Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention
Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention
Interview with Merve Arslan
By Lisa Settari for WomenBeing Magazine
Image credits: Reuters
The Istanbul Convention is a Council of Europe treaty on the way in which national governments handle violence against women and domestic violence. The Convention (officially known as the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence) came into force in 2014 and aims to prevent violence against women, protect the victims of domestic violence and ensure that perpetrators are not exempt from punishment. Turkey was the first state to ratify the Convention by a unanimous parliamentary vote in 2012. At the time, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan praised this step as proof of his country’s leadership in the domain of gender equality. The Women and Democracy Association (KADEM), whose vice-chair is Erdoğan’s daughter, also actively supported the Convention. So far, 45 countries have signed the Convention and 34 have ratified it (this does not include the UK). It is considered the most significant international agreement on the issue of violence against women. On 20th March 2021, Turkey became the first signatory to formally announce its withdrawal from the Convention; this decision will take effect from July 2021.
Lisa Settari spoke to Merve Arslan, a research student at the University of Sussex, to discuss Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, the factors which led to this decision and the impact it has had on Turkish society.
How did you feel when you heard that President Erdoğan had issued a decree to initiate Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention?
I felt disappointed, of course. This Convention is about preventing and combating violence against women including domestic violence. It is a general plan and framework on how to take an action regarding violence in a specific country. When this Convention was ratified in the parliament it implied a promise to protect women’s rights in Turkey. However, the government has suddenly given up on the process, despite the fact that violence against women and femicide is increasing at a very worrying rate in Turkey.
Were you surprised by this choice?
The discussion surrounding this choice has been going on for a long time and I was not too surprised by the outcome. While Turkey is the first country to formally withdraw from the Convention, Poland (in July 2020) have suggested that they may make the same decision and other countries, like Bulgaria (in 2018), Slovakia (in March 2019) and Hungary (in May 2020) have failed to ratify it. Their reasons? The protection of traditional values and exclusion of discussions surrounding gender. Turkey offered the same reasons as justification. I think these exits are linked to the rise of a specific discursive power, one especially present in Middle and Eastern Europe. Researchers such as Celis and Childs agree with this position and suggest that this discourse is coming from far-right groups, religious organisations and extreme nationalist movements that have gained power in the last years. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, these movements all promote actions which threaten women’s rights and safety, and it is very disquieting.
How did your family, friends and acquaintances react? How do you think women in Turkey feel about this?
It has been a tumultuous week for women in Turkey. Some women have remained silent and some have voiced their agreement to leave, aligning with the nationalist approach. However, I can say that for many women, feminists across all professions, doing nothing was not an option. Even though we are still facing Covid-19, many women marched in the streets of the big cities in protest. On social media platforms, many hashtags were created to bring attention to the situation surrounding the Convention. Women wanted to be able to express their disagreement clearly through their posts.
As an observation, it was very disheartening for me to see the lack of male supporters of the Istanbul Convention.
The withdrawal announcement has led to protests in major cities. One slogan used by the protesters was “We don’t accept one man’s decision” – but was this really a decision taken only by Erdoğan himself?
I don’t think that it was only one man’s decision, it seems to me like ‘many’ men’s decision on the political ground.As far as I understand, the slogan “We don’t accept one man’s decision” acts as a response to patriarchal power relations. As I pointed out before, there is a specific branch of ideology gaining power in the current political arena. Far-right groups, religious organisations and extreme nationalist movements are dominating the discourse and have been the driving force behind this turning point. It is organisations like these that feminist political movements have to fight against.
Who are the individuals and groups at the forefront of the protests?
As far as we could see on TV and social media, the protesters were primarily women’s rights activists, famous feminist lawyers and some sympathising politicians from all parties. Because of the pandemic, many people were probably worried about joining large protests at this time.
Turkey has recently seen a rise in femicides – according to the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, 300 women were murdered in 2020 and 77 have been murdered so far this year. How do you reply to those claiming that the Convention was not efficiently protecting Turkish women and that the withdrawal is therefore not so concerning?
