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Femicides and contemporary women’s activism in Turkey

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Demonstration of the We Will Stop Femicides Platform on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, 22 November 2020, Istanbul. Photo: Ülker Sözen

Femicides stand out as one of the biggest social problems in Turkey today, causing a widespread and pronounced public reaction. The femicide cases are frequently on the news and exploited by mainstream media with graphic coverage. The names of murdered women and pleas for retribution regularly become trending topics on Twitter. The outrage against femicides is expressive of the liberalizing worldviews and gender ideology in Turkish society, while also conveying the popular contention against the government’s overall authoritarian politics along with its efforts for the recomposition of patriarchy.

Ülker Sözen received her PhD in Sociology from Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in Turkey in 2017, and is currently a fellow of the RLS-sponsored International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies. This article originally appeared at irgac.org, where the group regularly publishes contributions and research findings.

In such an environment, the women’s organizations’ anti-femicide campaigns are met with substantial public support, contrasting the highly repressed political climate that incapacitates most of the oppositional movements. However, some feminists raise concerns about the current state of women’s activism, problematizing issues such as the almost inevitable deployment of social media and the reduction of the movement’s agenda to combating femicides.

The Struggle around the Istanbul Convention

Emine Bulut, who was gruesomely killed by her ex-husband in a cafe in the presence of her teen daughter in August 2019, and Pınar Gültekin, a university student who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in July 2020 and whose body was burnt allegedly with the cooperation of the perpetrator’s family members, are only two recent cases out of many that create public outrage.

These horrific murders and dozens of other femicides occurred in a contentious period of public debate centring around the Istanbul Convention, which is a Council of Europe treaty that binds the countries to take necessary measures for the prevention of and combating violence against women and domestic violence. In the summer of 2019, the pro-government media and GONGOs like “Divorced Fathers Platform” began condemning the convention while framing it as a threat to families and to national as well as traditional values which seemed like the start of an orchestrated campaign.

Towards the summer of 2020, as the pandemic’s detrimental effects on an already troubled economy became hard to conceal, the anti-Istanbul Convention campaign turned into a crusade, apparently with the purpose of deflecting public attention away from the economic crisis. The anti-convention discourses designate the treaty as anti-national, promoting homosexuality, and a device of European hegemony. The campaign was heightened by president Erdoğan’s and other AKP officials’ public remarks about withdrawing from the convention on the grounds that it diminishes traditional family values.

The AKP’s fervent denunciation seems rather incongruous given that Turkey, under the AKP government, was one of the initiators of the convention and the first country ratifying it in 2012. However, reactionary gender politics have long been a staple of the party’s conservative populism which serve for political polarization and the discrediting of its opponents. Especially following the coup attempt in 2016, hate speech against the LGBTI by pro-government media and state officials, and restrictions over LGBTI activism escalated. Through the anti-Istanbul convention discourses, women’s organizations, even KADEM which is a pro-government conservative organization, have been rendered the target of criminalization efforts.

Despite this repressive situation, the feminist movement’s campaign for defending the Istanbul Convention, that strategically posited its vital role in the protection of women’s lives, seems to be successful at the moment in thwarting the offensive. Women’s organizations held street demonstrations in many cities attended by thousands of women despite the pandemic and led an impactful social media campaign during the summer of 2020. A survey conducted in July shows that the rate of opposition to the government’s agenda of withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention is 63 percent and almost half of the AKP voters are against this agenda. The broad outcry in society partially surpassing political polarization and the influential campaigning of the feminist movement have accounted for the dropping of the anti-Istanbul Convention agenda, at least for now. 

Femicides and Social Change

It is hard to find reliable data on femicides in Turkey since state authorities do not release domestic violence statistics on a regular basis. The Minister of the Interior announced that there were 304 femicides in 2016, 353 in 2017, 280 in 2018, and 299 in 2019. The much-quoted statistics gathered via a media survey by a prominent women’s organization, the We Will Stop Femicides Platform, show higher numbers: 328, 409, 440, and 474 between the years 2016 and 2019. According to the same organization’s records available on their website, yearly femicide incidents increased more than four times in the last decade.

