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Building "a new Turkey": gender politics and the future of democracy

Can Turkey's government eschew gender equality, demonise the country's dynamic women's movement, and still prevent gender-based violence? Can a party that rejects gender equality be a force for democratisation?

Özlem Altıok Bihter Somersan
23 March 2015
Women march at night with a banner

13th Istanbul Reclaim the Night Feminist March

Turkey will hold general elections on June 7, and the stakes are high. For its part, the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) seems confident that it will, for the fourth time in a row, be victorious. Its success at the ballot box allows the party to claim that it represents “the national will.” The party's leaders have argued that an electoral victory in June will give JDP the mandate to change the country's constitution. President Erdoğan, the party's former leader and now Turkey's president, makes no secret of his plans to establish a presidential system in Turkey, which will further concentrate power in the executive branch and give him even more power. This is the “new Turkey” that JDP envisions.

Critical voices within Turkey, on the other hand, warn against a turn toward authoritarianism under the cloak of democracy – and with good reason. The political process in Turkey is increasingly marked by non-transparency, self-interest, arbitrary decisions, and exclusion of critical civil societal forces from decision-making processes. While it is true that the party has registered many electoral victories since 2002, the government's brutal repression of the Gezi protests of 2013, in which women's and LGBTI movements played a crucial part, gave the lie to JDP's claim to represent democratic forces in Turkey.

Women were active participants in Gezi protests, but a gendered account of anti-Gezi politics still needs to be written. That account will have to include the instrumentalization of women's issues, including the alleged abuse of a headscarved woman and her baby by “Gezi protestors” – all unsubstantiated claims that Erdoğan made and government-friendly media magnified in order to delegitimize the dissent of millions of people who took to the streets.

Women's bodies, roles, and status in society have always been fundamental for the launching and consolidation of different political projects in Turkey. In this sense, the instrumentalization of women's issues does not constitute a rupture. What is novel is that JDP's conservative discourse of “complementarity” departs from and explicitly rejects even the principle of gender equality, which has long been affirmed by Turkey's constitution.

JDP's gender politics: anti-egalitarian, but anti-violence?

President Erdoğan does not believe in the equality of men and women. He continues to defend his position, which frames institutional changes to the gender regime in a way that emphasizes women's roles as mothers, wives and caretakers – a “pro-family” approach that caters to JDP's conservative Islamic electorate.   

In speeches peppered with Islamic concepts, Erdoğan has equated abortion with murder and vowed to pass a law to ban abortion. Women's rights activists' mobilization prevented him from legislating a ban. In practice, however, under pressure and surveillance from the Ministry of Health, many state hospitals no longer perform abortions. What is more, President Erdoğan stated that using contraception is treason against one’s country. At the “Women and Justice Summit” organized by Woman and Democracy Association, a new organization co-founded by his own daughter, Erdoğan asserted “You cannot give equal status to women and men. It is against their fitrah (God-given nature/disposition).” His statement emphasized the complementarity of men and women, and came as women in Turkey and around the world were holding events to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

In 2014, there were 275 femicides in Turkey. These deaths represent an extreme form of physical violence and are indicative of a larger problem, which involved 60,000 cases of reported violence against women in Turkey that year. Most of these women were murdered by their husbands, ex-husbands, or other men they knew. More than half of the reasons cited for the murders involve the woman's decision to seek divorce or separation. Jealousy is also among the reasons. Killers mostly use edged weapons and firearms. Sometimes women are beaten to death.

Over the past forty years, feminist activists in Turkey have worked tirelessly to make visible the persistence of gender inequality and gender-based violence. They have long argued that violence against women is a political problem. This is precisely the premise of the Council of Europe's (CoE)  Convention on preventing and combating violence against women, including domestic violence, which puts the onus of responsibility for eliminating gender-based violence on states.

Turkey was the first to sign the Convention, which was adopted in 2011, and which establishes comprehensive standards to prevent and eliminate gender-based violence. The Istanbul Convention, as it is known in short, explicitly frames violence against women as “part of a wider pattern of discrimination and inequality” and as “structural violence – violence that is used to sustain male power and control.” And yet, Turkey's government does not view violence against women as a problem of inequality. So how do we explain the apparent paradox that a government that rejects gender equality also signs a treaty that is premised on the idea that violence against women results from social and gender inequalities?

Since Turkey still continues its accession negotiations with the European Union (EU), the government has to deal with the uncomfortable condition that “civil society” must be included in any democratic process. Under this constraint, the JDP government employs two strategies to undermine critical and dissident voices, including feminist ones.

