Women, NGOs in defense of Istanbul Convention

Women, NGOs in defense of Istanbul Convention

Those who are rather familiar with Turkey’s democratic backpedalling during the past few years might find it hard to believe but the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has championed the cause of women’s rights in the first decade of its governance.

When Turkey took over the presidency of the Council of Europe in October 2010, it became one of the few member countries to leave a successful legacy behind by finalizing a convention on violence against women.

Reaching an agreement over the “Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence” became a priority for the Turkish presidency, and in fact it succeeded to open the text to signature in May 2011, at the ministerial conference organized in Istanbul at the end of its presidency. That’s why it is called the “Istanbul Convention,” and Turkey is not only its first signatory but also the first country to ratify it by approving the document in parliament in November 2011.

That should be a huge source of pride in Turkey’s track record on women’s rights. Yet the government acts as though it regrets having championed the cause and is almost in an effort to make it forget that it had signed such a binding document.

And the government has been endorsing this approach at a time when violence against women, especially women murders, as well as visibility of the domestic violence, is on the rise.

Does the AK Party then truly regret having ratified the convention? Experts familiar with the issue believe Turkey’s ruling party is not there yet. But it seems the ruling elites are under tremendous pressure from a very conservative segment of their electorate.

This segment is against accepting women as individuals. By doing so, in other words, by putting individuality in front of a women’s identity as a mother and a wife harms the strength of the family, they argue.

They are not alone in their opposition. Just over half of the members of the Council of Europe have ratified the Istanbul Convention, and there is a wave of opposition especially in Central Europe, with countries like Bulgaria and Slovakia failing to ratify it. Their opposition are focused on their fear about “same-sex marriages” then on women’s empowerment.

While there is no explicit mention of gay marriage in the treaty, the detractors claim the definition of “gender” in the document may open the door to legalizing gay marriage.

The common point in domestic and international criticism is the unjustified view that the convention is a threat to the traditional family structure.

As far as Turkey is concerned, the government has not succumbed to efforts to put some reservations to the treaty. But it remains silent against criticism, failing to openly endorse the Istanbul Convention. That’s not so much because AK Party elites share these criticisms. This is rather due to the new political system in Turkey. When a president is elected by the difference of just one vote, every vote becomes precious.

But just as one cannot afford to lose the vote of ultra-conservative segments, by the same token one cannot afford to lose the vote of the less conservative segments.
When some conservative journalists criticized the pro-government Women and Democracy Association (KADEM) for its endorsement of the Istanbul Convention, it had stirred a debate in the conservative intellectual neighbored, showing that the traditional constituency of AK Party stands divided on the issue.

It is obviously a step backward that eight years after its coming into force we are questioning the essence of the Istanbul Convention rather than discussing the shortcomings of its implementation. Had the convention been implemented, perhaps Emine Bulut would not have been brutally murdered last week by her ex-husband in front of her 10-year-old daughter.

“I don’t want to die,” Bulut, covered in blood, was heard telling her daughter, while she was heard begging her, “Mum, please don’t die.”

One is too many, and it cannot be a consolation that her death has sparked a campaign by women’s rights NGOs in favor of the Istanbul Convention.

It seems that women activists will remain the most important advocates of the convention. But as has been said several times by Professor Feride Acar, who actively worked on the finalization of the document, its name remains the most important guarantee for Turkey’s commitment.

After all, it would be highly scandalous for Turkey to detract from a convention that carries the name of its biggest city.

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