“We’ll keep fighting until the end”
Feminists hope for change in Turkey’s crucial election
Only have a minute to read this newsletter? Here it is in brief:
- 🇹🇷 Turkey is facing a tight election in which women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights are on the line.
- ❗ The current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has backslid on human rights in recent years, withdrawing the country from an important international convention on gender-based violence.
- 🗳️ His opponent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has made big promises for women if he wins — but can he pull it off?
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By Didem Tali
Istanbul, 2002: 48-year-old Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a rising political star who is about to lead his party a historic landslide victory, sits on a podium and answers questions from university students about his election campaign.
When an engineering student asks about his stance on LGBTQIA+ rights, a gentle smile appears on Erdoğan’s face.
“It’s imperative for homosexuals, and their rights and freedoms, to be protected by law. We don’t find the treatment that homosexuals sometimes face, as depicted on TV, humane,” he says.
This proved to be the exact type of moderate middle ground Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) needed to occupy to win the hearts of both liberals and conservatives in Turkey, the only Muslim-majority country in the world with a secular constitution and civil code, which was granted in 1926.
Two decades later, Turkey is preparing to vote in a general election on May 14. As this year marks the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923, these elections are considered particularly important, and are regarded by some as a referendum between democracy and regression.
Erdoğan no longer smiles when talking about LGBTQIA+ rights. “Are you students, or are you terrorists?” he demanded of a group of students staging pro-freedom protests in February 2021.
“There’s no such thing as LGBT. This country is national, spiritual, and will walk toward the future with these values,” Erdoğan said, adding that his government would treat “these people” in the same way they treated the terrorists, “raiding their homes and preparing their graves”.
The about-face on LGBTQIA+ rights mirrors similar changes in the AKP’s approach to women’s rights throughout Erdoğan’s tenure.
In the early years of his presidency, Erdoğan brought in policies aimed at reducing gender inequality and increasing women’s participation in education, the workforce, and political life. Even though many of the improvements were in line with the AKP’s conservative and religious familialism, placing a sacred importance on the notion of motherhood, many achieved significant results. According to the World Bank, the literacy rate for adult women in Turkey rose from 80 percent in 2004 to 94 percent in 2019.
There were also legal victories: in 2004, marital rape was criminalised, as was sexual harassment at the workplace, and sentence reductions for so-called “honor killings” were abolished. In the early 2010s, the AKP lifted the ban on the wearing of headscarves in universities and public offices, thus boosting women’s educational and economic participation, as well as public visibility.
In 2011, just one year after TIME Magazine named Erdoğan the “Person of the Year”, Turkey became the first country to ratify the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention, which sets out legal and policy measures to combat gender-based violence. Women-led civil society boomed.
But in July 2021, Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, making the country the first one in the Council of Europe to leave an international human rights treaty – a move Amnesty International described as a “shameful” act. The government’s reasoning was that the treaty attempted to “normalise” homosexuality, and it clashed with the country’s “traditional family values”.
Since then, civil society members and feminist activists have observed a palpable change on the ground.
“There are many police stations that will simply turn down women who are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, saying, ‘We are no longer accepting Istanbul Convention cases,’” says Zarife Akbulut from the Social Policy, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies Association, an organisation that advocates for LGBTQIA+ people. “It’s already become incredibly hard to persecute someone who commits a sexual crime.”
Other civil society findings align with Akbulut’s sentiment. In 2022, the NGO We Will Stop Femicides Platform identified a record number of 579 victims of femicide, an increase they attribute the rising number to Turkey’s withdrawal from the convention. The organisation is currently on trial for “activity against law and morals”, and could be forced to close if it loses in court.
“After the Istanbul Convention withdrawal, they decided to close our organisation,” Melek Arı, a representative of the organisation said in an interview with the Impact newsletter last year. “Because we are one of the biggest women’s organisations in Turkey, it’s a way of showing the threat to others.”
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Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Republican People’s Party and Erdoğan’s most formidable opponent on May 14, promises to re-sign the Istanbul Convention immediately after the election if he wins, stating such a move would be “only a beginning” to make progress on women’s rights.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s other promises to women include setting up special women-led units within the police to fight gender-based violence, incorporating unpaid domestic labour of women into social security systems, extending maternal rights and fighting pregnancy discrimination.
The polls show a neck-and-neck race between Kılıçdaroğlu and Erdoğan, although Kılıçdaroğlu is typically a few points ahead in most polls.
But what if Erdoğan wins again?
“I don’t even want to think about it. We still have so much to lose,” says Akbulut, and pauses for a long breath. She says Erdoğan’s government’s policies have taken a more radical turn in the last few years, and it’s hard to imagine what kind of world women and gender-diverse people in Turkey would wake up to, on 15 May 2023, if he wins again.
“But we can’t completely rely on a single government for our rights and freedoms,” Akbulut says. “We’ll keep fighting until the very end.”
— Didem Tali is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker based in Istanbul.