Turkey
Pioneering Change: The Women's Movement in Turkey

Women protesters Turkey

Burcu Karakaş

I am first a woman and then a journalist. In a country where political oppression pervades our daily lives, so much so that it becomes, every day, harder to breathe, I am a "feminist journalist"—I see life and journalism from a feminist perspective. I can't think of any other way in Turkey, where women's rights are constantly under attack and not a day passes without a woman being murdered. Yet, despite this reality, we should be hopeful, as the women's movement in Turkey is shedding light on the oppression of women in this country that we call home.

Women and the LGBTİ+ community are among the groups of people who have been labeled as enemies by the authoritarian regime of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). This is, of course, no coincidence. Just like it wasn't a coincidence when then Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said, "we are a conservative democratic party. Family matters to us,” right after the AKP had replaced the Ministry of Women Affairs with the Ministry of Family and Social Politics in 2011.

Authoritarian regimes share many common features, chief among which is attacking the gains in human rights that have been won after long years of struggle and prioritizing the concept of family. This tendency is clearly at play in Turkey. Yet one should always remember that when there is an attack, there is a defense and, over the last decade, Turkey has witnessed an inspiring organized women's movement to fight against these systematic attacks on women's rights.

As Erdoğan believes, the ruling AKP delivers. Government policies only define women within the sphere of the family, never once considering them as individuals. It is telling that an issue as vital as violence against women has only recently begun to be discussed publicly by those in power, but this is simply to prevent the issue from disrupting families. They don't consider sacrificing women as harmful, so long as the integrity of the family remains intact.

Moreover, the longer that “the family” maintains its continuity and stability as the core social unit within the system, the more this social tenet is entrenched. We are continuously being subjected to discourse that argues that disrupting families would upend society and that the LGBTI+ community threatens the social order. "Those who don't start a family are not with US", or "those who are getting a divorce are traitors" are common examples of such discourse.

It is obvious that gender roles are fixed for the conservative religious community, who puts family first: the father heads the house and dominates the public sphere, while the mother remains the private, domestic sphere. These family-focused beliefs essentially imprison women at home, expecting them to assume traditional roles and keep silent when subjected to violence. Women are even sent home after visiting women's shelters (or ‘guesthouses’, as the AKP calls them) and encouraged not to file complaints about their abusive husbands. The recommendations given by the Offices of Familial and Religious Guidance, which is under the supervision of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, makes clear such expectations. I was once preparing a story, and called one of these offices, pretending to be a woman subjected to violence and seeking guidance. Religious officials told me, "don't blame your husband if he hits you", "violent attitudes will disappear if you put your Islamic life right", and "try settling the violence without consulting the police"—all of which suggest that women should not leave home despite being subjected to violence.

There are currently 407 active offices of familial and religious guidance affiliated with the Directorate of Religious Affairs that are dedicated to solving women's problems. The Directorate plans to increase their number. During AKP rule, the Directorate’s authority has grown, and it is no longer limited to taking necessary steps to prevent divorces. It now organizes marriage seminars aiming to influence young people, the goal of which is to encourage them to get married.

The oppression of women is not solely due to the activities of the Directorate of Religious Affairs. Law enforcement officers also ignore violence against women. Despite Law No. 6284: Law to Protect Family and Prevent Violence against Woman, women who go to police stations for protection may be forced to return to the home from which they fled. According to a lawyer I interviewed, "think of a woman, who is afraid of being killed, seeking shelter in the government. Although the legislation is clear, her quest for justice and protection at the police station ends with the words: “go back to your husband.’”

These words reveal the gravity of the situation. Most law enforcement officers avoid their legal obligations and simply send women away with statements like "we can't allocate a police officer for each of you", or "go home; you'll make up with your husband." Sometimes women seeking protection from the police are even forced to make peace with their husbands at the police station itself. In short, women who are worrying for their lives are abandoned, despite the law.

Women in Turkey face a struggle just to stay alive, whether it is due to the negligence of police officers, the marriage propaganda from the Directorate of Religious Affairs, President Erdoğan's insistence on "having least three children," or anti-abortion discourse. This struggle, which has been pursued within the scope of the discussions concerning the Istanbul Convention, is the most concrete strategy to protect women’s lives.

Turkey was the first country to ratify the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, known more commonly as the Istanbul Convention, in 2011. The convention, which aims to eliminate gender-based violence with the responsibility falling on states to implement it, came into force in August 2014. Yet since that time, Turkey has not enforced it. Tellingly, media organizations close to the government and members of the conservative religious community have repeatedly argued that the convention "has been disrupting the institution of the family" and demanded its annulment, claiming that it has increased the number of divorce cases. These groundless allegations are based mainly on the rising number of women seeking divorce and the growing intolerance towards women taking decisions about their own lives into their hands.

