Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Why Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention is a global problem

Far-Right populists might claim to be protecting local traditions, but the backlash against women’s rights demands an international response

Özlem Altan-Olcay Bertil Emrah Oder
2 June 2021, 12.01am
Feminists gather to protest against Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention in Kadikoy, Istanbul, on 20 March
Alamy/Zuma Press

On 20 March, Turkey’s Official Gazette announced a presidential decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe’s treaty on preventing violence against women and domestic violence. While the announcement was sudden, it was not a complete surprise, given that the Convention has been a focus of the backlash against women’s rights in countries with right-wing populist governments.

Alongside the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (Bélem do Para), the Istanbul Convention is the world’s leading international human rights treaty that specifically targets gender-based violence. After two years of preparation and negotiation, the treaty was opened to signature in 2011 in Istanbul, with the Turkish foreign minister being the first signatory. The Turkish parliament then approved the ratification unanimously, stressing its full support for eradicating violence against women. On 8 March 2012, in a symbolic display of political support to mark International Women’s Day, the parliament passed Law No. 6284 on gender-based violence and officially ratified the Istanbul Convention.

Turkish participation in the Convention stems from a history of feminist mobilisation in Turkey, which has successfully demanded progressive changes in state structures and legislation over several decades. For example, feminist groups pushed for Turkey’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1985 and successfully pressured the government to lift its reservations in 1999. In addition, alliances across women’s organisations helped push for a new civil code in 2001, which recognised the full equality of women and men in marriage, and a new penal code in 2004, with progressive changes in punishing femicides (or so-called “honour crimes”), rape in marriage, sexual harassment, child abuse, and other sex crimes that perpetuate women’s inferior status. Feminist advocacy has made Turkey’s legal system significantly more gender-responsive by building coalitions across women’s networks (platforms) and negotiating with state actors through institutional channels such as parliamentary committees and ministries.

Since then, feminist groups have campaigned to make visible the horrific extent of violence against women in Turkey and the way in which it has intensified in recent years. They used the Council of Europe’s first Group of Experts report on the Convention in 2018 to highlight how the judiciary finds ways to undermine legal clauses or misinterpret them to enable victim blaming. They also raised concerns about secondary victimisation, which occurs when police fail to implement protective measures, as well as prosecutorial ignorance and violations of victims’ rights. In contrast to right-wing populists, who claim that violence against women has increased because of the Convention, women’s NGOs have proved that the problem is a lack of implementation.

The gathering backlash

Despite the progressive legal framework, populists on the far Right have become more unabashed in recent years. There are increasing attempts to remove the problem of gender inequality from political discussion by claiming that there is a natural division of labour between men and women in families, and that we should try to protect families and Turkish culture.

For example, perpetrators’ strategies of victim-blaming have been increasingly successful before criminal courts, which themselves abuse the legal clauses regarding unjust provocation or good behaviour. Lower courts have unsuccessfully challenged the existing legislation to prevent gender-based violence in Turkey’s constitutional court. In 2016, a bill was proposed that would have deferred punishment for the sexual assault of minors. Supporters of the bill, which advocacy groups referred to as “the marry your rapist bill” or “the statutory rape bill”, claimed to be protecting families where men, punished for sexual assaults on minors, had married their victims with the consent of both parties. After massive protests and criticism from civil society, including representatives of conservative women’s groups, the government withdrew the bill.

These moves coincided with growing attacks from the Right on the ‘dangers’ of the Istanbul Convention. In response, We Will Stop Femicide Platform (Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız Platformu) organised a social media campaign in 2019 called “The Istanbul Convention Keeps us Alive”. This campaign was picked up by civil society organisations, political parties and local authorities. In 2020, Turkish feminists initiated the #Challenge Accepted campaign by posting black-and-white pictures of themselves, indicating that they do not want to end up among the pictures of domestic violence victims that mourners pin to their collars at funerals. The campaign was picked up internationally and became a trending topic on Instagram within days. Turkish feminist organisations came together in August 2020 to establish a platform called Women’s Platform for Equality (Eşitlik için Kadın Platformu) to fight collectively against far-Right demands to withdraw from the Convention. The platform is also part of a transnational advocacy network with organisations from various countries where women’s rights are under similar attack.

