Neither the Istanbul Convention nor the Law No. 6284 are limited to penal practices in cases of violence. On the contrary, they offer a comprehensive range of policies and practices that require operationalizing quality social work mechanisms for women from a rights-based approach.
The day we sat in front of the computer to write this piece, we read on the news that three more women in Turkey were murdered by men with whom they were familiar. How can we constitute our sense of justice and combat gender-based violence when each killing of a woman, each case of abuse, and all forms of gender-based violence make us deeply angry? Keeping in mind the more crystalized demands for arrests and penal sentences in recent years in Turkey, we want to express aloud the question which has been occupying our minds for some time now: Could more prison sentences, increased sentences, more incarceration be the most effective method in fighting male violence?
“The personal is political” has been one of the slogans of feminist movement since the 1970s, and indeed, feminist movement has been reflecting on and struggling against domestic violence, male violence and/or any form of violence to which we are subjected on a daily basis in the light of this slogan. We know that the feminist movement which embraced this slogan in the 1980s in Turkey organized the first mass protest and campaign “against battering” in the late 1980s. As this slogan became more common and male violence occupied the feminist agenda more extensively over the years, many women came together around this struggle. As male violence becomes more visible, we see specifically in recent years that this issue has moved beyond the agenda of feminists and started to be comprehensively discussed and addressed by women’s organizations and other social movements. This form of violence is defined in different terms by different groups (violence against women, patriarchal violence, violence based on gender inequality, male violence, masculine violence, massacre of women, femicide, gendercide, etc.) and points at different demands and entails different forms of struggle. Nonetheless, it is impossible not to recognize that these demands which underline the inadequacy of current mechanisms in establishing the feeling of justice are generally shaped around the notions of the incarceration of the perpetrators and increased sentences. So, is it really possible to limit our demand for justice within the terms of more incarceration, more imprisonment, and increased sentences that will be executed by the state? Or, in other words, is it possible to reduce the struggle of feminists against male violence only to these tools and demands?
Particularly the abolitionist movement which became more visible with Black Lives Matter protests argues that prisons and all systems of incarceration due to their form and structure begets violence and particularly underlines the reproduction of gender-based violence in the spaces of incarceration. This movement reminds us that neither incarceration nor prisons have a transformative role in reconstituting our feeling of justice or in our struggle against patriarchy. In contrast to the carceral feminism which sees prisons and other spaces of incarceration as the fundamental method of struggle against male violence, abolitionist feminists argue that as long as we do not fight against the structures and systems that produce regimes of violence such as patriarchy or sexism, we will not achieve any transformation. So, they state that the issue for ending male violence cannot be reduced and limited solely to the demand for more prisons. It is almost impossible to argue against the statements that prisons do not have any transformative power or rehabilitative function; on the contrary, they function as mechanisms producing even more violence. If we recall the news of the men who kill their female partners right after their release from prison, it becomes all the more evident that we cannot speak of the transformative power of prisons.
Moreover, we know that the penal system and incarceration logics, which are not free from hierarchies such as race, gender, and class, do not work the same way for everyone. Today, in the USA, 90% of the women who have been imprisoned for killing a man have been previously abused by the man they killed, and majority of these women are non-white, trans, lower-class women (ACLU, 2021). Besides, there are serious differences between the sentences given to women and men who killed their partners. We know from the cases in Turkey that many factors such as the perpetrator’s age, social status, class position, and sexual orientation play an important role in determining the sentences. Moreover, whereas the sentences that women have to serve for committing murder in the US are on average 15 years, for men this is somewhere between 2 and 6 years (ACLU, 2021). Despite the fact that we cannot reach such precise numbers and statistics in Turkey, we know that the situation is not very different here and the stories of Nevin, Melek and many other women reveal that the current legal system does not protect women but punishes them.
At this point, it is worth discussing not only the function/dysfunction of incarceration and security institutions, but also what is excluded by discourses and practices that limit the serving of justice to penal action. Feminist debates on the state and patriarchy relations, and particularly, the regime of impunity, include many critical analyses and arguments on how gendered violence is reproduced in carceral/security institutions. However, if sexism inherent in the justice system (and of course, security and social service systems) still persists despite all the interventions of the feminists, it is not possible to disregard the role played by the words of “specialists”, commentators, lawyers and even “activists” –who advocate for an increase in sentences or even capital punishment– circulating as de facto truths. Many people may rightly think that “if the perpetrators were not in prison, then they could kill the women they threaten; the state does not offer any means of protection other than imprisonment anyways.” Given this situation, those who advocate incarceration for fighting male violence gains prominence because of the widespread examples of impunity in cases of women killings which could have been prevented. As a result, severe punishment and incarceration overshadow all other struggles against male violence and stand out as the only effective methods and the ultimate responses to the demand for justice. So much so that, this approach can be explicitly or implicitly endorsed by some groups within the women’s movement.
