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‘The Istanbul Convention’

On Erdogan's regime and the decline of women's rights in Turkey

28 July 2021

In contrast with the rise of global movements promoting women’s rights, several demonstrations led by women broke out in Turkey this July, denouncing Ankara’s decision to withdraw from the ‘Istanbul Convention’ to combat violence against women. The withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, officially known as Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence,  was officially implemented on July 1, in accordance with Turkish President’s decision announced last March. The Turkish President’s office issued a statement to the Administrative Court stating that this withdrawal will not lead to any legal or practical failure to prevent violence against women. Yet, the decision was shocking to many Turkish women, who affirmed, during the demonstrations, their demands for protection against the violence, they are already experiencing.

The change in the status of Turkish women

Historically, after the proclamation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk sought to improve women’s status by developing secular laws promoting equality between women and men in the affairs pertaining to marriage, divorce and inheritance. Atatürk has also promoted ideas for women's liberation, and pushed society to accept their new status, particularly after their engaging in politics and entering previously forbidden state institutions, as well as schools, universities, jobs and entrepreneurship.

This, however, did not last for long, and Turkish women faced fierce attacks and were impacted by cultural, societal and political changes following the departure of Atatürk, and with the expansion of the influence of Islamic movements within the Turkish society. In the mid-1980s, Islamic feminist movements rose to criticize Atatürk's secular rule and to call for a return to Islamic principles of religious and moral commitment. In 2002 the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, declaring not only the end of the secular rule, but also the dramatic regression of the status of Turkish women.

The AKP, headed by Erdogan, has adopted policies motivating women to bearing children as their essential role’, according to the party’s perspective. This was accompanied by their withdrawal from the public sphere, taking the society back to the  patriarchal view of women staying at home and men as the heads of the household. Wearing the Hijab was permitted in the Parliament, universities, schools and other official places, while attacks on women have increased recently.

Turkey has recently been suffering from the outbreak of violence against women in its various forms, some of which are public and direct, while others are hidden. Thus, thousands of organizations concerned with women's affairs in Turkey exist, which indicates the existence of fundamental problems that Turkish women suffer from and need help with.


Withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention

In 2011, the Council of Europe launched a convention to combat violence against women, which was negotiated in Istanbul and which was later given the name of "Istanbul Convention" signed by 45 countries. The agreement aims to combat all forms of violence against women as well as domestic violence, and includes various legislations against violence and female genital mutilation. This convention is considered the first legally binding tool that applies a comprehensive legal framework to combating violence against women, focusing on the protection of victims and the prosecution of perpetrators.

It should be noted that Turkey was the first country to ratify the Istanbul Convention concluded in 2011 and implemented in 2014, and it is also the first country to withdraw from it. Turkey's withdrawal marks the first time where a country decides to withdraw from a European agreement after its ratification. However, Ankara is not the only one that has objections regarding that agreement. Other countries that have frozen or refused their ratification or wish to withdraw from the agreement include Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.

The Turkish government considers its move of withdrawal to be legal, based on the fact that the constitution stipulates that the President regulates this type of procedures, and that based on Article 80 of the Convention, any party to the agreement may withdraw upon notifying the Secretary-General of the European Council.

The Turkish presidency's statement supported its position by stating that 6 EU member states, namely Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia, have not yet ratified the Istanbul Convention. The Turkish statement also noted that Poland had taken steps to withdraw from the agreement.


Implications of withdrawal

Turkey’s official withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention has various implications, most notably the following:

1-   The escalation of violence against Turkish women: The withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention comes amid high statistics indicating high rates of violence against women in Turkey. According to ‘We Will Stop Femicide’, 300 women were killed in 2020 by their husbands or relatives, and since the beginning of this year, 189 cases of murder of women have been recorded. The WHO also indicated that about 38% of women in Turkey have experienced domestic violence at least once. Murders of women in Turkey are of the most serious crimes, particularly since there is societal indifference to violence against women in some areas.

Escalation of violence against women in Turkey may be attributed to several reasons, particularly the occurrence of radical changes in the community itself, as many conservative rural residents moved to major cities, who embrace different values and living trends. This led to the occurrence of some violent incidents, the victims of which were women. The weakness of penalties and provisions relevant to crimes of violence against women, which were based on the grounds that the perpetrator committed them out of honor and love, also gave way to these practices being repeated. Additionally, the wide gap between the conservative movement and the secular current, and the conservative movement's assumption of power has given a green light to extremism against women.


2- Increasing fears of Turkish women: Jurists believe that the conservative-oriented government in Turkey wants to abolish the successes achieved by women, and that the Istanbul Convention was an obstacle to Erdogan's regime and a tool for curbing violent practices against women.

Regardless of the reasons, Ankara's withdrawal from this agreement intensifies the fears of Turkish women, particularly since it may grant men the right to practice violence against women, in addition to allowing perpetrators of violence to escape penalties or face mitigated sentences. This would increase violence and murder crimes against women in Turkey, not to mention the failure to enforce laws stipulated for the protection of women and their rights.


3-  Appealing to political conservatives: Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention carries other implications beyond the women’s issue. There are political considerations, where President Erdogan attempts to restore his popularity, which has declined over recent years due to the policies of the ruling AKP as well as the economic crisis in the country. This would be achieved by utilizing the religious dimension, and wooing the conservative class in Turkey, which may have a different stance regarding the limits of women's rights.

This also applies to the partisan level, as the popularity of the AKP is declining in Turkish street, about two years prior to the next presidential elections due in 2023. The move to withdraw from the agreement comes as an attempt to foster the image of the current ruling party as one that still adheres to Turkish conservative values, and to prove that the party's agenda with the EU did not push it to relinquish its principles.


4-  Steering clear of the EU: Turkey's withdrawal from this agreement provoked women's rights advocates, who considered it a violation of the values of the EU, which it hopes to join. Therefore, Turkey's withdrawal from the agreement undermines women's rights and implicitly encourages the persistence of violence against them, which will aggravate Ankara's issues with the EU.

International criticism

As Erdogan and his ruling party believe that the Istanbul Convention undermines the family structures which protect the Turkish society, and that it contradicts traditional family values, the decision to withdraw from the agreement aroused a lot of international criticism. Amnesty International has warned that violence against women is on the rise in Turkey in addition to criticism raised by the EU, Germany, France and the UNHCR.

In March, US President Joe Biden expressed his dissatisfaction with Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, saying that "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"[1] adding that the move was disappointing and a disheartening step backward. Daniel Höltgen, the Spokesperson for the Council of Europe's Secretary-General, said, "We have always explained that this treaty has one task and one task only, which is to prevent violence against women and domestic violence…It has no other agenda".[2]


[1] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/03/21/statement-by-president-biden-on-turkeys-withdrawal-from-the-istanbul-convention/

[2] https://www.dw.com/en/istanbul-convention-how-a-european-treaty-against-womens-violence-became-politicized/a-56953987