by Sanem Oztürk (KADAV – Women’s Solidarity Foundation, Turkey)

On June 19th hundreds of thousands of women from 131 women and LGBTIQ+ organizations from İstanbul and many other cities met in İstanbul at a demonstration for protesting Turkey’s withdrawal from İstanbul Convention and draw attention to the 1st of July actions. As a member of a women organization, I can say that all preparations were done with joy and excitement. Then we got some horrible news just 2 days before the demonstration. The murder of Deniz Poyraz, a Kurdish woman who is a member of HDP, just having breakfast at the party headquarters in İzmir by herself. The attacker went into the building which is always under police control, just like any other HDP center. His purpose was to do a massacre, as he said later in his statement. Deniz was the only person there. And he killed her with six bullets.

June 19th demonstration was going to be about protesting Turkey’s withdrawal from the İstanbul Convention on March 20th at midnight by a presidential decision. But it was also dedicated to Deniz Poyraz, spontaneously, and to many other victims of violence, different forms of violence including political violence.

Political violence is not something new, of course. In the past, we have seen so many examples of it, especially against Kurdish women, leftist women, socialist women, feminists… It’s not an issue only seen in Turkey, but all over the world.

In Turkey, we have been experiencing an enormous increase in gender-based violence and discrimination in its all forms in the last decade, as we discussed in our previous public assemblies of E.A.S.T. before. Actually, women’s movement, as one of the liveliest political movements in Turkey since late ‘80s, struggled so hard and gained many hard-won rights within the last three decades, by designing and passing better laws, building commissions, shouting in the streets, advocating in the discussion halls, keeping guard at the gates of the National Assembly, or defending our rights at courtrooms. Same Erdoğan and his party was in power throughout the last two decades of the struggle. When people ask: “What changed? Wasn’t the same Erdoğan signing the Convention?”, I say: “Yes, and no”. The beginning of 2010s were the years in which Erdoğan was still playing the “democrat card” towards the West and the rest of the world; the EU membership was still on the table; the outrageous refugee deal between the EU and Turkey wasn’t in effect; women organizations and other rights-based NGOs still had the chance (although limited) to find a place in negotiation tables, a so-called peace process about Kurdish issue, despite the insincerity of AKP (Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party), was going on, the list goes on and on.

There is no exact date when things started to go upside down for women, but I’d like to share a couple of milestones in recent history of Turkey. The transformation of Ministry of Women Affairs into Ministry of Family and Social Policies in 2012 was a very alarming sign that might give a rough idea about the ideal women and the ideal Turkey in AKP’s mind. Erdoğan himself reinforced this “sacred family” mentality many times by telling women they should get married and have at least three children to be a decent Turkish-Muslim woman. It was also made clear that the women who choose to be outside these lines are “non-acceptable.” Another important milestone came right after the Roboski massacre (in December 2011 the Turkish army bombed a group of Kurdish civilians killing 34 of them), when Erdoğan, instead of investigating the horrific crime an army committed against its own people, tried to shut down the opposition in rage by saying “Roboski is not a massacre, but abortion is” and millions of raging women poured on the streets. This was actually not only an attempt to change the agenda of the country, but also a sign that they will attack one of the most hard-won rights women gained in Turkey. At the end, they did not succeed in abolishing the law; however, they brought a set of limitations that prevented many women to access free and healthy abortion right in state hospitals.

Another sign paving the way to totally abandoning gender equality objective was the foundation of a Commission to Investigate Divorces in the National Assembly in 2015. I think we are all smart enough to understand what they mean by investigating the divorces; it only meant taking action to decrease divorce rates, instead of preventing violence against women and femicides and building effective mechanisms to protect women from violence. It revealed the nationalist-Islamist mentality where women and children can be subjected to violence systematically as long as the sacred family institution is not broken.

Countless examples from our daily lives can be given here. A finance minister who announces “unemployment is increasing because women are seeking jobs” can continue his post (March 2009), for instance. A health minister can say “a women’s only career should be motherhood” (January 2015) and gets to keep his job. The mayor of the capital city of Turkey can suggest a woman who was raped to commit suicide instead of having an abortion (June 2012). The prime minister of the country can say that violence against women is exaggerated (March 2011) or teach the whole country “how gender equality is against the creation of women and men” (at any chance he gets). The most recent example was from the minister of Family Affairs: she stated that violence against women in Turkey is actually at a “tolerable” level.

These are the instigators of violence against women in every form. These are pieces of our painful collective memory. These words have influence over law enforcement officers, legislation officers, health workers who are supposed to support women in accessing their rights. These are the words that shape the discourse of the media.

