‘We have to show our power’: the Turkish anti-femicide organisation fighting for its own survival
By Megan Clement (follow me on Twitter here)
Around the world, the fight against femicide is usually a fight against those in the criminal justice system who fail to prevent or address violence against women, allowing perpetrators to kill, too often with impunity. It is a fight against the social norms that dictate that a woman or girl’s life is worth less, and can be taken from her simply because of her gender. It is a fight to get the public to recognise the scale of structural misogyny, and how it kills. But in Turkey, there’s another frontline in this battle – one being fought with the government.
Hardline President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last year issued a presidential decree withdrawing Turkey from the Istanbul Convention – a European treaty on preventing violence against women that bears the name of its largest city. Turkey was the first signatory to the convention in 2011. But much has changed since then. Erdoğan said Turkey had to withdraw because the convention had been “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalise homosexuality”.
The We Will Stop Femicide Platform counts femicides in Turkey and has vehemently opposed the decision to withdraw. Now they find themselves in the government’s crosshairs.
In April, Istanbul prosecutors opened a lawsuit against the group, accusing it of « activity against law and morals ». At a hearing earlier this month, the case was adjourned until October 5.
“We have become a target for the government,” says representative Melek Ari, who has been part of the movement for seven years. She compares their fight to that of activists in Poland and the US who are striving to protect abortion rights in the face of a devastating conservative backlash.
Impact spoke with Ari about how the simple act of counting femicides in Turkey has turned into a struggle for the survival of the women’s rights movement, and why they’re keeping up the fight. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Megan Clement: How does the We Will Stop Femicide Platform collect data on violence against women?
Melek Arı: Since 2010, we’ve asked ministries about femicide data, but their answer is, “We don’t have that data”. For ten years, the government was not collecting data about femicide. So we started with press reports. Over time, it has become easier for us, and now we are seeing the press doing more of these kinds of reports. There has been a discussion: is there really an increase in femicide or is it that we are seeing more of this kind of news? We say that both are correct – that the number of femicides is increasing, and also, because of the women’s movement, news channels and newspapers have had to show the reality of women [in Turkey].
So one part of collecting data is from the news, and another is family members or friends of the victims of femicide who reach out to our platform. This month, we have seen 35 homicides and 16 suspicious deaths of women. We know that collecting the data is very important because we have to analyse it, and we have to find a solution for this problem.
Megan Clement: What is the thinking behind the government’s decision to pull out of the Istanbul Convention?
Melek Arı: There are conservative groups in Turkey, which are created by men, and we are seeing the government giving in to these conservative men’s demands. The president is seeking to make a kind of coalition, where conservatives are part of his team, and so it’s a type of bartering for him.
They are saying that the Istanbul Convention is destroying family structure in Turkey, and that LGBTQI+ people are trying to create an immoral society. They are not trying to say that women must die or that violence is normal, instead they are opposing the convention’s terms in other ways. They just say [to women] that you cannot go out at this time, or you can’t wear that thing, and if you do, you deserve violence or rape. They are using very similar arguments in their case for our closure – they’re accusing our platform of being immoral and unlawful.
Protesters turn out in support of We Will Stop Femicide Platform, June 1 2022 — We Will Stop Femicide Platform.
Megan Clement: How did the case against We Will Stop Femicide Platform come about, and how are you resisting?
Melek Arı: After the Istanbul Convention withdrawal, they decided to close our organisation – so we see a connection there. The government could say, “OK, we’ve removed it,” but women were continuing to fight for the convention.
Other NGOs, platforms and organisations have been under threat. And because we are one of the biggest women’s organisations in Turkey, it’s a way of showing the threat to others.
The government is also trying to close the third-biggest political party, the HDP, and they are giving out very severe punishments for those involved in the Gezi Park movement. They are making people more passive, and not involved in politics, struggles or movements. We see the closure case as one part of this whole process, and unfortunately we will see more aggressive things and many more attacks as we get closer to election time [editor’s note: in June, 2023].
Our first hearing was on June 1, and hundreds of women, LGBTQI+ people, lawyers, families of murdered women, women who are under the threat of violence, other women’s organisations and political party representatives were there with us to support our struggle. We have to show our power. We know that they can do whatever they want, but we have to resist.
The family members of murdered women are saying: “This platform is not immoral. What’s immoral is that you’re trying to close this platform who are walking with us through this process. If you are looking for immorality, you have to look into our families, because our daughter has been killed and the perpetrator has not been punished.”
Megan Clement: You have a pretty simple mission, which is to count femicides and to stop femicides. This whole fight with the government must be a huge distraction for you from doing the work that you set out to do. How do you maintain hope, in a context like this, when you’re being attacked by the government, and the government is making decisions that are so bad for women’s rights?
Melek Arı: We find hope in the struggles from history and from all around the world. We see that there is a Taliban regime, but that Afghan women are fighting against it for their rights. Even though there are many attacks, many dictators and autocratic regimes, the struggle also continues in every part of the world, every time.
We know we have earned our voting rights from the suffragettes, we have a civil code because of other parts of the women’s movement. We can’t give up, because we have so many things to achieve. Even though we’re not living through a very good period of time, we can see that if we don’t do anything, the femicide rate will increase in Turkey, and the violence rates will increase.
We know that we’ve had an effect on women’s rights. We’ve had an effect on the government and executive because we have the power to change things in Turkey. We have the power to change inequalities between the genders, and for this reason, we are constant in our struggle.
This issue of Impact was prepared by Megan Clement and Steph Williamson.
Impact is financed by the New Venture Fund.
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