Meanwhile, polls in Turkey show a significant decrease (from 45% to 21% in the last ten years) in public support for namus, the belief that women’s behaviour and public presence should be controlled in order to protect ‘family honour’. Similarly, acceptance of domestic violence is falling (from 20% to 6% in the last five years). Among people who know what the Istanbul Convention is, 84% were against a potential withdrawal in September 2020. Even within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), many defended the Convention after far-Right actors began denouncing it.

As societal norms become more progressive, thanks in part to a strong tradition of feminist advocacy, there is also a vociferous right-wing backlash. The situation in Turkey, therefore, is complex.

Withdrawal and democratic resistance

The level of social mobilisation against the presidential decree throws its legitimacy into question. After 20 March, government leaders claimed that the decision was irrevocable. Nevertheless, people poured onto the streets to protest despite the risks of police violence and the Covid-19 pandemic. Resistance has not been limited to demonstrations, either. Individuals and associations have used strategic litigation in a manner unprecedented in Turkey’s political history: Women’s platforms, ordinary citizens, and 77 bar associations have filed thousands of lawsuits before the Conseil d’Etat, the highest administrative court, calling for the decision to be annulled. The opposition parties, CHP, IYI Party, DEVA, and HDP, have also voiced their objections and joined the litigation campaign while TUSIAD, the Turkish Industry and Business Association, which represents Turkey’s largest companies, has issued a declaration against the withdrawal.

Recently, some right-wing commentators have explained the backlash against the Convention as a reaction against top-down policy measures linked to globalisation and Europeanisation. They claim that the pro-women policies themselves reflect a significant democratic deficit because they lack popular support in Turkey. Accordingly, any action to promote gender equality in Turkey results from international commitments and the work of “submissive governments” and the “bureaucratic elite”. In this explanation, therefore, the backlash is presented as a case of citizens voicing their concerns about the lack of democratic oversight, and demanding participation in public policy making.

However, this argument is not just implausible but also highly problematic given the unanimous parliamentary approval of the Istanbul Convention in 2012, as well as the recent polls showing high public support for the Convention, not to mention widespread protests and declarations against the withdrawal, and divisions inside the AKP itself. A better explanation might be that marginal and ultra-conservative groups have captured critical positions in the government and are attempting to retain them through a politics of polarisation.

The far Right claims pro-women policies reflect a significant democratic deficit because they lack popular support in Turkey

The support of Turkey’s bar associations for the litigation campaign against the withdrawal decision is also significant. In fact, it is not possible to unilaterally withdraw from an international convention based on a presidential decision. The government has tried to justify this by reference to a recent and highly controversial decree giving the president opaque authority to dissolve international agreements unilaterally. However, a presidential decision is a simple administrative order for implementing statutory legislation rather than replacing it. Thus, the withdrawal violates the institutional balance of powers and associated normative hierarchy laid down in article 90 of the Turkish constitution.

Although Turkey moved to a presidential system of government in 2017, the constitution still gives parliament exclusive power over both international agreements and civil rights. Moreover, the constitution recognises that international human rights treaties have primacy over statutory legislation. Therefore, this move can hardly be considered to carry legitimacy even within the confines of Turkish law.

Democratic backsliding

The withdrawal also has important implications for the wider political context in Turkey. In particular, the government’s increasing tendency to take controversial decisions without following the regular institutional procedures is undermining democracy.

For example, the government forced the repeat of two recent elections after losing: the general election in 2015 and Istanbul’s mayoral election in 2019. Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rigthts and the Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights have identified numerous attacks and smear campaigns by the ruling elite against civil society, individual human rights defenders, journalists, and other dissenters. The government’s extensive use of criminal law, particularly anti-terrorism legislation, against Turkey’s independent media means that Turkey has the most detained journalists among Council of Europe countries. In contrast, organised crime leaders have become prominent figures who threaten the political opposition. An ongoing economic and financial crisis in Turkey has also reduced the government’s popularity, especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, with increasing numbers questioning the shift to the presidential system.

