Istanbul, Turkey – Every year, men in Turkey murder hundreds of women, and trending hashtags on social media and protests on the street have become sadly familiar.
This month, a particularly brazen killing has triggered a massive outcry over what women’s rights activists say is the government’s failure to prevent gender-based violence.
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Activists say that by withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention, a 2011 landmark agreement of the Council of Europe outlining how to ensure the safety of women, Turkey has given up on a roadmap it was the first country to endorse.
On November 9, Basak Cengiz was walking down a street in Istanbul’s Atasehir district when a man wielding a samurai sword walked up behind her, and without saying a word, began to stab her repeatedly, continuing after she fell to the sidewalk and died. Cengiz, 28, was a promising architect who had moved from Ankara to Istanbul to pursue her career and had recently become engaged to be married.
The suspected killer, when questioned by police about why he killed Cengiz, said he was simply out to kill someone. “I went out and picked a woman because I thought it would be easier,” he said.
In the days since the murder, a succession of political leaders, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have paid visits to the Cengiz family to offer their condolences. Officials have promised justice, but for Erdogan’s critics, the government is partly to blame for such violence.
“Cengiz was killed because regulations protecting women are not implemented adequately in Turkey, because killing women is easy in Turkey,” Gulsum Kav, co-founder of the We Will Stop Femicide platform, told Al Jazeera.
Founded in 2010, the platform tracks the murders of women and its volunteers run a 24/7 hotline, organise meetings and protests, and attend court hearings to monitor how prosecutions of gender-based murders are carried out.
So far in 2021, men in Turkey have killed 285 women, according to the platform – on course to exceed the 300 who were killed in 2020. In cases where a motive and suspect were identified, the group found that in most cases, husbands were killing their wives, in their homes. Kav said calls to the platform’s hotline have increased threefold since the pandemic started.
“Turkey is unfortunately not becoming a country where the violence problem is solved, it is becoming a country where murders are increasing,” said Kav. “The primary reason is that women are not adequately protected, and also I believe the withdrawal from the protective (Istanbul) convention.”
President Erdogan has lambasted feminist groups in the country for continuing to bring up the Istanbul Convention, saying his government already has laws in place that offer protection.
“Our government is very, very sensitive in terms of violence against women,” Erdogan said in Ankara on November 17. “We have completely removed the Istanbul Convention from our agenda because we already have the steps to be taken in this agreement in our own laws on the agenda.”
Opposition leaders, meanwhile, have pledged to make rejoining the agreement one of the first steps their government would take if voted into power.
‘Current laws are not adequate’
The Convention was a product of years of study by experts on gender-based violence and puts forth a comprehensive set of guidelines preventing and effectively punishing violence against women. Turkey became the first country to sign it in 2011, but withdrew from it this year.
The convention starts with the assertion that violence against women – physical, sexual, psychological, and economic – is rooted in gender inequality. It calls for preventive measures like establishing shelters, streamlining restraining orders, criminalising forced and underage marriages, collecting gendered data on prosecutions, and promoting economic and social independence for women.
The ratification was the culmination of reforms undertaken by Erdogan’s own government.
In the decade leading up to the ratification of the agreement, Turkey mandated equality in employment, set a minimum age of 18 for marriage, criminalised marital rape, and trained police, judges, and prosecutors to recognise gender-based violence. In 2012, it enacted a new law, the Protection of Family and Prevention of Violence against Women, to implement the Istanbul Convention, mandating, for instance, special shelters are set up for every 100,000 people in the country, and making it easier to obtain restraining orders.
But critics of Erdogan have long questioned whether he was really committed to promoting gender equality.
In speeches over the years, the president often questioned the notion that women and men were equals, and encouraged women to embrace what he says is their traditional role as mothers and homemakers.
In a midnight presidential decree in March, Turkey unilaterally withdrew from the Istanbul Convention. The move triggered nationwide protests by women.
Erdogan has since said existing laws are adequate for protecting women, and his government has issued an updated National Action Plan to tackle violence going forward to 2025.
But the withdrawal, made official this July, came as Turkey still needed to enact reforms required to meet its obligations under the Istanbul Convention, says Ayşe Faride Acar, a Turkish academic who headed an independent monitoring group mandated to oversee implementation of the agreement from 2015 to 2019.
“Obviously the current laws are not adequate, because there is still a lot of violence against women, a lot of femicide cases in Turkey,” Acar told Al Jazeera. “We hear about women being killed every day, sometimes several in one day, because the existing structure, both legally and implementation wise, is not adequate.”
The monitor’s most recent evaluation of Turkey, in 2018, enumerated needed reforms, including: better collection of data on prosecutions and gender, criminalising acts such as stalking, increasing funding for civil society groups, establishing a dedicated hotline for victims of domestic violence, and increasing the number of shelters available for women.
Turkey currently has 149 shelters for women, according to official data, but Acar says there were supposed to be far more, and a number of other measures have still not been enacted.
While there were shortcomings, at least as a signatory to the agreement Turkey was on the right path, she said.
“Everything that needs to be done to improve things is in that convention, so it’s really difficult, even impossible, to understand why the state withdrew from the Istanbul Convention.”
‘Advocating’ for families
Turkey’s official reason for withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention, officials have said, was its alleged normalisation of homosexuality.
“The Istanbul Convention, originally intended to promote women’s rights, was hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalise homosexuality – which is incompatible with [Turkey’s] social and family values,” the president’s communications office said in a statement in March after Erdogan’s withdrawal decree.
Officials in Erdogan’s government have often taken issue with what they see as the “normalisation” of LGBTQ identities, censoring television shows, and banning what used to be the Islamic world’s largest annual Gay Pride march.
The withdrawal was the culmination of years of lobbying by activists like Adem Cevik, spokesperson for the Turkish Family Council, an NGO that advocates repealing much of the country’s current domestic violence laws.
Cevik says he takes particular issue with the Istanbul Convention’s emphasis on women as victims, and its broad mandate to end all forms of discrimination, which, according to the text of the agreement, includes discrimination based on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity”.
The long term goal of the Istanbul Convention, Cevik says, was part of a Western plot to “eliminate the family and eliminate gender altogether”.
“There are victims of violence among both men and women, we are not only advocating for men, but for rights and justice for everyone, both men and women, and children,” he told Al Jazeera.
Provisions like easily obtained restraining orders, and lifetime alimony payments, Cevik said, are to blame for violence against women.
“When you mandate separation, you are causing a psychological trauma in men. They are worried about where they will stay, how they will eat, who will look after their children. You are making the man insane,” he said.
Acar said that argument misses the point of the agreement.
“This is a convention on violence against women, and domestic violence, which means it actually protects the family,” she said. “No family can be a strong and happy place where there is violence.”
And the argument that the Istanbul Convention is promoting homosexuality, Acar said, is “purposely blown out of proportion”.
“There is nothing in the Istanbul Convention that particularly promotes any additional rights or anything like that for the LGBTQ community,” she said. “It simply protects their human rights, which I think is unobjectionable.”
Turkey’s gender gap
Women’s rights groups in Turkey say the government’s emphasis on keeping the family together has led to a social narrative that often blames the victims of gender-based violence. Activists have even coined a term – “the tie reduction” – for what they say is a tendency in the judiciary for leniency towards men accused of crimes who show up in court complaining of behaviour by women such as refusing to cook meals on time, working, or spurning marriage proposals.
Turkey needs a comprehensive shift towards empowering women, socially and economically, as the Istanbul Convention envisioned, said Kav, of the We Will Stop Femicide platform.
According to official data, women make up just 35 percent of the labour force, and there is a 15 percent gap in wages between women and men. According to the World Economic Forum, Turkey ranked 133 out of 156 countries in gender equality in 2021.
Critics say President Erdogan has not helped encourage women to bridge that gap. Erdogan has repeatedly encouraged women to have “at least three children” and criticised women who prioritise careers over family.
“A woman who rejects motherhood, who refrains from being around the house, however successful her working life is, is deficient, is incomplete,” he said in 2016 at a meeting of the Women’s and Democracy Association, a women’s rights group which includes his daughter among its leadership.
Kav says the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention exemplifies attitudes among Turkey’s leadership towards gender equality.
“It was apparent this would motivate men to violence, and today we are experiencing the negative consequences of that.”