The decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, although a snap decision, was not unexpected. After the decision to withdraw from the convention, we have seen and continue to see that hate speech against LGBTI+ people are frequently brought to the agenda by the state officials. What do you think about the impact of the ongoing discussions in the field as a transgender rights association that has been acting for so long in Turkey?
As we have all followed, the decision to pull out of the Istanbul Convention was taken overnight. Nonetheless, it was not surprising; they were signaling it. The Istanbul Convention had long been turned into a target. LGBTI+ persons were given as the reason for pulling out of the convention; the Presidency made a statement that the convention was manipulated to normalize homosexuality. However, this was not news to us. The targeting of the convention already hinged on anti-LGBTI+ rhetoric. The claims that it is not compatible with the Turkish family, and it is against moral values of society were presented as the ground for the withdrawal from the convention. The media targeting was also based on these discourses. Since LGBTI+ persons had already been targeted, it was not unexpected for the Presidency to make such a statement.
I think this situation has a twofold impact on the field. First, the group pointing their fingers at LGBTI+ persons took courage even more. Top government officials, ministers, and the current government clearly targeted LGBTI+ persons and said that LGBTI+ persons are not compatible with the values and morality of the society. But the targeted group is also a part of the society. These discourses further encouraged the group pointing fingers at LGBTI+ persons. For instance, the media started to propagate even more daring hate speech against bodily integrity and the right to life of LGBTI+ persons. Similarly, we observe an increase in physical attacks against LGBTI+ persons. In the field, these discourses amount to “as the state will do nothing about prevention and protection and we will not impose any sanctions against violence”. On the other hand, the fact that LGBTI+ persons have become targets renders them even more silent for they think that they will not be protected. Because when you are subjected to violence due to your identity, you are targeted by the very people to whom you will apply for protection. Not only are LGBTI+ persons rendered more vulnerable to violence, but also it causes LGBTI+ persons to remain silent or keep a low profile in the face of violence and to refrain from being a part of the public sphere. We see these in the field far too often.
Another point that I want to mention is that groups located at the intersection of various forms of discrimination are rendered invisible to a greater extent. The risk of being the target of multilayered discrimination or hatred makes people even more vulnerable. This, in turn, causes subjects to not express themselves. LGBTI+ refugees, for instance, experience rights violations more intensely.
The Istanbul Convention does not include articles directly related to LGBTI+ rights, but the convention includes an article which clearly states that no one can be discriminated against due to their sexual orientation and identity. How do you evaluate the discussions on the withdrawal from the convention being conducted in terms of LGBTI+ hostility?
I don’t think that the convention does not include articles concerning LGBTI+ rights. I also think that the discussion of whether the convention encourages homosexuality is baseless and is used to shift the focus. Let’s be clear, the convention includes regulations to protect LGBTI+ persons from violence.
We need to consider the convention holistically. First of all, the Istanbul Convention is an agreement on combating gender-based violence. The convention defines what gender-based violence is, and states that it is a form of violence that has spread all over our lives, the public sphere and the private sphere. Similarly, it says that this form of violence is not isolated/personal but political and thus the struggle against it must be as holistic. What does this mean? The convention includes prevention policies, mechanisms for protecting and empowering persons subjected to violence, and sanctions against perpetrators. Also, the convention regulates in detail the negative as well as positive obligations of the state parties regarding the regulations I just mentioned. State parties commit to non-discrimination based on sexual orientation in fulfilling these obligations. The article prohibiting discrimination applies to the entirety of the convention. What is listed in the article is not limited in number, it prohibits all kinds of discrimination but clearly expresses sexual orientation and gender identity in order to protect LGBTI+ persons. Likewise, the convention clearly addresses discrimination pertaining to immigration, refugee status, disability and so on as we encounter them very often in practice.
To reiterate, the convention states that, while implementing the articles of the convention, you shall not exclude LGBTI+ persons, you cannot separate any group subjected to gender-based violence in this holistic struggle.
