Two key developments marked the month of March – that of Women’s history – in the past seven days. Firstly, the Turkish government withdrew from the Istanbul Convention overnight on March 19. Just as many of us women believed that our solidary and determination had deflected the conservative patriarchate’s efforts to get rid of this anti-violence convention, we got a sudden awakening. Turkey’s president brushed aside the clearly expressed will of women on the streets, as well as international law, with a stroke of his pen and declared that Turkey would withdraw from the only convention that takes its name from Turkey’s cultural capital.
Back in my days as a student in international relations, our professors would make joking references on how Iraq had withdrawn from the Baghdad Pact in 1958 and how the remaining countries - Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, UK - swiftly rebaptized this pro-Western alliance as CENTO and moved the headquarters from Baghdad to Ankara. I would not have thought then that more than half a century later, my own country would take the same path. Worse, Ankara - just like Warsaw - tries to justify its withdrawal with flimsy excuses and incomprehensible statements on the word “gender” or with anti-LGBT statements that prove to be just as hateful as the decision itself.
The second grim news is the death of Egyptian writer, activist, physician and feminist Nawal El Saadawi on March 21. The cover of my dog-eared copy of her internationally famous novel, “Woman at Point Zero,” shows a black and white portrait of a woman. The distorted face, a photo taken by French-Hungarian artist Andre Kertesz, makes one recall the black and white ##challengeaccepted photos that women from all over the world posted on their social media profiles last summer when the debate to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention first arose.
Saadawi’s death marks the end of a lifetime passed with challenging politicians and clerics - the very same antagonists of the struggle for women’s rights in Turkey now. A doctor whose works have taken her to studying the neurosis of the women she met, Saadawi was removed from duty in 1970s; jailed under President Anwar Sadat in 1980s and threatened by Islamists and politicians in the 1990s. The angry feminist of the Middle East left her country in 1993 and continued her vocal criticism from the United States, with sharp words and burning anger directed against genital mutilation, sexual abuse, domestic violence and "honour killings" and the headscarf - as well as skimpy dresses that “sexually objectified” women, which irritated other feminists. In the 2011 Arab Spring, she was on Tahrir Square protesting. She continued her protest when Mohammad Morsi was elected and supported the coup against him.
In 2018, when she was asked in BBC’s HardTalk whether she would consider becoming less outspoken in the present political climate, she retorted that the present political climate was precisely why she could not be less vocal. “I should be more outspoken because the world is becoming more aggressive. I speak loudly because I am angry. We have to look at the whole world, not just Egypt, we live in a harsh patriarchal, capitalist system,” she chided Zeinab Badawi, who kept asking her questions on Egyptian democracy and coup leader-turned-president Abdel Fatah el-Sisi.
Saadawi and Asena
Saadawi was playfully - and somewhat inaccurately - dubbed “the Simone de Beauvoir of Egypt” by the Western media - but to me, a child of the 1970s, she was the soul-sister of Duygu Asena, the Turkish feminist pioneer in whose name PEN has established an annual women’s rights award that have been given to the Saturday Mothers and Prof. Ayşe Buğra, among others. The link between the two probably owes something to chronology - Asena’s first novel, “Woman Has No Name” and the Turkish translation of “Woman at Point Zero'' both came in 1987 and I remember reading them one after the other. Though Asena’s heroine was an educated white collar and Saadawi’s was a prostitute, the problems described were similar enough - the stress on virginity, incest, domestic violence and men who considered a woman’s body to be their property and plaything.
But what makes Asena and Saadawi as relevant as ever today - now that we are talking of autocrat leaders taking women’s rights back to the 90s - is their portrayals of women forced into abusive marriages. Saadawi’s Firdevs/Firdaws is beaten up by her elder, brutal husband and Asena’s woman with no name faces psychological abuse by her “civilized” husband, but both face slim choices once locked in marriage. Told that it is better to be a part of the family than a woman alone (does that sound familiar in current political rhetoric?), they face abandon, suffering, humiliation and more violence before final departure.
Shackled to abuse
The Istanbul Convention, which has sought to protect the victims of domestic violence and place the burden of this protection on the state, took the shackle out of women and put it on the ankle of the men who abused them. Thanks to this “Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence,” as its formal name goes, many of the signatories, including Turkey, passed laws to protect women against domestic violence by providing police protection when they faced abuse, measures to keep the abuser from approaching the victim and her home and shelters to take her - and her children- when protecting them at home became impossible.
Law 6824, though patchy and inaccurate in application, is the next target of the men who opposed the Istanbul Convention - whether they are members of conservative sects or the trolls on the social media that rant on the alimony they pay to their ex-wives and children in the foulest language possible. Unfortunately, here and now, their voice is the one that dominates, over that of Saadawi or Asena or hundreds and thousands of us who grew up reading them. As Saadawi said, it is time then to raise our voices even louder.