Viral hashtags, protests and Istanbul Convention fail to protect women in Turkey

Women across Turkey have taken to the streets in the last week to protest the killing of 27-year-old student Pınar Gültekin by her former partner, the latest in a series of high-profile cases of women murdered by men in the country.

The protests follow massive demonstrations against Turkey’s proposed withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, widely seen as the most powerful global compact to combat violence against women, to which Turkey was the first signatory, in 2011. Islamist Turks have been lobbying the government for more than a year to pull out of the convention, which they argue empowers LGBTI groups and threatens the family, while more liberal-minded Turks have embraced the #womenempoweringwomen hashtag to protest the move and stand against femicide in Turkey. 

Merve Tahiroğlu, Turkey programme coordinator for the Project on Middle East Democracy, acknowledged that long before President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power Turkish women were denied full rights.

“But with Erdoğan and the AKP we see so much sexism, the invectives against women, the constant language coming from Erdoğan,” she told Ahval in a podcast, pointing to statements from top officials that women should have at least three children, work in the home and are not equal to men.

“We have seen how an Islamist government with absolutely no respect for full gender equality can turn a place like Turkey from a difficult place for women to pretty much hell.”

Despite several gruesome killings that generated massive media coverage in recent years, the emergence of several women’s advocacy groups and hashtags gone viral at least since #OzgecanAslan in 2015, the number of women killed in Turkey has increased nearly four-fold, from 121 in 2011 to 474 last year, according to watchdog group We Will Stop Femicide.

The number of Turkish women who have suffered violence has increased 50 percent, from 145,000 in 2015 to nearly 220,000 in 2018, according to Interior Ministry data. Just this year, domestic abuse has surged as much as a third during the coronavirus pandemic, as countless women have been stuck at home with potentially violent partners.

Milena Büyüm, Turkey campaigner for the global rights group Amnesty International, told Ahval in a podcast that if Turkey were to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention “it would be a really disastrous step back for women’s equality and for women’s lives”.

In a sign of the considerable attention the issue has drawn, Erdoğan vowed in a tweet last week that Gültekin’s murderer would receive the maximum punishment. But Tahiroğlu argues that top Turkish leaders choosing certain cases and calling for the perpetrators to be punished might actually make matters worse.

“Prosecutors should not go after a rapist or a murderer of women because Erdoğan has a problem with that,” she said. “It should be because this is law and women are protected by law. But there’s no rule of law in Turkey. Court cases proceed by political motivations.”

Women face other obstacles, including a lack of sanctuaries from potentially violent husbands, partners or former partners, and Turkish police sending women home when they come to the station to express their fear of abuse. But the president’s vow highlights an issue Büyüm sees as possibly the biggest hurdle to women’s safety in Turkey: the legal impunity often conferred on perpetrators by Turkish courts.

“There have been other high-profile cases in which the authorities have spoken out, and yet this has not led to a reduction of these cases or the successful prosecution,” she said. “The judiciary doesn’t effectively pursue the perpetrators and punish them.”

Men who kill women or commit rape often get off with a slap on the wrist. In 2014, one of the bachelors on a matchmaking television programme revealed he had murdered two of his five wives. In January, Turkish parliament debated a bill that would allow men to rape women, including minors, if they were to marry them afterward.

“The offenders are not punished properly,” said Tahiroğlu. “Those who are jailed are later given some amnesty and let go early because in the court they showed ‘good demeanour’...Women are in no way protected and this is totally on the government.”

For Büyüm, this underscores a traditional patriarchal culture that believes women should remain demure homemakers while men are free to assert themselves. In Turkish courts it is not uncommon even today for a man charged with violence against a woman to argue that he had somehow been provoked.

The defence team for the men accused of killing Şule Çet commissioned a report last year, during the murder trial, that contained the line: “If a woman agrees to drinks with a man in a secluded place, it means she consents to sexual relations.”

“There’s a lack of awareness among the judiciary of what these types of crimes are and their impact,” said Büyüm. “There’s a lot of societal prejudice that comes into play. What did the woman wear? What was she doing? These are attitudes that actually, unfortunately, enter into the decision-making.”

This is all on top of the judiciary’s increasing tendency to rule in favour of Erdoğan’s government, rather than mete out justice. A ruling that sought to put a supposedly licentious woman in her place might align with the view of Erdoğan and other top officials.

Büyüm pointed to the February acquittal of philanthropist Osman Kavala, immediately after which the judges in the case faced an administrative investigation. Kavala had been charged with plotting to overthrow the government by leading the 2013 Gezi protests, and hours after his acquittal he was jailed for new charges of treason.

“Nothing came of that investigation as far as I know, but the news that such a thing could happen,” said Büyüm. “How can judges operate freely and independently in a context where this sort of thing happens? It’s very, very difficult. There’s a huge amount of pressure on judges.”

She also pointed to the convictions early this month of former Amnesty Turkey head Taner Kılıç and three other human rights activists. All received multi-year prison sentences for membership in a terrorist group despite their lawyers refuting all the charges against them, according to Büyüm, who saw that decision as shocking and troubling.

“It’s also a signal to the rest of civil society: ‘Agitate or speak out on human rights issues at your peril. We will drag you through the courts, we will detain you, we will imprison you for years and we will shut you up,’” she said, echoing the government view.

“This is truly unbearable and this situation has to change.”

Despite aggressive police tactics, questionable court rulings, and attacks online and in the media, activists and women’s advocacy groups continue to soldier on. In December, police arrested protesters for singing an anti-rape song. This week, police again used aggressive tactics to disperse protests against Gultekin’s killing.

“There is still an independent civil society in Turkey that is still raising its voice,” said Büyüm. “People are using their right to peaceful dissenting activities, exercising their rights despite all the restrictions and pressures and even police violence.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.