They are trying to justify the withdrawal from the convention by targeting LGBTI+ people, but this also has no legitimacy. This targeting and hostility is not new, we hear statements such as “we are against violence against women, but LGBTI+ people are not compatible with our family structure and moral values, etc.”. We have seen that they have put forward numerous reasons to justify violence against women whilst saying very explicitly that they were against violence against women. We have also seen that they said things such as that violence against women is not legitimate unless such and such conditions exist. The thing is that, they think, people will buy into hostility against LGBTI+, but we also need to discuss how it resonates in society.
How do you think we will experience the impacts of the withdrawal from the convention in practice? What would be the effects on women’s and LGBTI+ peoples’ struggles for eliminating violence?
There has always been a struggle for rights. We all know that in the struggle for rights, the privileged people never give up their privileges voluntarily. These achievements are the result of LGBTI+, women’s and feminist struggles. The Istanbul Convention was also a result of that struggle; nobody bestowed anything upon anyone. The struggle will continue, of course, because what is targeted is our freedoms, our bodily integrity, our right to life. We are the survivors.
The struggle will continue, yes, but when we look at the practice, we will of course encounter difficulties. What needs to be done in order to start the struggle against a problem is to acknowledge the existence of that problem. A lot of things have been said such as “did the Istanbul Convention eliminate violence? You say that violence rates have increased but the convention was in force back then.” But the convention already states that violence will not suddenly end just by virtue of being a party to and ratifying the convention. As I have just mentioned, the convention underlines a holistic struggle against gender-based violence and refers to a process. For this reason, it is monitored whether and how the articles of the convention are implemented by the state parties. Even if the convention is implemented properly, the solution will take time.
By being a signatory to the Istanbul Convention, Turkey remarked, “I accept the existence of gender-based violence, that it is a political problem, and that it should be combated in a holistic manner”. It pledged to fulfill the obligations imposed upon the state. The first step was thus taken. The next step was the struggle in practice. It concerned how it would fulfill what it had undertaken in the convention. Now, we fell behind from that point. Turkey says that it [gender-based violence] is not a problem anymore, there is no holistic struggle, I do not undertake anything. It will definitely not end the struggle, but we will continue our struggle from behind.
In a political environment where being LGBTI+ is so antagonized, our existence is resistance. Or, in a political environment where being a feminist and speaking of gender is so antagonized, our existence is resistance.
The groups that were campaigning to pull out of the convention have already started their campaigns against legal regulations and international agreements such as Law No. 6284, CEDAW, and Lanzarote immediately after the decision. On the other hand, the presidency pointed out to a “section trying to normalize homosexuality” as the reason for pulling out of the Istanbul Convention. How will these statements and campaigns lead to backlashes?
Of course, there is an anxiety that it will continue. While we talk about the need for a holistic struggle, there is a political power that says “no, this violence is not something like that, I will define it myself”. So, we think that the attacks on vested rights will continue.
Yes, what is ahead of us is worrying. Because here we are talking about a legal reversing of something that was already gained, and not a struggle with difficulties experienced in implementation. I mean, in practice, we were able to say that what you do has no legitimacy, now we have lost one of the important tools to do that.
Pulling out of this convention will have adverse effects on many groups. Women, children, LGBTI+ persons, migrants, refugees, persons with disabilities… It will especially affect those groups exposed to multilayered discrimination much more negatively. We have to fight together without any cleavages, leaving any “but”s aside.
At the beginning of the conversation, you also mentioned LGBTI+ refugees among those who experience rights violations the most. The Istanbul Convention has articles that have direct impacts on refugee/migrant women and LGBTI+ persons. How will the withdrawal affect this field?
This is one of the issues that is not often raised but I want to draw attention to. Chapter VII of the Convention is titled Migration and Asylum under which residence permit, asylum applications, and non-refoulement principle are regulated. First of all, it is stipulated that those who are subjected to domestic violence will be granted residence permit. This regulation is also included in the same way in the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP).