First, it pressures, persecutes and often imprisons those individuals, journalists, academics and activists who critique government policies and expose corruption. Secondly, the government collaborates with friendly media, academic, and international networks to generate the “new” values for a “new Turkey” in line with its political vision – a blend of conservative neoliberalism and Islamic nationalism. To achieve this, the ruling party actively creates and funds civil society organizations, including women's organizations (often co-founded by relatives of JDP leaders) that are willing to toe the party line. Moreover, these government-friendly organizations use some of the same tactics the government uses to intimidate critical voices. Just this past January, the President Erdoğan's daughter filed a lawsuit against a prominent feminist in Turkey who had exposed KADEM for being one of the “government's fake civil society organizations.” It is in this repressive political context that the signing and implementation of the Istanbul Convention should be evaluated.

Monitoring violence against women without the women?

The Istanbul Convention establishes an independent monitoring body called the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO). The rules for the selection of this group of experts specify that state parties must ensure that the national selection process by which they nominate candidates for GREVIO is “transparent and open to competition in order to lead to the nomination of the most qualified candidates.” The rules also specify that the nominations must not “give rise to a conflict of interest with the responsibilities inherent to membership of GREVIO.”

Judging by how the process has played out on the ground, Turkey has already violated these rules. The Ministry of Family and Social Policy has raised bureaucratic roadblocks to exclude horizontally organized women's and LGBTI groups from participation in the process of determining Turkey's candidate(s) to GREVIO. In spite of this, 88 women’s and LGBTI organizations that make up the Istanbul Convention Monitoring Platform in Turkey showed remarkable solidarity and won a significant victory when they successfully asserted their right to attend the meeting hosted by the Ministry. The Ministry ignored the Platform's suggestions, and insisted that only three NGOs would be represented on the committee that would ultimately nominate Turkey's candidates for GREVIO.

Seeing that their pleas fell on deaf (or deliberately plugged) ears, the constituent members of the Platform walked out. A video of the event shows an almost emptied room. Three NGOs, with no direct experience or expertise in dealing with domestic violence, were “elected” following a vote that violated the most basic standards of transparency. Women's and LGBTI organizations have declared both the process, and the election that resulted, null and void.

Given their close ties to the JDP government, the three organizations “elected” – Woman and Democracy Association (KADEM), Women Healthcare Professionals Solidarity Association (KASAD-D), and the Association for Women's Rights against Discrimination (AKDER) – appear to have been preselected. Erdoğan's daughter co-founded KADEM, and Prime Minister Davutoğlu's wife is the “honorary president” of KASAD-D. It is apparent that these are government-organized organizations (GONGOs) – not NGOs. They work to juxtapose equality and a vague notion of “justice” that they argue is inherent to Islam. Just recently, KADEM established a peer-reviewed journal and called for papers to promote a gender discourse that drastically departs from what KADEM calls “the hegemonic discourse of an egalitarian perspective on the gender issue.” Working in tandem with the government, these GONGOs aim to supplant the principle of equality between men and women.

In response to the government's undemocratic practices, the women's and LGBTI movement put forth Dr. Feride Acar, an internationally-acclaimed feminist scholar, as their candidate for GREVIO. Soon after, activists learned that the government had decided to nominate another candidate. Noting the non-transparency of the process, women's and LGBTI organizations objected and pressured the government to nominate Dr. Acar.

A large march

"We are not mourning, we are revolting" - Women take to the streets on February 15, 2015, to protest the murder of Özgecan AslanIn the midst of this tug of war between the government and the women's and LGBTI movement, the brutal murder of a twenty-year old woman, Özgecan Aslan, shook Turkey. With the #OzgecanAslan hashtag gone viral, Turkey was in the spotlight. It was in this context that Turkey's government announced on March 2, 2015, that it would nominate Dr. Feride Acar after all.

Concluding thoughts

Historically, the women’s movement in Turkey has been one of the most effective protagonists of democracy. The struggle over the nomination of Turkey's candidate for GREVIO, too, demonstrates the power of women's solidarity and the contingency of political struggles. As the JDP government tries to patch the cracks in its increasingly contested hegemonic project, it will face serious challenges – not the least of which will come from the women’s movement. In this regard, the struggles over the monitoring of the Istanbul Convention suggest that the women's and LGBTI movement in Turkey is determined to resist and overcome any violations of democratic procedures. That is why feminist activists and scholars are increasingly targeted and pressured by the government.

It will have to be seen on June 7, and beyond the general elections, whether the vision and persistence of the women's movement will inform a broader opposition. This will be the challenge of building a new, genuinely democratic Turkey.

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