Istanbul, Turkey – With a presidential decree published in the Official Gazette on March 20, Turkey’s pullout 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 the cancellation of the withdrawal.
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 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.
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.
The pullout sparked criticism among the opposition, rights groups, and even among ruling party supporters, who kept it muted despite their disappointment.
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 human right to a life free from violence and leaving it would deprive Turkey and Turkish women of a vital tool to counter violence.
KADEM issued a statement that only said, “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 be announcing a covenant called the Ankara Consensus, and never tolerate violence against women.
The history of debates to ditch the international agreement 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 criticized the move, calling it an effort to consolidate his power base among the Islamist and nationalist electorate, as his government struggled with a declining economy, global pandemic, and started losing ground.
Initial calls to withdraw from Istanbul Convention came from Islamist figures accusing the treaty of harming family values and paving the way for the LGBT community and gay marriages.
Fatma Aksal, president of the parliamentary commission on equal opportunities for men and women, said gender violence is a significant problem that must be dealt with globally. Her ruling AK Party sees it as a crime against humanity. For her, the decision to scrap Istanbul Convention is for the benefit of her 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.
The main opposition party CHP’s parliament member Aylin Nazliaka said the Istanbul Convention was what all political parties were proud of signing and pioneering.
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 rejected any claims by treaty opponents who suggest men are arrested solely based on women’s statements, but there is a preliminary injunction. “There is no article in the treaty that encourages divorce, violence, or homosexuality. Men are not victimized. 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’s deaths were suspicious.
Is it about LGBTI?
After the pullout decision, a statement by the government’s directorate of communications on the withdrawal 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 LGBT community to impose its ideas about gender on society.
However, there isn’t any referral on sexual orientation 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, color, 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 one can think the LGBTI fear pumped into society is caused by prejudices, misunderstandings, or additional comments; if not one of them, it is a deliberate distortion.
She thinks a group of catalysts who feared “losing families” carried out such a smear campaign against their phobia and tried to manipulate society after that LGBTI issue was on the agenda more than ever before.
“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.
As Croatia as an example, Turkey could have annotated an interpretative declaration on how Turkey understands and will apply it in domestic law could have been a method that solved Turkey’s problem, 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.