This week the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) executive board is expected to decide the fate of the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe’s convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, of which Turkey is currently still a signatory.
The Convention has been a hot topic in Turkey in the last month since Numan Kurtulmuş, a deputy chairman of the AKP, suddenly remembered that it had been a mistake to sign the Convention in the first place. Kurtulmuş’s epiphany, however, did not come out of nowhere. Religious groups in Turkey have been complaining about the Convention for some time. However, perhaps a bit unexpectedly, the issue seems to have created a rift between conservative women and conservative men.
Tügva, a youth foundation linked to Bilal Erdoğan, President Erdoğan’s son, recently published a statement about the Istanbul Convention. In the statement, Tügva underlines that the third article of the Convention identifies domestic partners as “people living together.” The concerned youth foundation claims this phrase hurts the fundamental traditions of the Turkish people, as according to Tügva, only married couples should live together. The statement points that the group is not against the prevention of violence, but that it is questioning the “outside interventions” against Turkey’s traditional values. The statement further states that, in the article four of the Convention, the term “sexual orientation” is used, which according to Tügva promotes being LGBTI.
Mahmut Ünlü, aka Cübbeli Ahmet hoca, a leader of one of the more prominent religious sects, publically supported Tügva’s statement. He quoted the statement and tweeted, “If we do not react to this convention right now, tomorrow we cannot prevent our children from being gay.”
It is hard to say if these people, in the second decade of the 21st century, still really believe the Istanbul Convention would “turn people gay.” I have spoken about this to a conservative politician, Kani Torun, a former ambassador and former AKP MP, now an official of Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Gelecek Partisi. Torun believes the conservative groups have been confusing feudal relations with faith. According to him, the conservative men see the Convention as a threat to the existing patriarchal structure, and simply do not want to lose the power over women they have traditionally had. Torun claims the anti-LGBTI narrative is used as an excuse to gather wider support from traditional conservatives, but that the essence of the protest against the Convention is in maintaining the gender-based power disparity.
Quickly following the announcement of the potential pullout of Turkey from the Convention, it became clear why this speculated strategy would probably make sense. What complicated things for the AKP regarding the decision has been a public opposition to this by some of the women within the party and the circles closest to the ruling establishment. KADEM, an NGO linked to President Erdoğan’s daughter Sümeyye Erdoğan, released another statement about the Istanbul Convention. KADEM clearly stood behind the Convention and stated that “it is hard to understand why this convention has become a scapegoat when the main idea of the document is in the prevention of violence.”
Abdurrahman Dilipak, a journalist and one of the opinion makers of the AKP base, wrote an opinion piece about the reaction of KADEM and called the women supporting the Convention “whores.”
This somewhat unexpected exhibition of a gender-based power struggle inside the political and social conservative circles could be indicative of substantial changes in this part of Turkish society. Some conservative men who don’t seem to be ready to firmly oppose domestic violence and violence against women at what they see as the expense of losing power do not seem to be the only voices coming from Turkey’s conservative universe anymore. More and more conservative women who also proclaim to believe in traditional values have been very vocal in recent times regarding a number of necessary reforms to the practices of these traditional circles, and in this latest case, they are doing so within the internationalized fight against violence against violence. To personalize this in the current context of the ruling family in Turkey: on one side in this struggle is Bilal Erdoğan and on the other is his sister, Sümeyye Erdoğan Bayraktar. We will soon see who will have the final say in this family feud.