Women protest the decision taken by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to withdraw the country from the Istanbul Convention in Kadıkoy/Istanbul, Turkey on March 20, 2021. Photo: Gokce Atik.

Right-wing populism, political Islam, and the Istanbul Convention

In the environment of rising right-wing populism, women in Turkey and across Europe are worried about losing their hard-earned legal rights and protections under the guise of saving the nation from foreign encroachment. The targeting of the Istanbul Convention clearly indicates how populist leaders effectively and intensely use the discourse of gender in the construction of an antagonist “Other.” In demonizing this “Other,” populist leaders seek to benefit from the chaotic atmosphere to consolidate more power for themselves.

By Hafza Girdap

An “obsession with gender and sexuality” has been a common feature of contemporary right-wing populism. This manifests in various discourses that “conjure up the heteronormative nuclear family as the model of social organization, attack reproductive rights, question sex education, criticize a so-called ‘gender ideology,’ reject same-sex marriage and seek to re-install biologically understood binary gender differences” (Dietze & Roth, 2020: 7). The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, commonly known as the Istanbul Convention, has been a recent target of right-wing populists, ironically enough in Turkey, where the convention was opened for signature and thus gets its name. 

Women in Turkey have always found it challenging to protect themselves from violence and discrimination at the hands of the social, institutional, and structural actors due to the poor implementation of the existing national laws. Particularly within the last two decades, Turkey has seen a drastic increase in cases of domestic violence and femicide, according to the civic platform “Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracagiz” (“We Will Stop Femicide”), which has been documenting and publishing the monthly and annual number of femicide cases since 2013. In 2020, when pro-government voices in Turkey carried out a vigorous campaign against the Istanbul Convention, the Kadin platform reported 300 cases of femicide, a higher number than usual due to pandemic-related stay-at-home orders (130 femicide cases have been detected so far in 2021). 

As is common in European right-wing populist discourses, the campaign against the Istanbul Convention in Turkey was built on religious (Islamist) themes and protecting the traditional family unit.  Although it was the same Justice and Development Party (AKP) government under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan that hastily ratified the Convention in 2011, the authoritarian turn of the government after 2013 has significantly eroded the hype for European Union membership in Turkey. Hence, when the Convention finally became law in 2014, it lacked the government support to be properly implemented. Still, the human rights organizations saw the Convention as progress and pushed for its proper implementation to combat gender-based violence and domestic violence. 

As Eren Keskin, the Human Rights Association (IHD) co-chair, mentions, “until 2005, violence against women was not even a ‘chapter title’ in the Turkish Penal Code.” The title of the section regulating violence against women in the law was ‘general morality and crimes against family.’ So, a woman was just an ‘element’ of ‘morality and family’.” Keskin also highlights that the law was amended in 2005 only because of the struggle of women and the “winds” favoring the European Union at the time. Consequently, violence against women were brought into the penal code as “sexual assault crimes.” However, even if the written law has changed, it cannot be said that there has been a significant change in practice and understanding. In other words, language, discourse, and mentality matter greatly in the proper understanding and implementation of laws. 

On July 1, 2021, the day when Turkey officially exited the Istanbul Convention, people came together to protest this decision in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Okan Ozdemir.

Understandably, women’s rights groups that have been fighting for the full implementation of the Istanbul Convention were shocked and frustrated when Erdogan declared Turkey would withdraw from the Convention in a late-night presidential decree on March 20, 2021. Protests erupted in many cities of the country, demanding the government retract the decision. Journalists, legal professionals, academics, politicians, human rights defenders have declared their deep concerns in various ways, including articles, social media campaigns, TV shows, and artworks. On the other hand, there has been considerable support for the withdrawal decision among right-wing voters, who nonetheless appear to have little or no knowledge about the actual content of the Convention. So, what exactly makes this international treaty a target of right-wing populist anti-gender propaganda?

The Istanbul Convention is described as “a landmark treaty on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence” by the Council of Europe (CoE). It is “the most far-reaching international legal instrument to set out binding obligations to prevent and combat violence against women,” which has been ratified by 34 member states of the COE and signed by a further 12 (pending ratification). However, simply by its feature of being an international treaty, it has come under the nativist and nationalist radar of the AKP government, which has increasingly returned to its anti-Western and anti-secular Islamist roots since 2011. Indeed, one of the first steps of the AKP government regarding women’s issues was renaming the “Ministry of Women and Family” into the “Ministry of Family and Social Policy.” By doing so, women’s policy became restricted to families matters and the traditional role of women as mothers and wives. 