The method of inferring femicide numbers through media survey has a hardly negligible problem of validity. However, this dramatic surge denotes that the media coverage of and public attention to femicides have amplified significantly. Apart from the question of numbers, the brutal nature of assaults and the targeting of young single women by their ex-partners or the men they rejected stand out as distinct characteristics of the recently publicized femicide cases.  

Despite the government’s dismissal of gender equality and its prevalent efforts for the recompostion of patriarchy, polls show that views supporting gender equality and reactions towards discrimination and violence against women improved remarkably in the last decade. According to a recent report by KONDA on the changing gender related opinions and stances towards the Istanbul Convention, the rate of strong opposition to the customary statement “it is normal that men both love and beat up their partners” nearly doubled rising from 35 percent in 2008 to 63 percent in 2020. With a rate of 84 percent, the largest group that strongly oppose the statement is the women between the ages of 18 and 32 whereas for the men of same age group, the rate of opposition is 61 percent.

This relative frequency indicates a gender and age-based social differentiation, whereby young women hold notably stronger progressive views, as women’s demands for gender equality and freedom rise together with their participation in public life. Emphasizing the young women’s growing liberation demands and awareness of gender inequality, the representative of the We Will Stop Femicides Platform, Gülsüm Kav, says that men tend to stay as “old Adams” while women transform and become “new Eves”.

Correspondingly, the crisis of masculinity is used as a frame to account for femicides, indicating the conflict between changing socio-economic trends and modernizing lifestyles on the one hand, and the persistence of traditional gender ideology on the other. A feminist academic, Serpil Sancar, argues that men who expect their partners to act according to traditional gender roles and who fail at fulfilling these roles themselves resort to violence when their partners want to leave.

Impunity and Seeking Justice on Social Media

The crisis of masculinity argument is not enough to explain femicides as a social complication. Women’s organizations accentuate impunity as a pivotal factor facilitating domestic violence as they highlight the state’s responsibility in the protection of women’s lives. The existing legal regulations require the state to provide protection to women under the threat of domestic violence thanks to the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. However, there are serious problems regarding the practices of law enforcers, judicial authorities, governmental bodies.

For instance, as part of the pandemic regulations, the government issued a bill in May allowing the release of more than 80,000 arrestees and convicts, including men who were sentenced and being prosecuted for threatening, kidnapping, and assaulting women. Following the mass prisoner release, complaints ofdomestic violence spiked, and in one incidence a man who was jailed for stabbing his wife went to his estranged wife’s home after his release and beat one his daughters to death in the fight that erupted as he was trying to kidnap his children.  

Such impunity creates a growing disturbance in public conscience, which pertains to the heightened awareness in society regarding gender equality and violence against women. Correspondingly, the central demand of women’s organizations in Turkey today becomes the effective implementation of the law numbered 6284 established to ratify the Istanbul Convention. According to KONDA’s aforementioned report, in May 2016, 39 percent of the population thought that the courts act partially and favour perpetrator men in femicide cases, whereas in August 2020 this rate increased to 43 percent.

The distrust in public authorities should be considered within the overall scheme of the AKP’s reactionary gender politics, including public speeches by party officials renouncing gender equality and bill proposals to decreas the age of consent to 12 and grant amnesty to sexual harassers should they marry their teen victims. Furthermore, this is tied to the overall erosion of judicial independence and securitization of public issues stemming from the authoritarian governance of the ruling party.

A recent example is Musa Orhan, a military sergeant working in Batman, a Kurdish populated province. The sergeant raped a local young woman and held her against her will for several days in June 2020. The woman committed suicide shortly after and died at the hospital a month later. In the meantime, her family filed a complaint leading to the detention of Orhan, yet he was released by the court shortly after. Following the strong public reaction, Orhan was detained once more. Yet after the Minister of Interior’s public remarkarguing that the pro-Kurdish party HDP and terrorists were manipulating the public around the case, Orhan was released again.

