Throwing the Istanbul Convention into question in such a way –a convention which offers a very broad and comprehensive framework regarding the combat against violence against women and explains in detail the obligations of the state, what the state should pay attention to in fulfilling these obligations, and the measures that the state should take– will have a more general effect of putting Turkey’s combat against violence against women into reverse.
Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, though sudden, was not unexpected. As a women’s organization working in the field and addressing violence against women, how do you think that the ongoing discussions have impacted the field?
Although the decision to pull out of the Istanbul Convention with a Presidential Decision which was published in the Official Gazette in the middle of the night was sudden, it was not unexpected for us. The signals pointing at such a decision were being brought to the agenda of the country by various individuals and institutions from different segments of the society for some time. As women’s organizations and feminist organizations working in the field, we have been fighting against the attacks directed at the convention for quite some time now. The irony is that we were already struggling for the implementation of the convention and all the other practices that were put into effect following the signing of the convention –and this year is the 10th anniversary of the signing of the convention by Turkey– and then came the discussions on whether Turkey should pull out of the convention and we found ourselves facing the difficulty of producing discourses against this new agenda. Moreover, we already knew that the attacks on the convention, unfortunately, are not limited to Turkey; and we were following the discussions and sharing experiences with women’s organizations in countries that did not sign the convention or that signed but did not ratify the convention or that are deliberating on pulling out of the convention. We have been observing that different countries use similar discourses as meaningless and unrealistic pretexts claiming that the convention destroys the family, tries to eliminate biological sex, and encourages homosexuality.
We know from what women share with us at our support center as well as from our own experiences and observations in the field that the mechanisms to combat violence against women are quite problematic in the context of Turkey. Most of the time, women have to further struggle at the institutions to which they apply to use the rights they already enjoy in the face of male violence. Throwing the Istanbul Convention into question in such a way –a convention which offers a very broad and comprehensive framework regarding the combat against violence against women and explains in detail the obligations of the state, what the state should pay attention to in fulfilling these obligations, and the measures that the state should take– will have a more general effect of putting Turkey’s combat against violence against women into reverse.
It is already possible to observe and see the effects. All those discussions over pulling out of the Istanbul Convention have openly pointed at the fact that Turkey no longer has any intention of taking seriously the principles and standards that are included in the convention or fulfilling the obligations stated in the convention. Therefore, a message was given to those working in the institutions and organizations responsible for combatting violence against women that they can ignore the standards put forward in the convention and that they are not obliged to fulfill their duties in accordance with the convention. We know from past experiences that these and similar political backlashes have caused irreversible backlashes on the rights of women; and these rights are critical for women’s everyday lives. Women’s movement went through a similar process in 2012 when the draft bill aimed at reducing the legal period for abortion which is up to ten weeks. Although the bans on abortion have been shelved when women from all around Turkey took to the streets, de facto implementation of the ban took effect. Today, when women want to enjoy their legal right to abortion, they face with various obstacles and their access to abortion is thus blocked.
During the period when the convention was in effect, whereas some people concluded that the convention itself is the reason for the non-prevention of violence and femicide, others argued in favor of the decision to withdraw stating “you already say that the convention is not being implemented, so, why does the decision to withdraw matter so much”. How do you comment on these statements? How will we experience the effects of the decision to withdraw from the convention? How do you think this decision will affect women’s struggles to eliminate violence?
At the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Istanbul Convention by Turkey, we were still demanding the effective implementation of the convention; however, this did not mean that the convention was already dysfunctional and that the decision to withdraw is unimportant. The Istanbul Convention defines violence against women in a very broad terms as a violation of human rights and as a form of discrimination and identifies gender inequality as the basis of violence. The convention determines the obligations of the states to prevent violence against women, to protect woman against violence, to prosecute and penalize the perpetrators from a very broad perspective. For this reason, while it could have been a guiding manual for a state which shows the will to combat violence against women, unfortunately, it became a targeted document. The Istanbul Convention is a very important reference document in terms of advocacy for those of us who are working in the field of combatting gender inequality and violence against women. In many law suits, feminist lawyers struggling in the field ensured that decisions in favor of women were taken by referring to the articles of the Istanbul Convention.
Of course, the decision to pull out of the Istanbul Convention will have dire consequences. To begin with, withdrawing from a convention which comprehensively defines the obligations and the responsibilities of the state with regards to violence against women means that the state is no longer obliged to meet these responsibilities and obligations. Also, it is very symbolic in terms of marking a shift from a state where the convention has not been effectively implemented to a state where it is accepted that it will no longer be implemented. Most of the obligations imposed on the states that signed the convention were not being implemented in Turkey; but we were making demands and carrying our advocacy work based on the articles of the convention and country evaluation reports which were announced by GREVIO and which emphasized shortcomings and offered recommendations. Of course, we will not forgo our demands; however, we will be devoid of an important footing to which we refer when we voice these demands.
