While violence against women worldwide is on sharp rise, we are also witnessing a backlash and attack against the rights that protect women from such violence. One such recent example is the debate surrounding the Istanbul Convention. The Council of Europe “Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence”, called shortly Istanbul Convention, entered into force on 1 August 2014. As the first European Convention which aims at protecting the women and girls against violence in general and domestic violence in particular, the Istanbul Convention has been signed by 45 out of 47 Member States of the Council of Europe and ratified by 34 of them.

Currently, however, the Istanbul Convention has become the target of nationalist, conservative and populist attacks. Echoing discourses increasingly heard at global level, the Convention is decried by its detractors as a threat to the traditional family structure and its alleged values. In an unprecedented turn, many countries have demanded to withdraw from the Convention. These include most notably Turkey, Poland, as well as Croatia and Serbia. Other countries which had signed the Istanbul Convention are now refusing to ratify it, including Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Latvia.[i]

This article focuses in particular on the controversy about the Istanbul Convention taking place in Turkey. Aiming to show dedication to EU values and global leadership on the matter of women rights, Turkey was the first country to ratify the Istanbul Convention on 11 May 2011.[ii] The domestic Law No. 6284[iii] on the protection of the family and the prevention of violence against women, which includes regulations parallel to the Istanbul Convention, entered into force on 20 March 2012. What explains Turkey’s recent U-turn on the protection of women rights, and on the Istanbul Convention in particular?

One of the reasons for the controversy is the rapid rise in domestic violence in the country. These incidents of violence increased especially during the AKP government: since 2012, the number of cases of violence against women that resulted in a protection order has exceeded 1,5 million. According to a 2019 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, a staggering 38% of women in Turkey have been  exposed to violence. According to activist reports, in 2020, 239 women in Turkey have been killed, and in 2019, 417 died in domestic violence cases.

Yet Turkey is divided into two different camps about the Istanbul Convention. On the one hand, there are those who claim that the Convention destroys the family, while on the other hand there are those who see the Convention as an achievement. This polarisation can be observed also within the conservative wing, as there is a cleavage within the ruling AKP's own base. Among those who have supported the Istanbul Convention there is President R. T. Erdogan's daughter, Sümeyye Erdoğan Bayraktar, who is the vice chairman of KADEM (Association for Woman and Democracy), which explicitly declared its support for the Istanbul Convention. Those who are in favor of democratic progress within the AKP oppose therefore the withdrawal from the Convention. Others, such as religious associations and congregations, are pressuring the government to opt out of the Convention. They argue that the Convention does not coincide with traditional values and family structure, and supports the LGBT lifestyle. Among them are the AKP's organic intellectuals, such as general president Numan Kurtulmuş, who argues that the main problem in this Convention is the issue of gender and sexual orientation. Furthermore, in his view, the Convention supports marginal elements such as LGBT and gives them space to operate. He believes that it damages the family and its values. While there is no clause or expression in the Convention relating to LGBT, the Convention is portrayed in a negative light by using society's sensitivity to this issue.

Turkey Thinking Platform, of which AKP ultra-reactionary and religious writer Abdurahman Dilipak is a member, encouraged the government to leave the Istanbul Convention. In one of his speeches, Dilipak claimed: “We believe that such a Convention is not in accordance with human rights or the consent of Allah in terms of our own values, and that there is a deception in terms of human rights, and that it is a contract that makes matters worse while trying to be helpful. If a new Convention is to be held, the moral foundations of it need to be discussed internationally, not only in an environment overshadowed by political actors or certain lobbies, but in a freer environment. A new Convention is also possible, based on today's experience.” Such statements are rather vague and fail to clarify why the Convention would be against human rights, and what provisions exactly should be changed.

The same conservative intellectuals made rather nonsensical allegations that the Istanbul Convention contributed to increasing violence against women in Turkish society. What may be true is that the implementation of the Convention, by allowing women to protect their rights, has made violence visible. Another major reason for the increase of violence against women in Turkish society is the AKP's way of doing politics and its language: a politics that uses the language of violence, insolence, humiliation, encouraging others to use violence. Concrete examples of this are not hard to find: President R. T. Erdogan said that “Men and women cannot be equal. It's against their nature”; Bülent Arınç, the then Deputy Prime Minister, felt entitled to say that women “will not laugh in public”; AKP’s Uğur Işılak’, in one of his speeches on TV, claimed that “woman's nature is to be slave”; Mehmet Muezzinoglu, member of the AKP, who was once a health minister, stated that motherhood is the only career for women; Sefer Üstün, an organic intellectual of the AKP and law graduate has played an important role in both strengthening masculine and patriarchal discourses and legitimizing the societal escalation of violence against women. While he was head of the Human Rights Commission of the Turkish Grand National Assembly, he claimed: “the one who is raped should not have an abortion. The rapist is more innocent than the victim who had an abortion”. These are only a few examples which illustrate AKP's misogynistic politics, while at the same time laying the groundwork for the legitimization of violence in society.

But women’s struggle in Turkey has also a very long and tenacious history starting in the early Ottoman period. Currently, Turkish women protest against this conservative and patriarchal mentality in order to protect their rights, their history and their achievements. At the manifestation which took place in Istanbul on the 5thAugust, women expressed their concern with the following slogans: “The Istanbul Convention is born out of women's blood,” and “We will not allow femicides”. Women’s organizations and feminists continue to fight against the demand for withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention and protest despite harsh police interventions against them taking place almost every day. Their struggle is alive not only at a civil society level expressed mainly through NGOs, but also at an institutional level given that many municipalities support the Istanbul Convention. At least 10 Municipalities, including big cities like Istanbul and Izmir, have announced their support for the Convention. A strong statement of support was made from the Eskisehir Odunpazarı Municipality, which started handing the declaration of Istanbul Convention together with the marriage certificate to those who get married during their marriage ceremony. Also, inside the business world, Sabanci Foundation and Borusan Holding together with other Turkish companies declared their support for Istanbul Convention. These different forms of supports are sources of hope in the struggle for women’s rights, and will determine the future debates on the Istanbul Convention in Turkey.

[i] According to recent media reports, “In May 2020, the Hungarian legislature refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention, objecting to its definition of gender as ‘socially constructed’ [Guardian]. Latvia’s Constitutional Court is examining the Istanbul Convention’s compatibility with the country’s constitution, following delays in its ratification [Baltic News Network]. Bulgaria’s Constitutional Court held, in 2018, that the Convention was not compatible with its domestic legislation with regard to the definition of gender, and Bulgaria has not ratified the treaty [NYT: Poland]. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women described Bulgaria’s interpretation of the Convention’s definition of gender as a “misinterpretation” and urged it to reconsider [OHCHR Press Release]. Slovakia’s legislature, in November 2019, also rejected ratification of the Convention [COE Newsroom: Slovak Republic]. The COE Commissioner for Human Rights has recently urged Moldova, too, to proceed with its stalled ratification process. [COE Press Release].

[ii] Since 2020, it has been signed by 45 countries and European Union. The countries who ratified it as follows: Albania, Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Serbia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey.

Those who signed but not ratified are: Armenia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, European Union, Hungary, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Republic of Moldova, Slovak Republic, Ukraine, United Kingdom.

[iii] Law 6284 regards “any physical, sexual, psychological and economic violence as domestic violence which occurred in family or among other members of household, although the victims and perpetrator do not share the same household.”

Cover photo: Vedat Örüç (C), 8 March 2020, Istanbul