Turkey’s much reported withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, officially known as "the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence", has created fury and sparked protests all over the country’s streets and online. Despair and fear were rampant among women as the withdrawal means the loss of protection against violence in a country where the rate of femicides is appallingly high.
As the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government pulled out of the convention, the message to women was clear: Your safety and right to live free of violence is no longer a priority for us; you no longer have an international guarantee and are isolated from the universal systems of protection; and last, you are at the mercy of a conservative government as the only authority in matters of women’s rights and liberties. Yet, there was another message which was equally if not more alarming: The withdrawal meant declaring the LGBTQIA+ as a state enemy, not worthy of recognition, let alone protection of any kind.
After a day of national shock and sorrow, Turkish Presidential Communications Directorate made an official statement and explained the reasoning behind the decision: “The Istanbul Convention, originally intended to promote women’s rights, was hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality – which is incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values. Hence the decision to withdraw," the statement read. The so-called hijacking refers to Article 4 of the convention, which prohibits discrimination on grounds of sex, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity among other categories. This is particularly important as lesbian, bisexual and trans women as well as non-binary people are at high risk of gender -related violence and hate crimes in Turkey.
Simply put, the Directorate’s statement means that the Turkish government no longer wants to protect “those” women, or anyone who falls out of the state’s definition of a women: Cis, heterosexual, married, with children, conservative or at least obedient to the government and the patriarchy. During Women’s Day marches security forces made sure of this distinction is known: In Ankara, entry to the protest location was reportedly denied to a trans woman on the grounds that “she is not a woman”. LGBTQIA+ banners, rainbow flags and trans women were denied entry to the Women’s March in Kadıköy, İstanbul, too, while two trans activists were detained after the march.
A month after the Women’s March, during Ramadan, the head of the Diyanet, or the religious affairs directorate, claimed in a sermon that gay people “spread disease” at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hard to believe that the same AKP once boasted in a 2005 election leaflet that Turkey is a country where Gay Pride can coincide with the month of Ramadan.
The LGBTQIA+ hatred peaked even more during the recent Boğaziçi University protests. Four students were arrested for hanging an artwork with images of the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam and the rainbow flag. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu called the students "LGBT perverts" in a tweet flagged by Twitter for violating its rules about hateful conduct. The LGBTI+ Studies Club of the university was signaled out and closed, rainbow flags in their offices confiscated. The rainbow flag was long declared public enemy anyways.
On December 2020, the advertising standards body operating under the Ministry of Industry and Commerce has declared that rainbow themed products sold online must carry a 18+ warning to “protect children’s mental, psychological and social development”.
As noteworthy as these instances were, it was President Erdoğan who has finalized all discussions on the matter, as always. On Feb. 5, talking to his party’s members, he said “LGBT….there is no such thing”. “This country is national, moral and we will walk towards the future with these values”, he added, declaring millions of people non-existent and thus outside of the state’s protection, in the confines of a mere sentence.
Turkey’s LGBTQIA+ rights movement is marginalized, isolated, demonized and persecuted. Istanbul Convention meant that married or not, mother or not, lesbian, bisexual and transgender women as well as gay men and non-binary people were protected against domestic violence, sexual assault, rape or forced marriage and have access to domestic violence shelters and the right to live a life free from violence.
Turkey’s withdrawal from this seminal legal document is a stark reminder that the women’s liberation and the LGBTQIA+ movements cannot be divorced from each other’s struggles and are forever intertwined in their fights against discrimination, despite Turkish government’s efforts to separate the two and further criminalize the LGBTQIA+. Beyond the legal obligations, the convention also gave a political signal to society that violence against women and domestic violence are unacceptable. Now, without that signal, the women’s movement and the LGBTQIA+ movement must become each other’s anchors and rally in their common fight for equality, as the two have been and will be forever connected to one another’s progress. As the incomparable slogan of the women’s march goes:
“No salvation alone. All together or none at all.”