Yes, the numbers are worrying. I believe they are quite unpredictable and some experts cannot even give any comprehensive explanation as to why the situation is worsening. I think that such a Convention might be more easily implemented if it aligned with the country’s constitution. It may not be efficient as it is very generally structured as an agreement, but it can be useful if it supports the constitution in your country. In Turkey’s constitution, equality is stated of course, but it certainly requires improvement through new regulation.
Following domestic and international criticism of President Erdoğan’s decree, Minister of Interior, Süleyman Soylu, stated that Turkish institutions and security forces ‘will continue to fight domestic violence and violence against women’. His colleague Zehra Zumrut, Family, Labour and Social Services Minister, said on social media that women’s rights were protected by the constitution. Erdoğan also announced the creation of a parliamentary commission to work on anti-violence legislation. Do any of those statements and announcements reassure you?
I do not know how they can analyse the changeable sociological dimensions and come up with effective solutions, even if the studies are ongoing and in good faith. More concrete steps towards combating violence need to be taken and more awareness-raising events carried out. The Turkish government should make more effort to ensure that strategies for reducing and tackling domestic violence become an ingrained part of society. In that regard, the collaboration of ministries and institutions to synchronize their projects means a lot to me.
The Istanbul Convention was ratified by Turkey’s parliament, but the withdrawal process was merely introduced through a presidential decree. Do you think parliament still has a chance to get a say in this matter? If not, what does that say about the legislative power in Turkey?
Indeed, it happened very suddenly. There was also a flood of reactions from many other countries and international organisations. Currently, lawyers and other litigation experts are working on monitoring the process and its effects, and creating legal regulations for the future. In that sense, it would be great if the decision to withdraw were to be reconsidered as soon as possible and hopefully before July. I hope that the parliament will take into consideration the reactions from both politicians and the public.
What gives you – and the women in Turkey – hope in this situation?
For many women, the scrapping of the Convention is a huge disappointment because they were expecting the judiciary to be instrumental in cracking down on violence against all women, including those from the LGBT+ community. With or without the Convention, they were hoping that the judiciary would impose adequate punishments for violent crimes against women to act as a deterrent against these types of attacks. Now more than ever, Turkey’s legal system should take action to ensure that violence against women is dealt with effectively, as the government steps away from the Convention and its aims.
Not only in Turkey but also in other countries (Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland), how can we be hopeful about the improvement of women’s protection and rights? It is a difficult question to answer. Their motives for leaving are not consistent and even if there is no explicit mention of sexual identity or LGBT+ issues in the convention, some governments use their aversion to these topics as part of their discourse to justify their withdrawal. It is really sad.
The world is changing, but the rising discursive power is constantly trying to prevent women from living their lives comfortably. I believe that women feel this deeply everywhere. Therefore, I think us feminists should not give up on promoting the importance of women’s rights and how they must improve. We owe it to future generations to defend our rights.
Lisa Settari is a Politics graduate from the University of Edinburgh, currently works as a language teacher in France and will finally dedicate her full attention to gender studies as a postgraduate student this autumn. She grew up in northern Italy and first tried on the feminist lens as an undergraduate student. She has not taken it off since, and manifests her convictions in articles, podcasts, daily debates, marches and the like.
Merve Arslan is a Doctoral Researcher, at the School of History, Department of Philosophy University of Sussex, in the United Kingdom.
She graduated from the department of Philosophy with honor degree at Adnan Menderes University in Turkey, in 2010. Her graduation thesis was about Kant’s theory of citizenship in terms of woman. After graduation, she worked as a teacher on philosophy, sociology and psychology. In 2014, Merve applied and won the scholarship from the Turkish Ministry of National Education.
Between 2016-2017, she studied her MA project on woman’s otherness and freedom in Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Once receiving her MA degree, she started her PhD in September 2017. Currently, Merve’s research focuses on ‘Discursive Bodies and the Role of Unidentified Bodies in Feminist Thought’.
Merve’s interest areas are generally about Body theories in the History of Philosophy, Feminist Philosophy, Gender and Power Relations, 20th century French Philosophy, Otherness and its social implications, and lastly Roman philosophy.