Erdoğan boasts ‘zero tolerance’ for violence against women

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hailed the “historic steps” Turkey has taken for women’s rights in recent years, in a speech marking the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women on Thursday.

The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in 1995 and hosted by China, passed the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which aimed to promote the legal equality of women and their participation in the workforce, and to tackle discrimination and violence against women.

“We fight violence against women with a multifaceted, holistic approach and with the principle of zero tolerance,” Erdoğan said in his video message marking the anniversary, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency.

Erdoğan’s speech came after debates that continued throughout the summer on whether Turkey should withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on Violence Against Women has been ongoing in Turkish society. Some government officials in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have voiced their support for Turkey withdrawing from the convention, which was signed by Erdoğan in 2011, while others were against it.

Socially conservative politicians within the AKP and other right wing parties contend that the Convention’s definition of gender as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men” is a threat to traditional and religion-based roles.

Religious conservatives in European Union member states like Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have led calls for their countries to also pull out of the convention. Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said in July that he would start a formal process for Poland to withdraw from the treaty.

However, those calling for Turkey to withdraw from the convention do not have the support of the Turkish population, according to recent polling. Sixty three percent of Turks polled by the company MetroPoll in July said they were opposed to Turkey’s withdrawal.

In 2014, Erdoğan himself said that he did not believe that women and men were equal. “You cannot put women and men on an equal footing,” Erdoğan said. “It is against nature.” Statements such as this, meant to appeal to core religious conservative voters, go against the spirit of agreements which Turkey has signed to promote the legal equality of Turkish women.

The public’s attitude towards women’s role in Turkish society has been changing. Polling by Konda in August showed that a significant shift had taken place in attitudes in the past five years.

The ratio of Turks who believe that ‘women should watch what they wear’ decreased from 80 percent to 32 percent, while those agreeing that it is acceptable to break the law in cases of ‘honour’ fell from 45 percent to 21 percent.

Despite these changes, rates of violence against women remain high in Turkey. There has been a serious increase in reported femicides, where women are killed often by family members or intimate partners, in the past ten years. According to We Will Stop Femicides Platform, 295 women have been murdered so far in 2020. The group recorded 418 femicides last year - a six-fold increase from 66 reported femicides in 2008 and 125 in 2009. The list is not exhaustive, as the group gathers data from the media and state institutions do not release data on gender-based violence.

Erdoğan’s speech looks to be a response to the backlash he received, as he detailed steps that his government had taken to support women’s rights including opening new shelters for women, “and thus further (strengthening) our capacity to protect victims in the face of deplorable incidents.”

However, in July, women’s refuge organisation Mor Çatı criticised public officials who it blamed for revealing the locations of domestic violence shelters. In one incident, a man had discovered which shelter his wife was staying in and then murdered her. In another, a woman was intercepted by her family on her way to one.

Independent Turkish news service Bianet reported that police officers and other officials were able to disclose the locations of women’s shelters with impunity, and that women hesitate to file complaints about such incidents because they fear to risk their lives.

Erdoğan even faces opposition to the idea of withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention from within his own family. Among the opponents is the Women and Democracy Association (KADEM), which has Erdoğan’s daughter Sümeyye Erdoğan-Bayraktar and the wife of one of the president’s in-laws Hafize Şule Albayrak on its board.

Another scandal the AKP faces is one of its deputies being accused of complicity in the murder of an Uzbek domestic worker. Housekeeper Nadira Kadirova was found dead in the apartment of AKP deputy Şirin Ünal on Sept. 23, 2019. A swift post-mortem concluded that Kadirova had shot herself in the chest at point-blank range with a weapon belonging to Ünal. In March, the public prosecutor announced that Ünal would not face any charges.

With so many other domestic and international priorities to occupy the Turkish government’s attention, withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention could have cost Erdoğan political capital he can’t afford to spare. On the other hand, it is a culture war with Turkish progressive groups that could be used to distract from ongoing economic worries. As such, we can expect the debate on women’s rights to continue into 2021 with little progress in any direction.