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4 women on why Turkey shouldn’t leave the Istanbul Convention

‘We shouted until we lost our voices’

Last Friday, the Turkish government made the shocking decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty designed to protect women against domestic violence. First drawn up in the city nearly a decade ago, the convention has since been signed by 45 nations and the EU and advocates for non-discrimination on the grounds of gender or sexual orientation. The choice to leave the treaty is a tremendous blow to women and the LGBTQ+ rights and many fear that the move will be used to justify hate crimes.

There’s been a concerning rise in gender-based violence in Turkey over the last few years. Last year, 300 women were murdered in acts of femicide and 171 women were found dead under suspicious circumstances. In the day following Turkey’s departure from the convention, six women were killed, while a homophobic attack against a deaf man sparked outrage on social media.

On Saturday, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Istanbul’s Kadıköy neighbourhood, chanting “We are not scared, we are not afraid. We shall not obey”. Other smaller protests were held in the capital Ankara and the south-western city of İzmir.

Despite opinion polls showing that an overwhelming majority of Turks want to remain in the Istanbul Convention, senior members of the AKP (the right-wing government) has argued that the treaty is inconsistent with the party’s Islamic values. They argue that it encourages divorce and homosexuality, which they see this as a threat to Turkish family values.

Hate speech is also on the rise in Turkey. Last month, the interior minister’s tweet on LGBTQ+ protesters, where he described them as “perverts” and “degenerates”, was in a flagged for hateful conduct, while Erdogan has gone as far as to deny the existence of LGBTQ+ people altogether. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote on Twitter on Sunday: “Women deserve a strong legal framework to protect them.” She has since called on all signatories to ratify it. Britain has yet to do so.

US President Joe Biden said Turkey’s withdrawal from the accord was “deeply disappointing” and a step backward in efforts to end violence against women globally. “Around the world, we are seeing increases in the number of domestic violence incidents, including reports of rising femicide in Turkey,” Biden said in a statement on Sunday. “Countries should be working to strengthen and renew their commitments to ending violence against women, not rejecting international treaties designed to protect women and hold abusers accountable.”

Below, we speak to four Turkish women – Azra Deniz Okyay, Dilara Findikoglu, Merve Morkoç, and Nora Şenkal – based in Istanbul on attending the protests and why Turkey shouldn’t leave the Istanbul Convention.

AZRA DENIZ OKYAY, FILM DIRECTOR

“They made the decision in the middle of the night. It felt like a nightcrawler stealing from us. I have been thinking – especially in relation to my own experience in life and my career – that (the government) are afraid of women. They are afraid of how bright women are, how courageous we are. I believe that this withdrawal is a historic moment for Turkey. It marks a turning point where the strong conservative attitude towards women has become crystal clear. It’s sad to imagine that a country who gave women the right to vote in 1921, earlier than many other countries, has to deal with such problems.

There has been a dramatic rise in violence against women in Turkey, which speaks to the overarching mentality that normalises this behaviour. Sometimes it feels like a war. Just one day after Turkey withdrew from Istanbul Convention, six women were murdered.

The atmosphere at the protests was as if somebody had entered in the middle of the night and stolen our breath, our voice, our right to live. We were all shaking, we were all so angry. It’s not possible to stay calm or discuss anything else. But this makes us feel much stronger. Even old women who don’t usually want to go out, wanted to march. In these times, I think that feminism is the best thing to happen to Turkey. It gives me hope for the future of our society. But it’s not just Turkey. Many other countries, the UK, in Europe, have a long way to go to achieve the women’s rights. We will fight for our right. But we must never lose hope and courage.”

DILARA FINDIKOGLU, FASHION DESIGNER

“I feel disappointed, frustrated, and, like all women and members of LGBTQI+ community currently living in Turkey, flat-out scared. But that doesn’t mean we will stop fighting. By pulling out of an international convention that aims at preventing violence against women and LGBTQ+ individuals, the government is basically empowering murderers and abusers. It undermines the efforts of those who have been striving for women’s rights for years.

Femicide numbers are on the rise and Turkey is obliged to tighten the measures against gender-based violence, not reduce them. Some might say that the convention wasn’t very useful, but the problem boils down to its lack of implementation – something that women’s rights activists have been pushing for years. But this isn’t just Turkey. Britain, America, and all states need to take more serious responsibilities in this regard. For example, did you know that Britain has not ratified the convention?

Official surveys show that more than 70 per cent of the population supports the convention, which is well above any party’s vote rate in Turkey. The withdrawal is a huge and unwarranted step back against these efforts. Just two days after the withdrawal, six women were killed by men in one day in Turkey – and these are only the official numbers. In these moments, countries should be tirelessly working to strengthen global efforts to prevent violence against women and hold abusers accountable. 

Still, I still have a fire of hope in me and I know that if all women are united, we will get through everything. To quote Atatürk (who founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923): ‘Everything we see in the world is a creation of women.‘”

MERVE MORKOÇ, ARTIST

“I feel worn and tired. Waking up to a new problem every single day takes its toll on you physically as well as mentally. The government has said that the convention damages family unity, but in reality, they are trying to win over the loyalty of the conservatives and the far right. As we have seen in recent years, the party has lost a significant number of supporters, both from its ranks and votership.

It’s really pathetic that this is the only and the best move that the government can do. That being said, they don’t care about family values or morals. Even when the convention was in place, the government didn’t implement it, as can be seen in the number of deaths.

Still, the withdrawal will serve as an excuse for killers and sexual predators to flaunt their aggressive behaviour against women and the LGBTQ+ community. From the government discourse to the glorification of murderers in media coverage and weekly mosque speeches, these murderers feel supported by other men to take pride in their actions. To get a slightest idea, I would like anyone to check the comments left by Turkish men under any murder coverage online if you can stomach it.

I was there at the demonstrations on the day that the government declared the withdrawal from the convention. Women gather in the same spot regularly in the area that I live. The atmosphere was anxious, angry and sad. We shouted until we lost our voices. I am sure that I was not the only one crying as we shouted names of the women we lost one by one. It always moves me how women have kept on fighting for their rights some 4,000 years or so. I am not sure if these protests will work on their own, but I’m going to keep attending every single of them for the women who do not have a voice.”

NORA ŞENKAL, MODEL

“The decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention is extremely enraging, but it’s not surprising at all. For years, Erdogan and the AKP have been oppressing women and the LGBTQ+ community from all sides. Every day, we see countless news of femicides and rape on social media. And the perpetrators in all these events are usually the men closest to these women. The same is true for LGBTQ+ people. We see attacks against hundreds of LGBTQ+ people on social media and there has been nothing done to prevent this. Instead, the government often lets the perpetrators off on reduced sentences or fines.

The Istanbul Convention emphasises that there should be no discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, which by extension, also protects the LGBTQ+ community. The government’s decision to pull out from the contract leaves women and LGBTQ+ people even more vulnerable.

The harsh reality is that the government says they want to protect women, but they’re not taking any steps to do this. Toxic masculinity is increasing day by day and women and queer people should not be exposed to further discrimination, marginalisation, and violence.

We as women and queer people are very angry. There are protests happening and we will take action to the end to withdraw this decision. We are going through a process where we are forced to shout this out. I think this is the most obvious thing to show how terrible the agenda of the country we are in. This unlawful decision should be withdrawn as soon as possible.”

Donate to women’s shelters in Istanbul @morcati_vakfi and @small.projects.istanbul here. Sign the petition demanding that Turkey reinstate the Istanbul Convention here.