However, the feminist slogan “real justice, not male justice” is instructive for understanding the fact that justice system is not functioning smoothly at all. This slogan not only points at the dominant role of the state in the continuity of patriarchy, but also articulates the regime of impunity with the sexist patterns of punishment/exculpation processes alongside the “inadequacy” of punishment. Instead of mystifying the state and the concept of justice, it sheds light on how every step taken until the final decision consists of daily practices; how the panel of judges who are attracted to the appeal of suits and ties dismiss the statements of the women in the courtrooms; the evidence which are collected/not collected by the police and the prosecutor’s office; the mechanisms of protection which are provided/not provided to women; the ways in which members of the judiciary understand and interpret women’s experiences. In short, instead of the easy argument claiming that the state remains to be inadequate in terms of using its punitive power, this slogan exposes the motives with which the state uses its monopoly over punishment as well as the justice system that works against women. It defines the state as one of the sources of impunity and prevents some of the patriarchal practices by exposing the system.
The perspective that reduces justice to criminal law also obscures the complex and long-term experiences of women –who are the subjects of the pursuit of justice– in the face of male violence as well as women’s struggle, despite the state, against male perpetrators of violence. It undermines the bond between justice and social policy. Although the pursuit of justice in the legal system is but one way to ensure a sense of justice and to hold perpetrators responsible for their actions, women’s struggle for justice does not start in the courts. Long before the male violence is brought before a court, the harming of the feeling of justice begins at the stage of benefiting from social services and social assistance mechanisms. The rejected requests for support renders access to justice difficult, just like the copy-paste preventive measures –which do not correspond to the needs or singular situations of women– and reductions in the sentences given to the perpetrators. In addition, women are trying to fight the current system by developing many feminist methods ranging from disclosures to self-organizing practices.
Recently, the discussions directed against the revoking of the Istanbul Convention focus more and more on penal sentences and this has the effect of pushing the debates on preventive and empowering social policy to the background. Neither the Istanbul Convention nor the Law No. 6284 are limited to penal practices in cases of violence. On the contrary, they offer a comprehensive range of policies and practices that require operationalizing quality social work mechanisms for women from a rights-based approach. However, as the pandemic clearly demonstrates, the mechanisms of social services and social support do not function properly, and they are shaped by the perspective of security and incarceration instead of empowering women. As though it is not enough that police stations, where women are treated with suspicion, remain to be the first places where women apply, as far as we can follow from the works carried out by feminist organizations working in the field, state shelters are operated by a logic which is not that much different from the one that governs prisons. Women are being asked to give up their children, social life, jobs, freedom, opinions, and feeling of belonging in exchange for “security”. There is not much room for a social policy understanding in the shelters which are turned into spaces of incarceration/limitation through these practices. When it comes to institutions of social services, the balance between the paradigm of security which is legitimized with respect to the risks posed by male violence and women’s access to social, economic, legal and other forms of support and opportunities has already been thrown off and shifted in favor of the former.
Besides, while many LGBTI+ and women who are exposed to harassment and violence refuse to report to the police or to resort to the legal system, doing something on the basis of the penal system for the reconstitution of a feeling of justice amount to nothing other than falling once again into the arms of sexism, more fatigue, and more despair. In these cases, whereas for many women and LGBTI+ people calling the state for “help” appears to be the last resort, for others this appeal to the state does not even appear as a possibility. The status of being undocumented for women and LGBTI+ people and/or being in a disadvantageous position vis-a-vis the citizens combined with the fear of deportation cancel out any thought to call the police for “help” in the face of violence, let alone appealing to any legal mechanisms. Moreover, removal centers and camps for migrant women and LGBTI+ people continue to function as spaces of incarceration and imprisonment.
Therefore, given that we have so many problems with the state, we should not limit ourselves to the punishments given by the state and incarceration in the fight against male violence rather we should establish a collective line of struggle and expand our own methods by remembering once again our feminist methods and achievements. As feminists, we have methods other than calling the police and the state against male violence. We know that the change and transformation we aim at and envision will not come without fighting patriarchy. Our struggle will continue until we create a world where there is no need for incarceration, a world without patriarchy, racism, capitalism, and speciesism.
Translator: İpek Tabur
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan
 We would like to thank The Abolition Collective for introducing us to the issue of abolition with the wonderful reading list that they prepared and the abolition study group for introducing new questions and discussions by creating a collective space. For those who want to take a look at the reading list, see: https://abolitionjournal.org/studyguide/
 For carceral feminism, see, https://www.catlakzemin.com/hapis-kapatma-yanlisi-feminizme-karsi/
 American Civil Liberties Union (2021), https://www.aclu.org/other/words-prison-did-you-know#_edn42