Women subjected to violence are now taking social and economic risks to leave their husbands rather than suffer violence. They are getting stronger in socioeconomic terms, while those such as the AKP who want the male-dominated order to endure, oppose this empowerment. Attacks against the Istanbul Convention, a legal text that ensures legal guarantees of women's rights and protections against violence and prioritizes gender equality, are in fact reflections of an anti-equality mind-set. This mind-set also favors child marriages, opposes the termination of pregnancies after rape and women's alcohol consumption, and favors mixed-sex education, all while defending the idea that women should be humiliated and even punished on the grounds of "honor". This is the atmosphere in which women are fighting to hold on to the rights that they have won.

We should not be talking about the annulment of the Istanbul Convention; instead, we should be discussing what if the convention is not implemented. We already see that the government is intentionally shifting the focus of these discussions. But what should we be talking about? First and foremost, men are killing women every day in Turkey, but we don't have enough women’s shelters. Existing shelters do not work to empower women, let alone carry out studies about how to address the problem. Gender-focused training is not offered to judges and prosecutors, as required by the convention.

The failure to implement Law No. 6284, in other words, leaves women alone to face violence from men and is a direct violation of the convention. But this we do not talk about this as much as we should. According to Article 25 of the convention, rape crisis centers should be established to provide a platform to fight against sexual violence. In Turkey, physical violence is unfortunately as common as sexual violence, but there has not been a single step towards establishing these centers since 2014.

The convention’s motto is "the Istanbul Convention saves lives." In fact, most laws in Turkey seek to save women's lives. The problem, however, lies in the failure to implement them. Instead we hear comments such as, "if the convention saves lives, then why does male violence persist?" Exactly! Since the laws and legal regulations are not implemented, violence persists. This incompetence does not appear to be a mistake. It is, instead, willful incompetence driven by politics.

It is, after all, political will that drives the implementation of the law in countries such as Turkey. Although everything seems perfect on paper, the government fails to execute it. The same applies to abortion. Due to President Erdogan's statement against abortion, there are hardly any public hospitals that currently perform the procedure in Turkey, even though abortion is a legal right. The same approach is applied to the Istanbul Convention. The fact that the ruling party prioritizes the family, ignores women's identity as an individual, and only reluctantly tries to curtail violence against women renders the articles of the convention meaningless.

Let's pin down the fact that Turkey's withdrawal from the convention would lead to further confirmation of the government’s lack of will on the issue. It is indirectly saying, "we could not care less if women died or not." The fact that the ruling party rejects gender equality inevitably causes the number of cases of violence against women to rise. The lack of deterring punishments and the decline in cases that prosecute murderers of women only encourage future assailants. Unless the political will to combat violence against women is convincingly displayed, solution-oriented policies that prevent it will remain elusive. And this state of deadlock leads women into a bottomless pit.

We can date the beginning of this approach to police violence against demonstrators during the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Thereafter, the country experienced pronounced instability, from suicide bombings and the outbreak of a fresh round of conflict in the Kurdish region to the attempted coup in 2016. These events made it illegal to protest publicly, and political movements withered. During this painful period, the women's movement did not, however, abandon its street protests to defend women’s legal gains and announce that women have a right to live. Women demonstrated most notably on 8 March 2020 and have held other protests as well, refusing to back down in the face of political power. Holding banners and posters, shouting slogans, and literally gasping for air, women exclaim that the private sphere is now political, femicide is political, and thus gender equality is political. These messages were exclaimed in Ankara and from all over the world.

Finally, we must consider how the women’s movement in Turkey has galvanized action and elevated its message through social media. The #challengeaccepted campaign, in which women shared their black-and-white photos to raise awareness about violence against women, was the most popular social media movement in Turkey. Yet there is more. Younger generation feminists, notably young women in the universities, have raised their voices on social media and demanded justice for their peers, who have been murdered or found dead in suspicious circumstances. This pushback has been so effective that many cases that were about to be closed and in which the cause of death was determined to be suicide have now been re-opened. Although a damning indictment of the Turkish judicial system, these efforts reveal the depth of the new generation's ambition to defend women's rights and pioneer change.

Young women are strong and on fire. And it is not only women who are raising their voices; awareness of feminism across society grows every day. Efforts to degrade the women’s movement have, in other words, been in vain. The women's movement in Turkey remains determined to pioneer political and social change, despite the enormous challenges ahead.