. A woman holding a banner during the protest in Ankara on August 12 that reads: “Misogynists will be silenced, the İstanbul Convention will be applied”. (Credit: Burcu Yıldırım)

A political row has erupted in Turkey after comments by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated the country might withdraw from a landmark international treaty on women’s rights. 

Drawn up in 2011, the Istanbul Convention – named after the city in which it was signed – commits states in and around the European Union (EU) to prevent violence against women. Religious conservatives in Turkey criticise the convention as “anti-family” and for allegedly encouraging homosexuality, and in early July it looked as if they had found an ally in Erdogan. 

“Study it. Get rid of it if that’s the will of the people,” Erdogan said at a meeting with provincial chiefs of his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) on July 1. His comments set off a flurry of similar calls, a few days before the AKP was set to discuss the issue at its annual party conference.

On July 2, AKP deputy chairman Numan Kurtulmuş said in a television interview that Turkey was wrong to sign the convention because it made provisions for “marginal elements of society” such as LGBT communities. This was echoed by the AKP’s coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the Islamist opposition Felicity Party (Saadet), who both argued that the convention undermined the institution of the family.

Ahead of the AKP’s conference, religious lobbying groups such as the influential Turkey Thought Platform had been arguing for a withdrawal from the convention. Critics of the treaty, which is legally binding, particularly dislike a clause which states that women should be protected from violence regardless of social status, including their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Yet Erdogan’s comments also sparked fierce opposition, including from among his own political allies, which has forced opponents of the convention to temporarily backtrack. Feminist campaign groups – further angered by the remark of right-wing newspaper columnist, Yeni Akit’s Abdullah Dilipak, that women who defended the convention were “prostitutes” – announced they would hold simultaneous demonstrations across Turkey on July 5, the day of the AKP’s general conference session. 

As the conference approached, prominent female AKP politicians and NGOs close to the government spoke out in defence of the convention. Perhaps the most intriguing statement came from the Women and Democracy Society (KADEM), whose deputy chair is Erdogan’s daughter Sümeyye. KADEM stated publicly that the Istanbul Convention did not “put women on a pedestal”, threaten the family or “pave the way for homosexual tendencies”. 

At the last minute, the general session was postponed – officially because of a clash in the president’s diary. According to some observers, however, behind-the-scenes lobbying from KADEM played a role. Turkey Thought Platform also withdrew their earlier call, saying that the debate had become a “minefield”, while Dilipak apologised for his use of language. Instead, the Convention was discussed behind closed doors, by the AKP’s central executive board on August 18. 

According to Sevda Karaca, a women’s right’s campaigner and publishing director of the feminist website Ekmek ve Gül (Bread and Roses), the AKP’s conflicted attitude to the Istanbul Convention reflects the wider political changes of recent years. When the AKP-led government signed the convention in 2011, it coincided with an effort to join the EU, and Ankara was keen to give “the impression of democratic reform,” Karaca said.

She added, “This was also a time when the AKP tried to win over liberal circles in order to consolidate their voter base.” 

Since then, as the AKP has moved in a more conservative direction, a range of women’s organisations have put pressure on the government to uphold the Convention. In recent months a range of groups, from the women’s sections of opposition parties to NGOs, have organised protests and run a social media campaign under the hashtag  #İstanbulSözleşmesiYaşatır (Istanbul Convention saves lives).

Protest in İzmir held in August: “Istanbul Convention saves lives” (Credit: Eda Aktaş)

Gülsüm Kav, a representative of the campaign group We Will Stop Femicides, told Inside Turkey that attacks on the Istanbul Convention were tantamount to “encouraging murder”. Kav’s organisation was one of over 300 groups that issued a joint statement in August claiming that the debate “encourages men who use violence and threatens women who are subject to it” and that it sent a signal to state officials not to enforce the law on domestic abuse. 

Canan Güllü, chair of the Turkey Women’s Federation, told Inside Turkey that while the criminal justice system still did not fully protect women, ratifying the Istanbul Convention had led to improvements. But Güllü believes that the newly-polarised debate is “extremely dangerous” because it “has created a divide between ‘those who want women to be killed’ and ‘those who don’t.’”

According to Karaca of Ekmek ve Gül, the government may still intend to partially withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, discarding the parts that most upset religious conservatives. 

“Withdrawing from the convention and re-signing with amendments would be a way to find a middle ground with the European Council,” she said. “When pro-government figures say they support the convention, this is what they imply. They just euphemise it as accommodating the community’s discomfort about some issues.” 

Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), is also campaigning to defend the Convention, along with the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the secular nationalist Good Party (IYI). Fatma Köse, director of the CHP’s women’s sections, told Inside Turkey that withdrawing from the Convention would encourage violence against women. Meral Danış Beştaş, group deputy chair of the HDP, noted that the AKP was widely applauded nine years ago for signing, and that it was a point of national pride that the convention carried the name of a Turkish city.

Women protesting in Istanbul’s Kadıköy area on August 5 (Credit: Ekmekvegul website)

The Turkish parliament is currently closed due to summer break, so opposition parties are making their arguments through press conferences and street-based campaigning. In Istanbul, for example, the local CHP branch announced plans earlier this month to set up information stalls in each of the city’s 39 districts, with volunteers wearing t-shirts that read “What is the Istanbul Convention? Ask me.” Members of the women’s sections will also make home visits around the city. 

According to Karaca, the wider feminist movement is in no mood to compromise. 

“None of the articles are up for debate for us,” she continued. “We will not back down, and we will keep fighting to make sure every single article is enforced.”