Turkish activist petitions EC President von der Leyen for support for women

A Turkish entrepreneur and women’s rights activist on Tuesday penned an open letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and called for her support to the Istanbul Convention.

Gülseren Onanç, president of the women’s rights platform SES Equality and Solidarity Association, expressed her “deep regret and embarrassment” at von der Leyen not getting a seat at a press event in the Turkish capital on April 6.

Such behaviour “is not isolated”, wrote Onanç, but rather indicative of a wider cultural problem within the Turkish government and others in Europe. She wrote:

“It reflects a patriarchal mindset and system based on the false assumption that political leadership belongs to men and which fails to recognize that women can run multilateral organizations, countries and associations on an equal basis as effective leaders.”

Von der Leyen was left standing without a chair in the press event following a meeting she and European Council President Charles Michel held with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prompting accusations of sexism in what many commentators called “SofaGate”. Turkish officials deny any ill intent and said that they were following protocols shared by the European delegation.

During the meeting von der Leyen expressed the EU’s stern opposition to Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a treaty of the Council of Europe that aims to combat gender-based violence, so named after where it was signed in 2011. Erdoğan took Turkey out of the convention through a presidential decree on April 20, prompting outrage and protests against the decision.

The Turkish president’s decision took place against the backdop of a wave of violence against women, including several particularly violent murders. In 2020, at least 171 women were killed under suspicious circumstances while 300 women were murdered by men, most of whom were their intimate partners or first-degree family members, according to women’s advocacy group We Will Stop Femicides

“I am deeply worried,” Onanç told reporters. “This is about protecting women and protecting children against violence. And this is clearly the wrong signal right now.”

To this end,  Onanç implored that van der Leyen take a stronger stance on supporting women’s movements in Europe and globally.

“Our objective is to dismantle the patriarchal system, which brings discrimination and inequality, and to replace it with solidarity,” she wrote, adding that this goal was aligned with the “values on which the European Union and the Turkish Republic are based”.

Onanç went on to say that the founding values placed a special duty on the EU and Turkey to stand up to uphold the Istanbul Convention and continue to the fight against discrimination against women.

“Our combined efforts to ensure that the principles enshrined in the Convention are implemented effectively will bring encouragement and relief to women across the world,” she wrote.