In short, Turkey is so far from providing sufficient safe spaces for millions of women and LGBTIQ+. It is regressing, in fact. And most women, righteously, do not trust the system well enough to report the violence. And why would they? How can they trust the system when the very people who are supposed to protect their rights are the ones who are attacking those rights? They are the ones who were disturbed by the shadow of the İstanbul Convention despite the fact that the Convention was not even fully implemented in Turkey. Of course, the real problem for them was to see how women embraced the Convention wholeheartedly. Women from various sections of society. Women in unions organized actions for the implementation of the Convention, especially about violence at the workplace. Just before May 1st, the revolutionary unions federation made a specific announcement emphasizing İstanbul Convention and all other agreements Turkey is responsible for implementing. In some cases, we were in the process of benefitting the Convention. Especially the cases of refugee women, undocumented migrants.

Turkey’s record in terms of gender-based violence was already alarming before the pandemic; but of course, it was before millions of women who are subjected to violence were forced to “stay at home” with their torturers. They could not access the protection mechanisms. They were rejected at the police stations. They were sent away from the shelters because they could not get Covid-negative reports. Many women… who were supposed to be protected by the İstanbul Convention, by the Law No. 6284, by their government. 300 femicides and 171 suspicious deaths of women were recorded only in 2020. (We Will Stop Femicides Platform 2020 Report). 79 femicides and 45 suspicious deaths of women in the first quarter of 2021. (We Will Stop Femicides Platform 2020 Monthly Reports). At least 2336 women as we know of would have been alive if the Convention was implemented since 2012.

So, the 1st July is a very important day for us, since İstanbul Convention will be abandoned officially that day. Therefore, June 19th demonstration was a very important step towards 1st July action. To be honest, I’m not sure how many thousands of women participated, there’s something that’s really irritating in recent years; we have been forced to organize our demonstrations at the specific locations governorates allow, otherwise there’s serious police brutality and arrests, and more. It’s so irritating for us mainly because the demonstrations should take place in the centers of our cities, people should see us, be with us, join us when they feel like it. It was the case in the past, we used to organize actions in Taksim, in Kadıköy in İstanbul, in Kızılay in Ankara, the centers, the hearts of the cities. Now, as a strategy, they want to isolate the action from the very subjects of the demands raised in those actions.

But in any case, June 19th demonstration was crowded, noisy and promising for the 1st July. The demands were obvious, an end to gender based discrimination and violence in all spheres of life, fight against child marriages, proper investigation and punishment for the perpetrators of femicides, signing ILO 190 agreement and an end to violence at the workplace, abolishing the bill on amnesty for perpetrators of sexual abuse of minors, and the İstanbul Convention, of course, and implementation of all national and international legal framework. It was a sad day, but also full of energy. It was also great to physically being together after months of isolation.

As feminists, as women’s movement in Turkey, we are discouraged, sure, but never hopeless. The fight for equality did not start with Istanbul Convention and it will not stop with the withdrawal (which is still unacceptable for millions of women campaigning all around Turkey despite the pandemic and police brutality). However, this is definitely an alarming sign that gender equality goal is abandoned altogether and a huge step was taken towards paving the way for a more patriarchal society socially, culturally and institutionally. It already started to give the first poisonous fruits: Perpetrators of femicides call their lawyers everyday to ask if they can reduce their sentences “since Turkey has withdrawn from the Convention.” Men seek for legal counselling to deny women’s alimony right.

The attacks on our rights continue as we speak. And as all this happens, the West and EU in particular have “no comment”, especially since 2016 when the ugly deal was signed with Turkey. So, if Erdoğan is becoming more daring and reckless than ever today, if the corruption became the new rising religion in Turkey, if the youth feels more hopeless and precarious than ever, if people are so afraid to speak up against the official discourse, if women, children, LGBTIQ+, refugees have no feeling of freedom or security at all, it’s because Erdoğan knows he won’t be challenged. He knows that he has a very powerful leverage and he doesn’t hesitate to use it at every chance.

Since Turkey became the border police of the European Union, things have gone such a downhill socially, politically and economically that a huge section of Turkish society, especially young people, women, LGBTIQ+ do not want to live here anymore. They seek asylum in other countries, they seek any kind of chance to go abroad and live there. In other words, as the EU grants Turkey with billions of Euros to keep the refugees away from Europe, it already started to cause masses of Turkish citizens flee from their own country, where they cannot access their rights, find secure jobs, speak freely and feel safe. And where do you think Turkey’s masses will seek asylum? I think we all know the answer.

I’d like to end here by saying how much I trust the inner power and capability of action I see in women’s movement in Turkey. It’s not an exaggeration to say that women’s movement and feminists did not only survive after every attack, but they also gained strength each time. It’s a horrible feeling to be in the defense all the time, especially against a mentality that dominates every sphere of social life, yes; but now women are more organized and locally and internationally connected than ever. And the fight is far from being over.