Secondly, there is a regulation stipulating that in asylum applications gender-based violence will be considered as persecution, that necessary regulations will be codified in domestic law, and that persons who apply for asylum due to gender-based violence will have access to the asylum system of the state party.
Starting from this point, the state parties will consider gender-based violence as persecution both in interviews and in status determination in asylum applications and will make necessary regulations in domestic law. Because in Turkey, there is no written regulation on how to evaluate the five criteria (race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, and political opinion) listed in the 1951 Geneva Convention. Also, there isn’t uniformity in practice. Consider the status determination, the Istanbul Convention is a really strong legal ground for asylum applications based on gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. It is also worrying how pulling out of the Istanbul Convention will have reverberations in these areas.
Finally, the convention stipulates that, regardless of their asylum or residence status, victims of violence against women will not be returned to any country where their lives may be at risk or where they may be subjected to torture, inhuman treatment, or punishment.
The Istanbul Convention recognizes that gender-based violence is political, that it spreads to all walks of life, that a holistic struggle against it is necessary, and it refers to different areas. Migration and asylum were one of these areas.
Kaos GL is a LGBTI+ organization that has long been struggling against homophobia/transphobia and discrimination. Considering all the steps taken forward for eliminating violence as well as backlashes in this period, do you think that this decision is different? And how do you plan to continue your struggle? Do you have any messages to women and LGBTI+s?
In fact, this was not something we did not see coming. I mean, I find this withdrawal decision different and much more audacious. Because it is a convention that includes many different regulations, and this decision to withdraw or discussions around convention do not only affect Turkey. The attacks on the Istanbul Convention did not occur only in Turkey, but in many different countries. We were also following the developments in those countries. So, it is a very impudent step. This is beyond targeting. On the one hand, there is also a very serious reaction against it, maybe we need to focus on the streets and these serious oppositions. Yes, what is at stake is our freedoms, bodily integrity, our right to life. We need to focus on this.
I also think that it is necessary to look at different ways of targeting people or why the Istanbul Convention is argued against. For instance, in Hungary, the issue of LGBTI+ was on the agenda too. But as far as I follow, there, the issue of migration and asylum was raised more than the LGBTI+ issue, and they ran a campaign saying, “so, based on the Istanbul Convention, will we let in everyone coming?” We saw that entanglement – that homophobic, transphobic, sexist, misogynist, bi-phobic, racist, xenophobic, anti-migrant politics intertwined. In Turkey, there was hostility toward LGBTI+ and misogyny. But, when we look at other countries, there were very different motives. It was obvious that it would come down where it is now because there was a very serious smear campaign against LGBTI+ persons. However, it is also a question to what extent this resonates in society. Yes, it is growing, maybe it is because these things can be said more openly since they have become more daring, but what we call society is not homogeneous. There is no such thing as the morality of society as a whole. In other words, it is necessary to discuss the extent to which and how a certain understanding of morality resonates in the society and among which groups. Society of Turkey does not have a single moral understanding. That’s why we should not give reference to morality. There is not one family structure in Turkey. Different groups have different values, but our common ground is that “you shall not perpetrate gender-based violence”. Violence is in all areas of life; it is necessary to struggle against it in a holistic manner: this is the point we have agreed upon. Social response in every reference they give is quite disputable. Because what we call society is not homogeneous, LGBTI+ persons are also part of this society. Women, who oppose men’s definitions of what women’s rights should be in a house which men claim only for themselves, are also part of this society. We constitute this society. For this reason, yes, it is more daring, but we were gradually coming to this stage. They have been working for it for a very long time, but the struggle will continue and, I think, feminist struggle and LGBTI+ struggle will not be separated. We have survived and we will survive. We were, we are, we will be. So, we are here! Yes, our very existence is resistance.
Translator: İpek Tabur
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan