.

While Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül backed the move, a number of leading names in the party voiced their opposition to Turkey’s withdrawal, including Family, Labour and Social Services Minister Zehra Zümrüt Selçuk and AKP group deputy chair Mehmet Muş, Kayaoğlu said.

Erdoğan concluded the meeting that the treaty must ultimately be scrapped, the Türkiye contributor said.

According to columnist Murat Yetkin, it is a number of Turkey’s religious groups with soft power that form a sizeable portion of the AKP’s voter base that are steering Ankara’s positioning on the convention.

The İsmailağa group, a prominent Istanbul-based Sunni sect, in particular has taken it upon themselves to do away with the convention, Yetkin said in a column he published on his personal blog on July 8.

In a notice they published on July 6, the sect accused the agreement of attempting to “declare war on the values protected by Islam’’ and labelled the convention as contrary to Sharia law before stating they believed the ruling AKP would scrap the treaty.

Yetkin maintained Ismailağa’s wishes are essentially Erdoğan’s commands.

The AKP has long maintained an affinity and cooperation with religious movements and sects and critics believe the Ismailağa group is filling the vacuum created by the government purge of the Gülen movement, a former AKP ally accused of orchestrating a failed coup attempt in 2016.

Opposition to Ankara against scrapping the treaty has also come from an unlikely source, the Women and Democracy Organisation (Kadem) - an initiative whose vice president is Sümeyye Erdoğan, the daughter of the Turkish president.

Sözcü newspaper in February said that Kadem objected to Turkey’s withdrawal from the treaty. The organisation did not respond to this claim, prompting a number of pro-government news outlets and figures to target Kadem.

Yusuf Kaplan, a columnist at the pro-government Yeni Şafak newspaper took to Twitter earlier this month to call on the Turkish government to end the projects by the Education and Family ministries in support of gender equality.

Pro-government Sabah columnist Hilal Kaplan took on a milder approach in May, when she said that while she did not agree with Kadem’s pro-convention stance, it was necessary to hear them out.

Kadem Chairwoman Saliha Gümrükoğlu finally released an official statement on July 26 on Twitter, saying that instead of scrapping the treaty altogether, the issues over its disputed clauses should be resolved.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan advisor Yasin Aktay chimed in on the debate on Tuesday, urging both sides to weigh their stances against the problems in Turkish society and stressed that the convention was not changing gender roles in society, as argued by some conservatives.

“Many of our problems will not be solved if the convention is scrapped,’’ the Erdoğan aide said in his column in Haber7 website.

While the end result of the AKP’s difference of opinion remains unknown, it appears certain that the Istanbul Convention will occupy Turkey’s agenda in the upcoming days as the country reels over its alarming femicide numbers following the death of a 27-year-old university student murdered earlier this month.

Pınar Gültekin has become the latest victim of violence against women in Turkey, where 146 women were killed by men in the first half of 2020, according to the rights group We Will Stop Femicides.