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A group of women in Ankara demonstrating for more effective measures to counter violence against women, with placard “We don’t want to die!”. (Photo: T24)

May 9 was Europe Day. And the European Union (EU) celebrated it in what must be the most scattered, shaken circumstances since its foundation. With the formalization of Brexit, the Union had begun 2020 with heavy blows both politically and economically. The EU had frozen all political dialogue with Turkey due to the military operations in Syria. They nevertheless had the nerve to ask for Turkey’s help in halting the Syrian refugees waiting at the borders. Then, with the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, as Italy and Spain were struggling with the virus, the EU’s dazzling facade of internal solidarity came crumbling down. Now on top of it all, misogyny too, unfortunately, reared its ugly head.
During its May 5 session, the Hungarian Parliament refused to implement the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention, considered the world’s first binding document thwarting Violence Against Women. It was the nationalist conservative Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) that entered the motion. KDNP is a coalition partner of the FIDESZ party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is considered a symbol of contemporary right-wing European leaders. The motion had two main motives. First of all, right-wing politicians worried the Convention would meddle with Hungary’s racist immigration policy because it grants asylum to immigrant women who were victims of violence. The second motive of “protection of the conjugal institution” mirrors the opposers of the Istanbul Convention in Turkey.
Thus the toxic discourses united. EU member-state Hungary’s right-wing politics and their “protection of the conjugal institution” talk echoed a certain mentality in Turkey that normalizes male violence and female silence. Do you know what triggered this marriage discourse in Hungary? It’s that the Convention contains “destructive gender ideologies” and goes against “Christian values.” After the vote, Hungary announced that the Istanbul Convention signed in 2014 will no longer be in place.

Same mentality in Hungary and Turkey

So, did the EU tell Hungary that its move goes against the European Convention on Human Rights and the Copenhagen Criteria? No. The EU remained silent, just as it had done after Orban’s rather disturbing 2018 speech. “Liberal democracy advocates multiculturalism” he had said: “for Christian democracy, the priority is Christian culture, which is an illiberal concept. Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, Christian democracy is anti-immigration; anti-immigration is also an illiberal attitude. While liberal democracy embraces diverse family models, the only model for Christian democracy is the Christian family unit, which is also an illiberal model. We must now bid farewell not only to liberal democracy but also to the non-democratic liberal system.”
It’s no coincidence that those opposing the Istanbul Convention in Turkey, mostly Islamists are also those who advocate the “protection the conjugal institution”. Those who advocate this are complaining that men are “victimized” from this contract which, according to them, forcefully removes them from their homes. But those who file complaints about them are the very women that they live with, whether married or not. The women filed domestic violence complaints and the court decided in their favor. According to a study published by Hacettepe University in 2014, 36 percent of married women experience violence at home, 12 percent of which includes sexual violence. According to official data, 409 women were killed by men, specifically by their husbands, fathers, brothers, or relatives in the year 2017 only. This number increased to 440 in 2018 and 474 in 2019. Over the past two years, the number of women who fled domestic violence to take shelter at the “Mor Çatı” [Purple Roof] women’s refuge increased from 800 to 944. So, the victims here aren’t the men who try to subordinate women through violence. The victims here are the women.

What is the Istanbul Convention?

Full name: the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. Why is it called the Istanbul Convention? Because the Council of Europe Committee of Minister had held a meeting in Istanbul on May 10-12 2011, opening this important text to the signatories of member states upon Turkey’s demand. The first to sign was Turkey. And that wasn’t just because Turkey was the host country. It was also because, a year prior, in 2010, current Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu had been elected Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly President, a prestigious post for a politician. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was in power back them too, but with Abdullah Gül as President and Tayyip Erdoğan as Prime Minister.
The contract not only envisages preventing violence against women but also stipulates the laws of the signatory countries to make arrangements so “culture, customs, tradition, region, and conception of honor” are no longer considered justifications for violence. Indeed, a significant portion of such regulations was put in place through the efforts of women’s rights organizations in Turkey. Law Article 6284, aimed at protecting women, is the product of this struggle. And of course, the objective of the misogynist mentality is to dilute these necessary laws, or even override them.

“Throwing past achievements away”

At that time, the government and all the top names within the AKP had embraced the Istanbul Convention, saying Turkey’s stance was exemplary to the world. Now, with the push of a minority group raising their voices from the bottom, efforts are going on to neutralize the Convention in Turkey. President Tayyip Erdoğan even stated many times that the Convention could be amended, notably during the 2019 local elections.
Among those who took part in the initiative at the time was Dr. Aşkın Asan. Asan has previously served as AKP parliamentary representative, and also as Deputy Minister. She is now Turkey’s representative to the Action Group Against Violence Against Women (GREVIO), which was established per the Istanbul Convention. She has stated recently that she believes there is a “problem of not understanding or even wanting to understand the spirit of the Convention.” She says that “certain notions are being dragged out of context” and that “the Convention has one objective only and that is to protect women against violence. Turkey has so far managed to take steps much ahead of the world. Canceling the Convention would mean we’re throwing the past achievements away.”

Erdoğan’s daughter was also targeted

But those who want to step away from the Istanbul Convention are also gradually raising the bar of their demands. Those who were already targeting the Turkey Women’s Associations Federation (TKDF), who advocate gender equality, have also started to target the Women and Democracy Association (KADEM), led by Erdoğan’s daughter, Sümeyye Erdoğan Bayraktar. Recently a former AKP member posted a tweet about how signing the Istanbul Convention was a “wrong move”. Coincidentally, he posted this on the same day the Hungarian parliament chose to dissolve the Convention, on May 5, 2020. And he wrote the following about KADEM: “I don’t understand why KADEM, founded two years after the signing of the Istanbul Convention, still defends it… KADEM has been reduced to a position of Convention defender and it’s a sad sight…” (In these series of tweets, this former AKP avoids shifting the blame on Erdoğan, saying it was Prime Minister Davutoğlu who had brought the Convention proposal to parliament in 2014. He is trying to conceal the fact that the first Erdoğan’s government had signed the convention first in 2011.)

Justice instead of equality?

KADEM’s predicament here is obvious. In hopes to reduce the dissenting sentiments in the AKP base, KADEM came up with a concept called “gender justice” to replace “gender equality” a few years ago. They even organized international conferences to showcase it. Of course, there was a catch. The concept of “justice” brought to mind important questions: who would act fairly towards whom? Was it just assumed that men would be in charge and would treat women better?
Alas, it soon became evident that no matter under which cloak the concept of equality came in, it was still impossible to appeal to a mentality that saw women as inferiors.
Without a doubt, it’s no coincidence that this misogynistic wave that regards women as inferior and not equal has exceeded boundaries and ideologies to penetrate the EU when authoritarianism is undeniably rising across the globe. And unfortunately, countries with relatively smaller populations but more developed economies and democracies, where women are in charge, is far from representing the majority of the world. And with the decline in democratic tolerance, women’s hard-earned rights find themselves at risk, too.