In March this year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree withdrawing Turkey from the Council of Europe’s convention preventing violence against women. When the withdrawal is complete, on 1 July, it will make Turkey the first country to withdraw from the landmark agreement – better known as the Istanbul Convention, after the city in which it was signed. A decade after Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government took Turkey into the agreement, it is leaving: so what happened in the ten years in between?

In May 2011, Turkey became the first signatory to the Istanbul Convention, joined by 45 other states that belong to the Council of Europe. It was a highly symbolic moment: the Convention was drawn up in Istanbul to mark Turkey’s presidency of the international human rights body, and it was inspired by the story of a woman from Turkey, Nahide Opuz, and the domestic abuse she suffered between 1995 and 2002. 

A resident of southeastern Diyarbakır, Opuz first petitioned for divorce from her husband Hüseyin in 1996, making some 36 criminal complaints about his violence. Nahide told the police that she was subject to physical abuse, had been stabbed, was the target of an attempted killing with a vehicle, and received regular death threats from her husband.

In 2002, Nahide decided to leave the house she shared with her husband. With the help of her mother, she packed up her belongings and left the house in a moving van. Hüseyin followed the mother and daughter, stopped them en route and murdered Nahide’s mother, Minheta.

Convicted of murder, Hüseyin was released from prison in 2008 despite a prison sentence of 25 years and 10 months. Nahide filed a complaint about the Turkish government with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on the grounds that the government had failed to protect her. In June 2009, the court decided in her favour, issuing its first ever fine to Turkey regarding violence against women.

The ECHR ruling was the first to define violence against women as categorically different to other violent crimes, noting that women suffered specifically on the basis of their sex.. The ruling also noted that the violence was a result of gender inequality and that the government should be proactive in protecting women. The ECHR also recommended that all Council of Europe member states should implement legislation protecting women, including reforms to court processes and law enforcement policy.

This extensive ruling prompted the creation of the Istanbul Convention. Based heavily on the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Istanbul Convention became a binding international treaty in August 2014.

Burak Bilgehan Özpek (Credit: Personal Archive)

According to the political scientist Burak Bilgehan Özpek, both the signing of the Convention by Turkey and its later withdrawal are a result of the AKP’s internal politics. At first, the AKP supported the initiative, said Özpek, because it considered diversity and anti-discrimination issues to be an asset. “The AKP cared back then because it served them in their conflict with the state military to promote diversity. They also wanted to appear in coherence with the international political landscape,” he said.

The AKP’s image and agenda has changed drastically during its time in office, however. Özpek said that the party has now switched to polarizing rhetoric that aims to prop up rigid social hierarchies. Yet this does not necessarily have widespread support: according to the Metropoll Research Center, 52.3 percent of people in Turkey oppose the withdrawal. 

“A small group of conservative voters who were in favour [of Turkey’s withdrawal] constitute an important portion of the AKP’s voter base,” he said. International agreements that expand legal protections make such conservatives feel insecure, said Özpek, and by successfully attacking the Istanbul Convention, they “spread their sense of defeat to the entire AKP”.

Özpek added that the AKP has a political style that reinforces the idea of there being winners and losers in society. “By withdrawing from the Convention, the party is trying to emphasise its conservative identity and place itself on the side of people who feel they are losing out from greater gender equality”, Özpek said.

Above all, the decision has pleased religious conservatives. The Islamist Felicity Party (Saadet), which Erdogan was once a member of, has been one of the loudest supporters of withdrawal. Some view the initiative as part of the AKP’s attempt to form an alliance with Saadet in the next general election. 

Withdrawal from the Convention has prompted protests in Turkey, not least because of Erdogan’s use of a presidential decree to exit the treaty. In theory, this should have been forbidden by the Turkish constitution, which limits the use of decrees to areas that the President can rule on. International agreements like the Istanbul Convention, argue Erdogan’s critics, should be subject to a vote in parliament.

Ceren Akkaya (Credit: Personal Archive)

“Withdrawing from an international treaty with a single person’s decree paves the way to withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights,” said Ceren Akkaya, a lawyer for the Mor Çatı Women’s Shelter Foundation. “There’s no room for a decree to withdraw from a rights treaty in a state of law.”

A greater objection, however, is the principle at stake. Women’s organizations would still have opposed withdrawal even if it had been carried out via a parliamentary vote,” Akkaya said. 

On the day that Turkey withdrew from the Convention, some of Akkaya’s clients, who were survivors of domestic violence, contacted her to express their fears about what might happen next. “To withdraw from a treaty that promises to help women build a life away from violence means that the government doesn’t care about violence against women,” Akkaya said.

Melek Önder (Credit: Personal Archive)

Melek Önder, a spokesperson for the group We Will Stop Femicide Platform, said that Turkey’s signing of the Istanbul Convention in 2011 was the result of decades’ worth of campaigning by the women’s movement. Her organisation records reports of violence against women, and the year the Convention was signed, they saw a decrease in the number of incidents. “That’s a result of women’s struggle and of state policies,” she said.

The most important aspect of the Convention, Önder added, was its definition of gender inequality as the cause of violence. “The government needs to find out where and how violence emerges so it can create solutions. It’s not easy to create societal change, and the Convention says that the government should protect women in the meantime,” she said.

The government now promises an “Ankara Convention” to replace the international agreement, but many women’s rights activists are sceptical about its likely form. “I don’t think that an Ankara Convention will be useful as it will be created by a government that evaded enforcement of a modern treaty like Istanbul Convention for the sake of collecting votes from conservative cults in the country. Women’s lives were used for political leverage and they were thrown under the bus overnight. We won’t stop working to enforce the Istanbul Convention again,” Önder said. 

The first suggestion that Turkey would withdraw from the Convention came in July 2020, when the AKP deputy chairman Numan Kurtulmuş said in a press conference that the government “couldn’t stay indifferent” about the document. “Just like we entered it legally, we will exit it legally,” Kurtulmuş said. 

This formed part of a wider attack on the idea of equal rights, as the deputy chairman also declared LGBTI+ communities a threat “not just to Turkey but to the world.” Kurtulmuş declared at the same press conference that it was “completely unnatural to make it sound like sex and gender could be a choice. This is a breach of creation, these are efforts to create a third sex and to legitimize it.” 

Two weeks later, local media reported that the President has issued an order for the AKP to start discussing withdrawal from the Convention, or the possible annulment of certain articles. One article in particular, which said “all genders” should be protected, subsequently came under fire from AKP supporters.

Berfu Şeker (Credit: Personal Archive)

Berfu Şeker, of the group Women’s Human Rights – New Solutions, said that the government’s hostile attitude to LGBTI+ communities was its explicit reason for criticising the Convention. “The common deployment of homophobic political rhetoric threatens LGBTI+ wellbeing. It’s completely in violation of human rights,” Şeker said. 

Since 2010, when the AKP took a more conservative turn, Şeker said, policy has often targeted gender equality; a phenomenon not limited to Turkey. “Right-leaning, populist and authoritarian regimes do this worldwide. Religious and authoritarian regimes that target gender equality, women’s rights and LGBTI+ rights, aim to undermine democracy and the rule of law.”