Feminist groups tell of increasingly hostile environment under Erdoğan – but say opposition doesn’t go far enough
“It will be like the Taliban regime,” says Melek Önder, asked what will happen to women’s rights if Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is re-elected as president of Turkey in the election on Sunday.
Önder is a spokesperson for We Will Stop Femicides (Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracagiz), one of the most active groups in Turkey’s women’s movement. The platform was founded in 2010 after Cem Garipoğlu, 17, murdered his girlfriend Münevver Karabulut, also 17. It collects data on femicides and campaigns against violence against women.
“We see that all kinds of dictators do the same – at the beginning they take away women’s rights, and then they ban other things, like music,” says the 35-year-old as she sips tea in a coffee shop in the Şişli district of Istanbul. “[Erdoğan’s government] is a threat – not only for women, but also for men. They are against modernity.”
Önder grew up in Bursa, a city that lies just across the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul, and joined We Will Stop Femicides in 2015. She is bursting with energy and speaks in volleys of words, barely pausing to take a breath. There is a lot at stake in these upcoming elections – women’s rights, in particular, hang in the balance.
During the 20 years Erdoğan has been in power, the increasingly autocratic leader of the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) has attacked gender equality (saying it is “against nature”), rolled back women’s rights, and cracked down on women’s rights groups.
In a decision that sparked outrage and condemnation in 2021, he withdrew the country from the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe’s landmark treaty on preventing violence against women and domestic violence. Turkey was the first country to sign the convention, which is named after its commercial capital, and it is now the first – and only – country to have pulled out of it.
Turkish women took to the streets to voice their anger after Erdoğan issued the decree, with We Will Stop Femicides being one of the loudest voices – many women waved the platform’s purple flags, which have become a regular feature of women’s rights protests across the country. In a statement, the Turkish presidential Communications Directorate said its reason for leaving was because the treaty had been “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normali[s]e homosexuality – which is incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values”.
Since the withdrawal there has been a spike in femicides in Turkey. According to data collected by We Will Stop Femicides from news reports and information from victims’ families, there were at least 334 femicides and 245 suspicious deaths of women (potential femicides framed as suicides or accidents) in 2022. That makes 579 deaths in total, an increase of 16% since 2021, when there were 497, which was itself an increase from the estimated 470 in 2020.
Femicides have increased almost every year since the platform began counting in 2010; the only decrease came in 2011, the year the Istanbul Convention was signed. So far in 2023, there has been a total of 165 femicides and suspicious deaths of women.
Önder and others fear that, if Erdoğan and his political alliance win on Sunday, the national law (‘Law 6284’) on violence against women and children could be under threat, leaving women with little protection and further eroding women’s rights in Turkey. Two Islamist parties, the New Welfare Party (YRP) and the Free Cause Party, known as Huda-Par, which have joined the president’s ‘People’s Alliance’, had insisted their backing was conditional on amending Law 6284.
“They are trying to reshape this law in Erdoğan’s alliance. It is nothing new for Turkey, but it is worrying,” says Önder. She believes changes to 6284 could cause a domino effect for other rights – such as the right to abortion, which is already being restricted. “This is why we are saying this election is so important for women and for LGBTQ people.”
The group has seen a correlation between politicians attacking women’s rights and a subsequent rise in femicides. “People think: ‘We can do whatever we want to do to women,’” she says. “They get courage from these political decisions.”
We Will Stop Femicides has stepped up its campaigning ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections, with social media posts urging women to “stand up for their lives and rights”. The group also took part in Labour Day protests on 1 May in Istanbul’s Maltepe Square, waving LGBTQ rainbow flags and a large purple banner that read: “We will end the era of the anti-women alliance. We will cast our votes for freedom.”
A statement on the platform’s website says the election is “between civilization and barbarism”. The statement lists a series of demands, including the implementation of the Istanbul Convention and the 6284 law – which they say has never been fully enforced – as well as equal representation in politics and equal pay. The main opposition candidate and leader of the Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has said Turkey will rejoin the Istanbul Convention if his opposition alliance wins, but Önder says that is not enough. She adds that Kılıçdaroğlu has been too quiet on the issue of LGBTQ rights.
The election will have far-reaching consequences, not only for women but also for We Will Stop Femicides. In 2021, after the country withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, prosecutors charged the feminist group with allegedly carrying out “illegal and immoral activities”. Its next legal hearing is in September.
Önder believes the charges are politically motivated. “They see our platform as an opposition,” she says, “as a threat to their government, because We Will Stop Femicides is one of the biggest and most important women’s organisations in Turkey. We’ve made many big demonstrations over femicide, over the Istanbul Convention, and over the 6284 protection law.”
She says that the evidence against the group is mainly tweets the platform has posted on Twitter – she references one calling for the release of a politician who had been imprisoned. There is also evidence of their members attending demonstrations.
Asked if she is worried that the platform could be shut down, Önder says: “It depends on the election results; if the opposition wins then probably we won’t close, but if the AKP government is re-elected… we are not sure. Even if they do close our platform, our struggle won’t stop; we will find new ways to fight.”
Other women’s rights organisations are also feeling the pressure. A member of Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR), one of the oldest feminist organisations in Turkey, says her group has noticed an increase in administrative audits conducted by the Ministry of Interior, which now occur every six months. These inspections are not limited to the financial or legal side of the organisation, but also its activities. “They can ask you: ‘So I see you organised a workshop that day – what was the topic of this? Who were the participants? What was the venue of this?’ They try to find a link with you and your work between being immoral or against the law,” she says.
There has also been a crackdown on the right to peaceful assembly – with scores of people arrested during the International Women’s Day protests on 8 March, as well as on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and Pride. The WWHR member, who wanted to remain anonymous, says she was one of 373 people arrested while participating in last year’s Pride march. She was detained for 16 hours without sanitation, water or food. “The police were so brutal and they just arbitrarily use their power. It was like a street war,” she says.
Despite the pressure she and others like her are facing, Önder is still hopeful. “You can’t live without hope,” she says. “After over 10 years of working, we have seen that society in Turkey has changed – women are fighting for their rights. If they are subject to violence, then they are not staying silent – they are applying to our platform for help or using social media. They are making their voices heard everywhere.” There is a desire for change in Turkey, she adds: “Our society is ready and waiting for it.”
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