By Kirthi Jayakumar
An anti-feminist wave seems to be gripping Europe, what with Poland moving to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, while Hungary refuses to ratify the Convention. In Turkey, the first country to have signed and ratified the Istanbul Convention – beside being the site of its birth – the convention itself has become a subject of much debate. The incumbent party, Justice and Development Party (AKP) noted that the government can withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. One official from the party also called the act of signing the convention a mistake – even though Turkey has had a massive rise in femicide.
As recently as last week, the strangled and battered body of a 27-year-old university student named Pinar Gultekin was found by the police, buried in a bin encased in concrete. A wave of protests followed with women taking to the streets, chanting “we want to live” and “end femicides,” and to social media, where the famous campaign calling for women to post black and white images of themselves in protest against Pinar Gultekin’s murder enjoined women in large numbers, across the world. Turkey’s move to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention has witnessed a mobilization of women across all lines to come together in protest.
However, even as President Erdogan condemned Gultekin’s murder, there has not been any active effort on his part to address Femicide or to call for a firmer commitment under the Istanbul Convention. Instead, though, his party has been openly calling Turkey’s engagement under the Convention in question. AKP’s Deputy Leader Numan Kurtulmus went on record in a television interview to say that signing the Istanbul Convention was wrong, because there are “two critical issues in the text of this convention that we should draw attention to that we can never accept. One of them is gender rights; the other is sexual orientation rights.” This view has the support of Turkey’s religious conservative media, which believes that the Convention has undermined the social institution of the family. Ironically, however, the AKP was the ruling party at the time of signing and ratifying the Istanbul Convention, and even passed sweeping laws to protect women.
Understanding the Istanbul Convention
The “Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, or the Istanbul Convention opened for signatures on May 11, 2011. The Convention is the first ever document presenting legally binding guidelines that establishes “a comprehensive legal framework and approach to combat violence against women.” It is also dedicated to preventing domestic violence, protecting victims, and prosecuting accused offenders, and declares violence against women as a violation of human rights and as a form of discrimination. It calls for member states to punish offences such as psychological violence, stalking, physical violence, and sexual violence (including rape), all non-consensual acts of a sexual nature with a person, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, forced abortion, and forced sterilisation, honour crimes as well as sexual harassment.
The Convention defines the term “gender” as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men,” and does not include explicit mentions of non-binary gender identities. States are, however, called upon to avoid any and all discrimination based on someone’s gender or sexual identity. The convention is also intersectional in that discrimination on the basis of race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth, age, state of health, disability, marital status, migrant or refugee status is not permitted.
Withdrawal: A dangerous trend
While some may argue that the trend of patriarchy and misogyny has long pre-dated the Istanbul Convention, the fact that it was adopted roughly a decade ago represented that the winds of change had arrived. In the time it took for states to adopt and ratify the convention, changes were evident on ground. For example, the Parliamentary Assembly of the European Council (PACE) has noted that a more dedicated sense of commitment to the protection of women’s rights has emerged in the form of robust legislative and policy standards in the national laws of several countries. In some countries, legislative measures that specifically protect women’s rights have emerged. The advocacy around the convention has also culminated in the education of victims and survivors on their rights.
In the wordsof Turkish lawyer and human rights activist Eren Keskin, “The Convention is virtually a constitution for women. While it holds Turkey responsible to carry out many duties to prevent violence, at the same time it clearly underlines the fact that concepts such as custom, tradition, or honour cannot be considered as a justification for any act of violence. I should also mention Law No. 6284 which prescribes measures to protect women against violence. Under Article 90 of the Turkish Constitution, international agreements such as the Convention are superior to domestic law.”
It goes without saying that withdrawal from a progressive piece of legislation and the measures adopted to further its implementation is a regressive step: one that strengthens the structural violence and discrimination against women, and signals the encouragement of a culture of impunity that allows for violence to continue, unabashed. Coupled with the rising number of femicides, withdrawing from the convention simply means walking away from acting on a commitment to protect women’s rights: a dangerous trend that only points in the direction of a frightening future.