Istanbul Convention belongs to women, not to governments

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s legally dubious overnight decree might claim to take Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention, but it has failed to take the spirit of the Convention out of Turkish women. It is yet to be seen whether the presidential decree could be reversed in courts or be won on the streets - and online.

“On the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Istanbul Convention, Europe is at a critical crossroads,” said Feride Acar, who has been one of the architects of the Convention ever since it was merely an idea in 2005, at a Council of Europe conference on May 11.

“[It can] either truly embrace and implement gender equality goals, such as the Convention or give in to arguments that legitimize gender discrimination and violence against women.”

Then Prof. Acar, who once described the Convention as “the apple of her eye,” went straight for the jugular: “The seemingly victorious oppositions in some of our countries are ephemeral… [the patriarchal, authoritarian and misogynist forces] will not be allowed to have the last word.”

So, yes, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s legally dubious overnight decree might claim to take Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention, but it has failed to take the spirit of the Convention out of Turkish women - including for the internationally-renowned academic Feride Acar, the first president of Grevio, the independent expert body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Istanbul Convention. 

In Turkey, it is yet to be seen whether the presidential decree could be reversed in courts or won on the streets - and online. In the past few days, the Turkish-speaking Twittersphere has been filled with the hashtags #İstanbulSözleşmesi benimdir #Vazgeçmem (#IstanbulConventionismine #Iwillnotgiveitup), by women, human rights and LGBTQI+ groups who say that the convention belongs to the people - not to governments.

On the international front, politicians and experts from the United Nations to the Council of Europe, call on Turkey’s government to reverse the decision, carefully avoiding getting into the question of legality. ”We call on Turkey to reconsider this decision and to conduct consultations with academia, civil society organizations, Parliament and society at large," Dubravka Šimonović, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, and other UN and regional human rights experts said in a statement on March 23. 

On May 11, a statement from the ministers from 16 Council of Europe countries echoed the same line. Their joint declaration called on the Turkish government to reverse its decision to quit the Istanbul Convention and expressed solidarity with Turkish women and girls. So did numerous speakers, who have taken the rostrum at the Council of Europe Conference "Gender equality and the Istanbul Convention: a decade of action" in Berlin.

The strongly-worded calls are in part due to the fact that the withdrawal of Turkey, the first country to sign the Convention, has ramifications beyond the country’s borders. On the negative side, this withdrawal may provide ammunition to various conservative governments who have opted out of the convention (such as Azerbaijan and Russia), those who have stalled or rejected the ratification (Bulgaria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine and others) and those who have declared that they want to kill it and go for a more family-value-respecting alternative (Poland). Just as much as the withdrawal itself, Turkey’s arguments - that the accord undermines family values/unity and an agenda that is hijacked by the LGBTQI+ - added to the homophobic rhetoric that is now recurrent from Central Europe and the Balkans to the Caucasus.

But, on the positive side, it has forced those who support the Convention and gender equality to speak out and seek to go even further than the Convention, as we analyzed in a paper with Shada Islam for the International Brussels Center. Returning from her “Sofagate” trip to Turkey, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned EU states with cold feet that she is preparing even stronger EU-wide legislation to stop violence against women and punish perpetrators. 
 
Speaking out again on May 11, she called for “building further on the Istanbul Convention” and underlined the femicides that the Convention, if implemented fully, could prevent. Then she gave a vivid example - the murder of  Jale Soydan, a lawyer from Izmir who has survived 13 shots by her husband in 2015. “Her ex-husband is now free and Soydan, once more, lives in fear,” she said. “Though this is an extreme case, it is precisely why we need the Convention… Turkish withdrawal is dire, but we must also put our house in order,” she added, criticizing the member states that have blocked the ratification of the Istanbul Convention at the Council, the collegiate body that defines the overall political directions and priorities of the European Union.

EU members reluctant to ratify the treaty were also shamed, if not explicitly named, in the 16-state joint declaration. “The opposition to the Convention recently also comes from some governments and members of parliament in the European Union. This resulted among others in the blocked ratification process by some member states and stalled process of ratification by the European Union,” it said.

Von der Leyen, for her part, warned that these states are putting the EU's credibility at risk. However, as Islam and I pointed out in the BIC report,  there is more at stake -  European liberal norms and standards are being chiseled away by internal European “culture wars” over values and identity which pitch self-styled socially “conservative” and “progressive” countries, politicians, and political groups against each other. It is not simply a question of Turkey vs. the European Union, but a veritable clash of civilizations within Europe. 

The debate over the Istanbul Convention is not limited to whether we need an international accord to prevent gender-based violence or whether local laws could do it. It has become a clash over attitudes towards gender (some governments cannot even tolerate the word), the false narratives around and hatred toward the LGBTQI+ community, the stance on abortion and a false “glorification” of the family values at the expense of rights of women. It has spilled over to the double discrimination towards immigrant women, the stigmatization of women wearing a headscarf or a miniskirt; or to excuses for physical, economic or psychological violence and abuse. It is the fight, as Acar said, between the patriarchal authoritarian states and those who resist them, the women - and their supporters - on the streets.

“When countries go backward and when they slide into ultra-nationalism, extreme religiosity, populist jingoism and, ultimately, populist authoritarianism, we will see an increase in sexism; we will see an increase in homophobia; we will see an increase in transphobia. These things always go hand in hand. So we have to pay attention to the decline in democracy, to the loss of appreciation in diversity and the decline of pluralism,” said author Elif Şafak, the keynote speaker at the Berlin Conference.

In this atmosphere of sexism and gender stereotyping, gender equality and the important toolbox of the Istanbul Convention has become one of the key litmus tests in this clash over core values - whether or not you choose to call them European values. Şafak pointed out that time has shown again and again that the rights that are curbed first are those of women and minorities. And aren’t those the very two groups that are on the streets in Turkey now?