As the world marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25, the good news from Turkey is that sensitivity towards the issue of women's rights is strong and widespread.
“Polarization” is the buzzword that conveys the divisions in perception that are shaped by political cleavages within Turkey. The psyche and opinions of the public are mostly shaped by party identities, ideological stances and political rhetoric. In other words, to a large extent, politics shapes how social and political “realities” are perceived. But some issues unite public opinion in Turkey. The environment is one such issue that is "above politics." And women’s rights, violence against women, and child abuse are other issues that unite Turkey.
One of Turkey’s foremost polling companies, MetroPOLL, recently focused on public attitudes regarding the issue of violence against women. First, there is widespread awareness about violence against women and children: almost all of Turkish society, around 100%, is aware of violence- and abuse-related news. Around 76% of the public follows news about violence against women on TV, and around 55% on social media.
According to MetroPOLL’s September 2019 data, almost 90% of the public believes that violence against women has increased in recent times. And the public holds the judiciary and the political sphere culpable for increasing violence against women. Around 65% believe that the judiciary is not working effectively when it comes to cases of violence against women, and 66% think that politicians are not doing enough to prevent such cases. Cutting across party lines, over 85% argue that violence against women is unacceptable regardless of the circumstances.
378 women have been killed in 2019 alone, according to data collected by Anıt Sayaç (Monument Counter), a grassroots initiative that has been keeping digital records of the number of women killed since 2008, despite the fact that obtaining official data on femicide has become increasingly difficult over the years. In September 2019 alone, 53 women were killed across Turkey.
These numbers are chilling, and every woman killed leaves behind a dramatic story. They are usually abused for many years, and are unable to find protection or an end to violence or mobbing inflicted by a close relative, husband, partner, boss, co-worker or simply some men close by.
Horrendous femicides, like that of Emine Bulut, whose throat was slit by her husband right in front of their 10-year-old daughter, apparently cut deep into the public psyche. But somehow nativism wins the day in politics through conservative rhetoric that champions “men’s diminishing rights” and laments about the loss of family and traditional values.
On one hand, this prevalence of femicide is by no means unique to Turkey. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Paris and other French cities on November 23 to protest domestic violence. Around 130 women are believed to have been killed by their partner or ex-partner in France since the beginning of 2019. Although holding street protests has become increasingly challenging in Turkey due to police intervention, thousands of ordinary women and activists alike have continued with public demonstrations marking the globally important dates of November 25 and March 8, International Women’s Day.
The high number of brutal femicides in Turkey specifically is all the more dismaying as one of the most important recent international documents aimed at preventing violence against women was signed here, “The Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence," also known as the "Istanbul Convention." This international convention was created in 2011 with the aim of preventing violence against women and ending impunity for perpetrators; Turkey is one of its signatories.
Conservative and Islamist groups have started to be increasingly vocal about the Istanbul Convention, alleging that it “undermines family values," demonizes men," and “endorses hybrid gender roles." Ironically, such circles also condemn the Women and Democracy Association (KADEM), the vice president of which is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s daughter, Sümeyye Bayraktar. President Erdogan himself has argued recently that “the Istanbul Convention is not our standard, the agreement is not a must.”
It is not women stepping back from the Istanbul Convention, but the populism that dominates the political sphere of Turkey: nativist arguments infiltrate and dictate political rhetoric and strategies.
As mentioned previously, the public has a clear stance against violence against women, and data verifies that women’s rights have been internalized and are supported by a large chunk of the public. MetroPOLL’s October data show that over 90% of the public thinks that girls and boys should be given equal educational opportunities within families and in the public in general. And over 80% think that women should be as free as men to live as they please, have a social life and determine their own choices. Likewise, 84% argue that women should be a part of the workforce on par with men.
The main cause of the perpetration of violence against women in Turkey does not seem to be public attitudes, but the nativist opportunism of politicians and other groups that would like to wield power through nativist and populist rhetoric. While Turkey is by no means a unique example on that front, the ineptitude and politicization of the judiciary worsens the situation of women as the number of femicides continues to climb and climb.