If we are to look at more concrete evidence, we have already begun to see the effects of the decision to pull out of the convention in such a short time. We started to hear news about police officers who say, “The Law No. 6284 also no longer exists, right?” or men who state that “we do not have to pay alimony anymore”. Women are worried because of this ambivalence and uncertainty. Many women who are combating male violence are worried and ask whether they still have the right to go to a women’s shelter or to demand restraining and protection orders. The withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, of course, does not mean that other laws are done away with and it is important that we disseminate this message in order to clear this uncertainty with which women grapple. However, not bringing this issue, which have been on the agenda for so many years, to the consideration of the parliament, imposing this decision in a way that excludes all the parties who are experienced and have a say in this field, and finalizing it without paying any regard to other ideas and voices, have reinforced the feeling that other laws which protect our rights are also under constant threat. This situation increases the worries.
Groups which ran a campaign for pulling out of the Istanbul Convention, right after the decision to withdraw from the convention, continued their campaign attacking the Law No. 6284, CEDAW, and Lanzarote. What kind of backlashes do you think these attacks will result in?
We can say that, for years, as women, we have been living in a period in which our vested rights are under threat. Attacks against the Istanbul Convention have been on the agenda for a long time. That said, Turkey hosted the ceremony when it signed the Istanbul Convention, it was the first country to sign the convention, and it was even proud to hold this title and used it as a source of prestige in the international arena. The current hostile attitude of the same government against convention also points at the kind of political transformation we have been undergoing in the last 10 years as well the current situation for women in Turkey. While the discussions on the Istanbul Convention were ongoing, as women, we ensued our fight against the attacks on many issues such as the right to alimony, the Law No. 6284, the right to abortion, the legalization of child abuse under guise of early marriage; and we continue our struggle today.
The manner in which the decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention was taken and the way it was announced has encouraged the groups that are against women’s and LGBTI+ people’s rights; and this decision will result in these voices making more clamor. We think that discrimination and hate speech against women and LGBTI+ people will increase because of the method of withdrawal and the reasons given in the official statement with regards to the decision to withdraw. Whereas before we were at a point where, even at a discursive level, there was a propensity to commit to the obligations required by the combat against violence against women and to accept the necessary measures to ensure gender equality, today, there is a clear and official disregard for the legitimacy of the Istanbul Convention and the concepts we defend. Nonetheless, even if conditions change, our struggle is enduring; we will not give up our rights.
Foundation for Women’s Solidarity is a women’s organization that has been engaging in the struggle against violence against women since the early 1990s. Do you think that this decision is different when you take into consideration the steps taken in combatting violence against women for the past 30 years together with the backlashes?
Both yes and no. This is neither the first attack against women’s and LGBTI+ people’s rights nor the first time that our rights are taken away from us; this is not the first time we are facing a backlash. It is also not new that the government, political parties, and various groups use women as leverage for political negotiations. That said, when we look at our vested rights in the context of the attacks which have dominated the recent years, they constitute very harsh moves that ignore everything and everyone who have worked in this field until this day. In a context where there were no negative opinions about the Istanbul Convention in general and the majority of the population does not support the decision to pull out of the convention, this was a decision taken in the middle of the night to secure the support of some groups. The decision to pull out of an international convention which has been unanimously approved by the parliament with a presidential decision issued at midnight says a lot about not only the government’s approach to combatting violence against women, but also about the political atmosphere and the current state of democracy in the country.
How do you plan to continue your struggle from now on? What would you like to say to women?
Since the announcement of the decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, perhaps women have been experiencing mixed feelings. We are experiencing unhappiness, despair, and very intense feelings of anger together with the hopefulness that comes from our enormous solidarity. On March 20, when the decision was made public, women in many cities organized very quickly and took to the streets; and they continue to do so. Every day, women from all around the world share their messages and statements of solidarity with us. And in Turkey, 20th of March, women have been working almost with no sleep and devoting all their energy and time to addressing this issue. We may not always feel strong in the face of these kinds of attacks, but we should not forget that the Istanbul Convention is an outcome of our common struggle. All the articles of the convention were written based on women’s and LGBTI+ people’s experiences of combating gender inequality and violence. It is necessary to remember once again ECtHR’s decision on “Opuz v. Turkey”, a decision which for the first time hold a state party, namely Turkey, responsible for the murder of a woman, convicted the state of gender-based discrimination and violation of the right to life and ruled that the necessary measures and practices regarding male violence against women are wanting in Turkey. The decision taken in the “Opuz v. Turkey” case, which is regarded as a precedent for cases of gender-based violence in the whole world, had constituted the foundation of the Istanbul Convention. In terms of women, the inequalities that constitute the basis of the convention and our struggle have not yet changed in Turkey or in other places of the world. This convention, for sure, documented women’s struggles, and whatever we may think and say about the decision to pull out of the convention, it does not mean that our struggle has been defeated or interrupted. On the one hand, our primary goal is to clearly show how the decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention follows from a mentality which ignores our lives and rights, as we are the Istanbul Convention. On the other hand, we care about making the whole society know how unlawful this decision to pull out from the convention is. The next step will be to make sure that people are informed about the fact that the decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention does not mean that other laws related to combatting violence against women have become obsolete; we must remind people that women can still benefit from their rights secured by laws such as Law. No. 6284 and that public institutions employees are obliged to fulfill their duties stipulated by these laws. Of course, we have never been and will never be silent in the face of these attacks on our rights and lives. No attack can ever end women’s solidarity. We will neither give up on our rights nor the Istanbul Convention.
Translator: İpek Tabur
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan