Istanbul, Turkey – With a presidential decree published in the Official Gazette on March 20, Turkey’s exit from the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence was sudden but not unexpected.
Turkey’s opposition parties appealed to the State Council, the highest administrative court, requesting a reversal of its actions.
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The convention was signed in September 2011 in Istanbul and named after the city. Turkey was the first state to ratify it with a unanimous vote at the parliament the next year, followed by 11 European countries. It came into effect in August 2014.
A main supporter of the convention was the Women and Democracy Association, or KADEM, chaired by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s younger daughter.
The Istanbul Convention is a legally binding treaty whose parties are obliged to prevent, investigate, and punish violence against women. The implementation process is monitored and evaluated.
Later in 2012, Turkey adopted Law No 6284 to Protect Family and Prevent Violence Against Women. The ruling AK Party boosted its national action plan for gender equality and strengthened its laws.
Hence Turkey’s walking away from the agreement has sparked criticism among the opposition, rights groups and even among ruling party supporters, who kept their disappointment muted.
The Council of Europe leaders said the treaty’s purpose is to prevent violence against women, protect victims and prosecute perpetrators. It upholds women’s fundamental right to a life free from violence and leaving it would deprive Turkey and Turkish women of a vital tool to counter violence against them.
KADEM later issued a statement about the move. “Laws and frameworks change, transform and develop in history. The important thing is not to take a step back when it comes to violence against women. Such a thing is out of the question anyway.”
Ruling party officials said they would instead be announcing a covenant called the Ankara Consensus that would seek to counter violence against women.
The history of ditching international agreements goes back to the summer of 2020 when the Turkish president decided to turn the iconic Istanbul museum, the Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya, back into a mosque. Erdogan’s opponents criticised the move, calling it an effort to consolidate his power base among the religiously conservative and nationalist electorate, as his government struggled with a declining economy and global pandemic and started losing popular support.
Initial calls to withdraw from Istanbul Convention came from religiously conservative figures accusing the treaty of harming family values, giving the LGBTQ community more rights and approving gay marriages.
Fatma Aksal, the president of the parliamentary commission on equal opportunities for men and women, said gender violence is a significant problem that must be dealt with on a global scale. She says the ruling AK Party, of which she is a member, sees it as a crime against humanity. For her, the decision to scrap Istanbul Convention will benefit the entire country.
“We cannot implement something just because Europe imposes on us. There is nothing to imitate from Europe in femicide. It has the highest rates. We already established an exploratory committee in the parliament to investigate violence against women by presidential order,” she told Al Jazeera.
While Aksal said the issue is above politics and sincerity is only key to the solution, she argued some parts of the convention go against Turkey’s traditional family values.
“Marginal groups from both sides spoke out a lot in vengeance. LGBT communities, communist women groups … Maybe this brought us here,” she said.
But member of parliament Aylin Nazliaka from the main opposition party CHP said all of Turkey’s political parties across the spectrum were proud of drafting and signing the Istanbul Convention.
She told Al Jazeera: “The ruling party is currently contradicting itself. Law No 6284 refers to the Convention. Repealing it weakens this law. No one can assure they will not void it. This treaty is a guarantee for our women.”
Nazliaka dismissed claims by critics of the treaty who suggest men are arrested solely based on women’s statements in spite of a preliminary injunction. “There is no article in the treaty that encourages divorce, violence, or homosexuality. Men are not victimised. Men are lured away from home in the case of domestic violence, threat or crime.”
According to Turkey’s We Will Stop Femicide platform, 300 women were killed by men and 171 women had died under suspicious circumstances in 2020.
Is it about LGBTI?
After the decision to withdraw was made, a statement by the government’s directorate of communications noted six members of the European Union – Bulgaria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia – did not ratify the Istanbul Convention. And Poland has taken steps to withdraw from the convention as well, citing an attempt by the LGBTQ community to impose its ideas about gender on society.
However, references to sexual orientation do not crop up in the text. Article 4/3 says: “The implementation of the provisions of this Convention by the Parties, in particular measures to protect the rights of victims, shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, gender, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, state of health, disability, marital status, migrant or refugee status, or other status.”
What terrifies the conservatives in Turkey is article 3/c that describes “gender” as socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.
Ayla Kerimoglu, a sociologist and women’s rights defender, said anti-LBTQ sentiment is caused by prejudice or misunderstanding of the community.
She thinks that some who feared “losing families” started a smear campaign as the issue rose in prominence.
“One cannot help but wonder whether the fear of ‘the family is falling out of hand’ is real or the anxiety of not dominating women in the future turns to LGBTI phobia and anxiety,” Kerimoglu said.
Turkey could have annotated an interpretative declaration on how it understands LGBTQ rights and apply it in a domestic context instead, just like Croatia has, added Kerimoglu.
“Unfortunately, the political will took a political risk by terminating the treaty under the pressure of a small but loud group of people.”
There is optimism among the opposition the constitutional court may announce a verdict that the convention will stay in place as it was ratified by parliament, amid debates about the judicial impartiality in the country.
It is now a process for the Turkish NGOs to closely follow so that Turkish women do not give away what they have achieved as rights against domestic violence.