Given these developments, the swift withdrawal from the Convention appears to be another government attempt to consolidate a shrinking political base, much like its sudden, well-publicised conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. In other words, the tactical moves aim to gain support from Turkey’s far Right and to divide the opposition bloc by attracting the voters of minority political parties on the Right that the AKP needs to win upcoming presidential elections.

These sudden moves may also relate to the government’s call for a new constitution. Although the 2017 constitutional amendments increased the president’s executive power and accelerated democratic backsliding, Turkey has so far avoided a complete institutional dismantlement and collapse of civic oversight, as parliamentary opposition and civil society remain vibrant. The government’s sudden and arbitrary actions may be aimed at disempowering parliament and further eroding democratic oversight. Shutting down the possibilities for open public debate may be part of a wider project to introduce a more regressive constitution down the road.

The recent polls show high public support for the Convention, not to mention widespread protests and declarations against the withdrawal

The transnational context

The government’s withdrawal decision has been accompanied by intensified references to “our culture” and “our traditions”. Ironically, of course, such references to authenticity and cultural difference are common among far-Right opponents of gender equality and women’s rights everywhere. In other words, the backlash is transnational, even though it is based on claims of unique, homogenous community identities. For example, the Turkish government has tried to legitimise its decision by referring to other countries, such as the call by Poland’s ultra-conservative groups to protect the country’s ‘traditional’ values against LGBTQ+ rights, and the hesitancy of the governments of Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic to ratify the Convention.

Turkey’s notification of withdrawal sets a precedent for other illiberal governments in Europe to suddenly abandon their international commitments. There is a risk that ultra-conservative forces in other contexts use Turkey’s withdrawal as a validation of their own claims that the Istanbul Convention reinforces unwelcome ‘gender ideology’ and ‘undermines the family’. The next stages will be crucial, not only for Turkey, but for the future of the European post-war order, which has gradually created a framework of human rights and the rule of law.

Gender equality is central to public discussion and policy formation transnationally, precisely because attempts at democratic erosion often target it in regressive political contexts. The right-wing backlash against gender equality makes it a vital theme and a matter of grassroots politics, but also shows that egalitarian achievements face a critical moment. We should not consider the sudden withdrawal by Turkey’s socially conservative government as a country-specific response; rather, we must follow it carefully for its transnational impact. Its effects can easily spread by encouraging other right-wing populist governments and transnational anti-gender networks. If this in fact happens, a powerful backlash may even threaten the hard-won gains in women’s human rights through other international commitments like the Beijing Platform of Action and Agenda 2030.

We must also consider the implications of these developments for how to situate rights with respect to cultural difference. Popular critical discussions currently tend to reject a Eurocentric perspective in favor of recognising cultural diversity. But they pay less attention than they could to feminists and rights advocates living under regressive regimes. A simplistic understanding of multiculturalism can be dangerous if it only recognises purported differences between societies and ignores differences within a society, as well as the fact that no cultural claim is fixed or uncontested.

Such a simplistic argument about cultural diversity can hide the fact that some people can have disproportionate power to define hegemonic cultural practices in each society. The inadvertent effect of not recognising this is that women demanding what right-wing voices refer to as ‘Western’ rights are heard less and must take greater risks to voice their demands whereas those with disproportionate power can become more brazen in promoting the one ‘authentic’ culture of that society.

An understanding of multiculturalism can be dangerous if it recognises differences between societies but ignores differences within a society

It is essential to remember that people who use arguments of cultural difference and tradition may themselves be part of transnational forces that use similar rhetoric to prevent oppressed groups from demanding their rights.

We have outlined how progressive forces in Turkish civil society, particularly feminist groups, have resisted the government’s decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention and the backlash against its provisions. These developments show the need to listen more attentively to people living under regressive regimes who say they don’t want their rights to be eclipsed by ideas of cultural difference and tradition. The people making these demands are neither Westernised nor elites; rather, they are clear evidence that millions around the world demand democracy and gender equality. Their experiences also show the real dangers of confusing celebration of diverse cultural practices with ignoring demands for rights and opposition to regressive discourses and practices in specific societies.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData