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Pınar Gültekin
Pınar Gültekin

Turkey’s femicide problem is more than a confused Instagram trend

The #ChallengeAccepted trend went from hollow slacktivism, to raising awareness about Turkish femicides, and back again – but here’s why the real issue at hand cannot get lost

Earlier this week, I wrote about #ChallengeAccepted, an Instagram trend that invites women to share photographs of themselves – often posed and filtered, taken from flattering angles – posted alongside benign captions about female empowerment. As Instagram feeds began to flood with pristine black and white selfies, from both celebrities and non-celebrities alike, others criticised it as your classic case of slacktivism. Why, during a time of pandemic and IRL protest, was this performance taking up the TL?

Similar to #BlackoutTuesday, where hundreds of thousands of users – including musicians, actors, art institutions, and social media companies – posted black squares on Instagram in an apparent mark of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, it felt like nothing more than a show of performative allyship, an act of what some might call virtue signalling that, in reality, asked very little of those participating in it.

But as the challenge continued to spread, so did confusion over its origins. A viral post began circulating about the trend, which claimed that it began in Turkey as a response to the brutal femicide of Pınar Gültekin, a 27-year-old Kurdish student whose body was found in a barrel. Other Turkish accounts online referenced the Istanbul Convention on gender-based violence and domestic violence – a groundbreaking legal framework designed to protect victims and effectively prosecute offenders that is currently under threat as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s conservative Justice and Development party (AKP) tries to reverse the legislation, which he claims threatens ‘family values’.

“A black and white photo challenge with the hashtag #ChallengeAccepted started after Pınar Gültekin’s murder, as a way for women to remember the women who have been killed and remind people that due to the widespread violence against women their image could be the next to appear on people's social media feeds,” wrote activist and model Munroe Bergdorf, while celebrities like Florence Pugh flocked to update their previously senseless entries to include information on Turkey’s rising femicide rates.

But then, representatives for the Council of Europe and Instagram announced that they were unsure that the Turkish trend was related to the global “women supporting women” challenge, with Instagram later attributing the recent uptick to a post in mid-July by a Brazilian journalist. Other accounts highlighted the trend from 2016, used to raise awareness about cancer. Stuck in the rift between the fast-paced bubble of online activism and fake news, any circulating information about the situation in Turkey fell into the digiscape.

As an Istanbul-born, Turkish woman, watching these events unfold online has been a strange experience. Stuck in a western blindspot, Turkish people exist in a socio-political grey area of devout religion and secularism, European and Middle Eastern, coloniser and colonised. From a western perspective, it’s a standard tale of erasure: we’re unclassifiable – our mixing pot of regions, ethnicities, religions, and customs is too diverse and confusing to be put into a single, easily identifiable box by those who’ve never been taught, or made the effort, to find out more.

On one hand, you feel grateful that Turkey’s even being acknowledged by a western audience at all. Seeing British friends share information that’s so close to our hearts in humbling. While watching British and American celebrities reach out to their hundreds and thousands of followers about our problems is surreal, especially considering the number of women in Turkey getting arrested for speaking out about the same issues right now. The political climate is fervent, with brutal politic tactics, the persecution of human rights activists, and torture on the rise in Erdogan’s state.

But, as with any online form of activism, it’s hard to ignore the fear that this global attention could be overshadowed by and reduced to a passing trend, or the arguments as to hashtag origins dwarf the real issues at hand.

“In 2019, 474 women were murdered in acts of femicide, most of them by current or former partners, family members, or unrelated males who wanted a relationship with them”

Violence against women and so-called “honour” killings is a sad and urgent reality in Turkey. According to a 2009 study on prevention strategies, 42 per cent of Turkish women aged between 15 and 60 had suffered some physical or sexual violence by their husbands or partners. In 2019, 474 women were murdered in acts of femicide, most of them by current or former partners, family members, or unrelated males who wanted a relationship with them. It’s the highest rate in a decade in which numbers have increased year on year. With the coronavirus lockdown, this year’s results are expected to be even higher.

The experience of being a woman or non-binary person in Turkey isn’t limited to specific religions or areas, but rather, it’s a deeply ingrained attitude that’s embedded deeply within the societal structure. For me, this meant dressing down and “covering” yourself from a young age to not draw unwanted attention to yourself; being warned by your parents at age 12 to not wear short skirts on public transport at the risk of a stranger slipping their hand underneath, and the normalisation of self-preservation.

“The culture is so rooted in how a women ‘should be’ and how they ‘should’ behave, so that when you’re different, it’s not acceptable,” says Begum Yetis, an Istanbul-born, London-based photographer. “Everyone judges and curses you, like if you wear more open clothes you are ‘orospu’ (whore) and you deserve what comes to you. It’s because people think women and men aren’t equal, like men feel that they don’t have to hide when looking at you on the street. They violate you with their eyes.”

“I was born and raised in a traditional Turkish muslim family. I was taught early on that I cannot be friends with boys because men and women aren’t supposed to be friends, we are not equals,” adds Altın Tatlı, a queer, non-binary artist based in Istanbul.

“Unfortunately a woman’s ‘place’ in this society is commonly seen as a housewife who should be doing everything to please her man, and if she cannot, she deserves to be divorced,” they explain. “Our minister of finance Mehmet Şimşek said, ‘We have the unemployment rate high because women are looking for jobs also’. The most disturbing speech was given by Ankara mayor Melih Gökçek; he said that ‘if the mum is raped, why would the child have to die, what’s the kid’s sin? The raped mum should die instead.’”

Still, small yet powerful lobby groups are currently debating in parliament for changes to the Istanbul convention on the grounds that it encourages “immoral lifestyles” and divorce. Earlier this month, the AKP deputy chair Numan Kurtulmuş said in a televised interview that the Istanbul convention was “very wrong” and “played into the hands of LGBTQ+ and marginal elements” in Turkish society, while Erdoğan regularly makes public statements that degrade women, such as claiming that childless women are “deficient”. Elsewhere, former prime minister Binali Yıldırım openly told supporters that rather than physically attacking women  wearing shorts in public, they should verbally harass her instead. Not to mention the introduction of the government’s “marry your rapist” bill, which allows for the pardoning of those convicted of child sex offences, despite major pushback by Turkish feminist activists.

As for Gültekin’s killer, actor Meriç Aral tweeted on Tuesday: “Pınar Gültekin’s murderer is among us, at our side, on our bed, at the bus stop, a step behind us... They are not elsewhere, they don’t fall from the sky, they don’t come from space. This is why women’s murders, hate murders, are political.”

Right now, it’s vital to be listening to activists on the ground and reputable organisations doing the work to fight femicide. Some ways include signing this petition to support the ban of ‘good conduct time’ for murderers and abusers, or to protect the Istanbul Convention, and to support the ban of the law that will legalise marriage between abuser and victim.

Donate to women’s shelters in Istanbul @morcati_vakfi and @small.projects.istanbul here