Because of the risk of impunity and distrust in the judicial system, more and more women and their relatives resort to seeking justice on Twitter. They intend to generate social backing to influence public authorities through hashtag campaigns tagging state departments, celebrities, and feminist organizations like the We Will Stop Femicides Platform. Some women who are threatened and assaulted by their ex-partners have to expose intimate details about their lives when seeking support on social media for obtaining restraining and detention orders against the assailants, which puts them in a vulnerable position and under severe emotional stress.

Women’s organizations frequently get involved in femicide cases, taking part in legal proceedings through lawyers, monitoring court hearings, organizing public demonstrations and, most visibly, running social media campaigns and informing the public about the progression of court cases. In the broadly publicized case of Şule Çet, a young woman who was raped and murdered by her boss in 2018, the active social media campaign became effective in the sentencing of the perpetrators who attempted to frame the incident as suicide.

Feminist Perspectives on the Contemporary State of Activism

Women’s anti-violence struggle, especially among the younger generation, transpires as arguably the most energetic component of the contentious politics in Turkey recently. However, some feminists express concerns about the recent state of activism. A common observation is that there is a new generation of women who are vocal and active in raising feminist demands, yet the feminist movement has difficulty including them in organized collective action. These women are described as not afraid to put themselves out on social media and to attend public demonstrations even when there is police intervention. Yet they tend to remain outside of feminist organizations while keeping an individually expressive political profile, especially on Twitter.

This younger generation of women has been raised and socialized with social media and, given the current pandemic and bans over street demonstrations, social media becomes the main outlet of expression. Social media tends to promote individualized action frames that are rooted in personal hopes, lifestyles, and grievances, while displacing collective action frames. Correspondingly, social media activism based on personalized content sharing supports a propensity to develop flexible and transitory political allegiances, and brings out incoherent political subjectivities.

Observing social media’s relatively superficial, inconsistent, and personalized landscape, some feminists argue that there should be more questioning of its standardization as the main outlet for anti-violence campaigns. They articulate concerns that not every case of violence against women generate the same amount of public attention and hence pressure over public authorities for the maintenance of justice. The violence targeting disadvantaged, undermined, and marginalized women such as sex workers, transwomen, and rural and socio-economically deprived women, are much less circulated on social media. In this regard, the arbitrary terrain of social media publicity is in contradiction with the feminist principles presupposing the equal representation of diverse women’s experiences.

Mainstreaming is another significant observation about the contemporary state of activism that rotates around anti-femicide campaigns. These are able to bring out intense emotional responses and protests encompassing broad sections of the society, which is a favourable situation for the feminist movement at first glance. Yet it is questionable whether anti-femicide campaigns become instrumental in raising a comprehensive awareness considering other forms and degrees of gender-based violence. In this respect, queer feminists and the LGBTI movement criticized that some women’s organizations downplayed the Istanbul Convention’s imperative against sexual orientation-related discrimination, as they shied away from encountering the “promotion of homosexuality” accusation against the treaty.

Selime Büyükgöze, a feminist activist, expresses caution about the mainstreaming of anti-violence discourses by pointing out that they can dismiss the very notion of gender and shadow the dynamics enabling violence against women. As femicide is the utmost stage of violence against women, anti-femicide discourses run the risk of undermining the severity of other forms and degrees of gender-based violence, against women and LGBTI people alike, and obscuring the relationship between patriarchy, heteronormativity, and violence.

Conclusion

The popular feminist slogan in the title has been the most empowering for me over the years among the ones I heard in public rallies and demonstrations, inciting courage and defiance in my heart. As I review my experiences of political involvement and social observations throughout the last decade, I see that the feminist movement has generated an exceptional social impact and the voices of women, especially of younger generation, and their courage have given me the biggest inspiration and hope about change.

The anti-femicide struggle of women is nothing but brave and an emblem of dedication which contributes to the creation of a better and more egalitarian society. Along with celebrating this fact, feminist principles that underscore attention to inequalities, openness to diverse womanhood experiences, and commitment to radical social transformation need to be utilized to reflect on the current state of women’s struggle, and envision its future.