As Turkey weighs withdrawal from Istanbul Convention, women prepare to protest

As conservative media and ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials discuss Turkey’s withdrawal from a council of Europe human rights treaty against domestic and gender-based violence, Turkey’s women are calling for a demonstration on Sunday to protest domestic and sexual violence against women and children.

“We will keep our distance, we will wear our masks and we will meet at the protest,’’ Fidan Ataselim from the We Will Stop Femicides Platform (KCDP) tweeted on Saturday.

The KCDP and Women’s Assemblies, an umbrella organisation for women's rights advocacy, are calling for a simultaneous demonstration across 13 provinces to protest the proposed changes to a law on child sexual abuse, in addition to a better implementation of the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.

There will be gatherings in Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, Bursa, Muğla, Kayseri, Samsun, Mersin, Eskişehir, Çorum, Kocaeli, Antalya and Kütahya, Women’s Assemblies announced.

The call is spread through social media, under hash tags that read, “Istanbul Convention saves lives,” and “Istanbul Convention is a must.”

The Istanbul Convention and Turkish Law No.6284 for protection of the family and prevention of violence against women call for increased support services for women and children, including rape crisis centres and women’s shelters. The legislation allows for women subjected to domestic or sexual violence to take more effective action against their abusers while discouraging gendered bias in law enforcement and court systems.

The KCDP warns that the number of femicides in the country has increased under lockdown and curfew conditions implemented as part of Turkey’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, with women losing access to both legal and familial support networks.

In the first 10 days of June, 10 women were killed throughout Turkey, KCDP said.

“Throughout the pandemic, most women (who were killed) were killed in their homes,” a previous statement said. “With the normalisation, the number of femicides rose. Life did not go back to normal for women.”

Eleven out of 21 women killed in May were killed by firearms, mostly by their partners, according to KCDP.

“When we ask why they could not solve the femicide issue, this country’s Justice Minister cannot answer us,’’ the KCDP said. “He speaks of the orders and laws they pushed out. It is not enough to put out laws, to make regulations. You have to effectively implement the Istanbul Convention and the Law No. 6284, and keep women alive.”

The Council of Europe in April urged signatory states to take care in implementing the convention, warning of potential increase in violence against women during times of crisis.

Turkey’s conservative media has long stood against the convention and the law, but recently AKP officials have started to discuss the possibility of withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention and annulling the Law No.6284, an initiative kick-started by AKP Deputy Chairman Numan Kurtulmuş.

“Just as we fulfilled the requirements and signed it, we can fulfil the requirements and leave,” Kurtulmuş said on July 2.

Pro-government newspaper Türkiye said on Wednesday that during an AKP central committee meeting, Erdoğan pointed to Bulgaria, Croatia and Hungary, which all withdrew from the convention over concerns on LGBT rights, saying that he too favoured Turkey’s withdrawal as well.

Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül said was in favour of a withdrawal and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu described how the withdrawal process would be undertaken.

The Istanbul Convention, contrary to mainstream conservative opposition to its content, does not explicitly promote LGBT rights, but bans discrimination in access to public services and support services regarding gendered violence. The convention also stipulates that cultural elements cannot be accepted as defence during trials related to gendered violence, such as honour killings or what is colloquially known as the “gay panic defence,” where a defendant says they did not know their partner had been male.

“We object to homosexuality and the (notion of) genderlessness that LGBT lobbies try to legitimise and spread throughout the world,” chairwoman of the pro-AKP Women and Democracy Association (KADEM) Saliha Okur said in an interview on July 10. “However, the convention mentions sexual orientation because it stands against violence.

“It says that regardless of a person’s language, race, identity, refugee status, whether they are men, women or children, even if they have a different sexual orientation, states must protect them from violence,” Okur said.

Remaining a signatory of the convention “does not necessarily mean a move to empower homosexuality or the LGBT lobby,” she added, and even if Turkey withdraws from the convention, it must continue the fight against violence, and a withdrawal “must not mean a weakening of the fight against violence.”

“It won’t be that easy to withdraw from this,” Tülay Korkutan and Tuana Öztuncer, university students whose women’s groups occupied the Family Ministry on July 7, told Mezopotamya news agency. “The Istanbul Convention guarantees our lives.”

AKP “had not signed the convention all that voluntarily,” the women said, “it went into effect thanks to the women’s movement.”

“Withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention is murder,” pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputy Serpil Kemalbay told Mezopotamya.

“AKP wishes to shape society through the type of woman they approve of,” Kemalbay said, while imposing conservative values on society.

Such moves would “take society back decades,” she added.

Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy İbrahim Kaboğlu, an expert on constitutional law, told news website Duvar that the convention was based on a human rights understanding that “thinks globally, acts locally,” and is thus “an immensely valuable document for Turkey.”

“Turkey’s policy on women’s rights is a policy beyond political parties and governments,” Kaboğlu said. What has allowed Turkey to implement democracy has been its secular nature, despite the overwhelming majority of its population being from the same religion, and the upholding of women’s rights, according to the opposition lawmaker.

Turkey should be proud of getting behind the convention, Kaboğlu said, adding, “Turkey has a responsibility and the honour to fulfil the requirements of this document, and be an inspiration for all, and other Muslim societies in particular.”

CHP Deputy Chairwoman Lale Karabıyık said discussing the validity of the Istanbul Convention threatens all women, as it covers different types of violence such as psychological and physical violence, stalking, sexual assault and rape, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, forced abortions, forced sterilisations and sexual violence.

The convention does not vilify traditions, but says religious violence and honour killings are not acceptable, Karabıyık said.