“We don’t want to die!”

Reflections on the Turkish withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention

By İrem Çörekçi, Malmö (Sweden)

I am originally from Turkey but I have been living in Sweden for some years. Except for my older sister, my whole family still lives in Turkey along with my younger sisters who are 19 and 21. Due to COVID, they moved back in with my parents, who live in a small town by the Black Sea, from İstanbul, where they study. Now they are all back together in a place that has been known for being small, beautiful and secure. Their home is in walking distance of the seaside and the forest.

A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with them. They complained to me about how stressed they were because of having to stay home, lacking any activity to do. My advice was simple: “You live very close to nature, why are you not taking walks to the forest every day? Living close to nature is a luxury during the pandemic”. Their response made me ashamed of myself because they reminded me of how it was like being a woman in Turkey. They said “Are you even asking this question seriously? How could we go to the forest knowing that we can get raped or harassed by a random man hanging out there? We are terrified of going to desolate places. We can’t even walk in the city centre without thinking about what is going to happen in a second, İstanbul or here. No matter where you go, it is equally insecure for women”. Unfortunately, even our supposedly ‘cute’ and ‘secure’ city of origin is not providing that fundamental security for women anymore. It seems as if only men can hang out freely while feeling that any woman who passes by deserves to hear at least a disturbing word from them, in the forests or anywhere else. It appears that Turkish cities are even more dangerous for women than ever before. This conversation triggered memories of harassments I experienced in interaction with people almost every day when I lived in Turkey. I remembered how I wanted to forget all those experiences, just longing for a feeling of safety.

I eventually did find more safety in Sweden, where I currently live. Needless to say, I am not implying that everything is perfect here. Nevertheless, I can rest assured that Swedish law would protect me in case of any kind of harassment, which is the most basic right to have. It broke my heart to think about my relative safety while my sisters cannot even take a walk freely without feeling anxiety and stress.

Patriarchy and the Turkish Republic

One may innocently ask: what are my sisters so afraid of? Well, they are afraid that all the things that happened to innocent women in Turkey in recent years can also happen to them. They live with the thought that they might even get killed, raped or harassed and that the Turkish judiciary would not stand for their rights. This might sound exaggerated. I wish it would be, but I am not even able to describe the whole picture here. Let’s try with some statistics then. According to the data from Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız Platformu (We Will Stop Femicide Platform), over 1700 women have been murdered by men in Turkey since 2017.  Besides this horrendous number of femicides, there have been countless rape and harassment cases which many victims did not report because of the embarrassment that would further entail. This embarrassment is due to widespread social pressure (mainly from their own families) or insecurity regarding the laws and the dismissive attitude of the (mostly male) officials when bringing forward their cases.

Has this horrific state of affairs always been the case in Turkey? Unfortunately, Turkey is one of the world’s many countries where a patriarchal mindset is still very prevalent in society. The status and roles of men and women are mostly pre-determined and have been passed on for centuries. However, since the declaration of the Turkish Republic in 1923 and then the subsequent rise of feminist movements, Turkish women also began to raise their voices and fight for their rights in a more visible way. This process of self-determination has been very painful and long. In 2011, the decades of efforts and hardship seemed to have come to a fruitful end. It was in that year that İstanbul hosted the ‘Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence’, better known under the name İstanbul Convention.

The convention took place in May 2011 and was organised by the Council of Europe. Turkey as the host was the first country that signed and ratified it. Since then, the İstanbul Convention has been signed by 46 states. Its central aim is to prevent violence against women and domestic violence in all its forms. In order to achieve this, the Convention focuses on two main objectives: the struggle against patriarchal structures and the protection of the victim, mainly by sentencing the harasser or the killer. These objectives shall furthermore be reflected through holistic policies regarding the issue by each signatory state.

Femicides and the role of the own family

However, the Turkish State under President Erdoğan’s rule withdrew its ratification of the İstanbul Convention a decade later in March 2021. The official reason for Turkey’s withdrawal was that the state could not accept a convention that is coming from Europe, as it was bound to alter and undermine the Turkish family structure. This reversal an attitude towards the convention was furthermore based on the fact that the term ‘gender’ in the convention-text was referred to as ‘socially constructed’ and also on its emphasis on the term ‘gender equality’. Erdoğan and many other politicians from the ruling AKP government raised their concerns about these terms and definitions for some time, despite having signed it in the first place. They also pointed out that this convention would bring along legal rights for homosexuals. In their vision for Turkey, the country could not allow this to be the case. In one of his speeches on that matter, Erdoğan proclaimed that instead of this European convention, Turkey will protect women and the ‘sacred family’ with Turkish traditions and customs. Again, according to the data from Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız Platformu, 275 of the 300 femicides committed in 2020 were committed by the spouse, partner, family member or ex-spouse partner of the murdered women. Hence, it is thus precisely in this ‘sacred family structure’ that the overhwhelming majority of femicides happen. The date thus serves as a bittersweet irony that painfully summarizes the ‘sacred family structure’ Erdoğan refers to.

So, is this agreement really ‘European’ and thus alien to Turkish values, as advocated by Erdoğan? Why, then, did he personally sign the agreement in 2011 and even host the convention? A closer look at its genesis shows us that, in fact, Turkey was involved in this convention from the outset. The bulk of the data that the convention relied on came mostly from Turkey-based women’s organizations, their decades-long field studies, and their experiences. Then they collaborated in order to make their voice heard and finally succeeded in their efforts not only for Turkish women but for women in many countries. This alone shows us that the convention is not actually a European export to Turkey but rather a reciprocal process that heavily leaned on the fundamental struggles of Turkish women, their experiences and data.

Organizing protests in solidarity with the womens’ movement

After Turkey’s withdrawal from the convention, many women’s organizations all over the country organized massive, inspiring, and brave protests and also numerous campaigns on social media. Under the hashtags of #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır or #istanbulconventionsaveslives hundreds of thousands of people expressed their support for Turkish women. Still, all this effort was unfortunately not sufficient to change the decision of the Turkish State. Despite this terrible blow, the women’s movement in Turkey will continue their fight against oppression and patriarchy. However, nothing will bring back the women who died because of the brutality and negligence of the state, or heal the trauma of women who were raped, abused or women living with a constant fear. Every time a woman gets murdered by a man in Turkey, activists and supporters of the womens’ movement post their black and white pictures as a way expressing their grief. We do not want to see any more black and white pictures of them. We want their colourful pictures posted when they are alive, happy and safe. The most painful thing is that in a society where murderers and harassers are walking freely, millions of sisters of mine will remain scared to go out of their own homes, scared that, one day perhaps, their black and white picture will be posted by people on social media. That is why women require a full protection by Turkish law and that is why #istanbulconventionsaveslives.

İrem Çörekçi is a graduate student at Lund University Media and Communication Studies Master’s Programme, and a current participant of 2020/2021 program at Dialogueperspectives. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Development Studies with a major in Human Geography from Lund University. Also, she has a Communication and International Relations studies background from Turkey. She was born in Ankara/Turkey and raised in many different Turkish cities. She moved to Sweden in 2016 and currently lives in Malmö.

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