Along with this official change, the discourse of the party and Erdogan himself supported the restriction of women’s roles. President Erdogan explicitly declared that “You cannot put women and men on an equal footing. It is against nature. Our religion regards motherhood very highly. Feminists do not understand that; they reject motherhood.” In its attempt to expand its Islamist political base by tapping on the valued social symbols of family, children, and religion, the Turkish government manipulated some specific articles in the Istanbul Convention, which went in line with the party discourse and religious elites’ confirmation. The Turkish society, which is mostly conservative, has been tightly tied to religious and traditional discourse with a pro-family approach. In other words, as Eslen-Ziya purports, the “AKP government adopted populist discourses involving Islamist elements of nationalism and conservatism” (Eslen-Ziya, 2020: 4).

So, is the Istanbul Convention actually a threat against the family concept as claimed by the Erdogan regime? All articles related to family issues in the Convention are entirely aimed at combating domestic violence. The first article explains the purpose of the Convention to “protect women against all forms of violence, and prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence.” This is followed by the second article that emphasizes legal implementation: “Parties are encouraged to apply this Convention to all victims of domestic violence. Parties shall pay particular attention to women victims of gender-based violence in implementing the provisions of this Convention.” 

In this vein, Article 52 advises the parties to take “necessary legislative or other measures” to restrain the perpetrators of violence from the victims, which was put into practice in the Turkish Penal Code with Law No. 6284 to Protect Family and Prevent Violence Against Women. As repeated throughout the text, the Istanbul Convention focuses on protecting all family members from domestic violence without dictating any particular notion of the family. However, this ambiguity and inclusiveness in its language make the Convention a target of the populist claims of undermining the “God-sanctioned” heteronormative family by giving room for the normalization of other “deviant” forms of family. As Kuhar and Pajnik note, “In the zero-sum logic typical of populist discourse, the more homosexuality (and, by virtue, ‘gender ideology’ as an empty signifier for anything, from gender studies to sexual education, to reproductive rights) is presented as normal, the more children, traditional families and the nation are threatened and under attack” (Kuhar & Pajnik, 2020: 178).

The terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the specific articles of the Convention have been claimed to promote and encourage homosexuality and LGBTQ+ identities. In Article 3, gender is defined as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.” Following that is Article 4 that guarantees to protect the rights of victims “without discrimination on any ground such as sex, gender, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, state of health, disability, marital status, migrant or refugee status, or other status.” 

Another point of concern raised by the opponents of the Convention is the education and teaching materials requirement in Article 14, which calls the governments to educate their people on “equality between women and men, non-stereotyped gender roles, mutual respect, non-violent conflict resolution in interpersonal relationships, gender-based violence against women and the right to personal integrity…in formal curricula and at all levels of education.” A common obsession with the term gender and its academic studies can already be observed in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, which refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention with the same arguments and removed the accreditation from gender studies MA programs in Hungarian universities in 2018. 

Despite the frequent expressions of concern and criticism from the international community, the populist authoritarian leaders have insisted on their anti-women and anti-gender campaigns. Turkey did not target gender studies and academic programs directly, unlike Hungary. However, it consolidated its dominance in the university administrations and the civil society with an attempt to counteract the liberal Western gender studies discourse and replace it with a conservative or Islamist one. This is clearly seen in the mixed messages on the withdrawal decision sent by KADEM (the Women and Democracy Association), co-founded by Erdogan’s daughter Sumeyye Erdogan. While initially expressing support for the Convention during the ongoing campaign against it, the organization did not join the major women’s rights groups to protest the decision once it was made official in March 2021. Instead, they blamed the Convention for creating societal tension and commended the decision to withdraw. As an unofficial mouthpiece of the government on the issues of women and gender, KADEM “serves to institutionalize pro-government, right-wing populist gender ideology” and plays a role as an agency to supporting “policies through protecting family as an institution and embracing gendered roles (women as mothers and wives and men as bread winners and head of the households) where patriarchal order is protected” (Eslen-Ziya, 2020: 4–5).

In the environment of rising right-wing populism, women in Turkey and across Europe are worried about losing their hard-earned legal rights and protections under the guise of saving the nation from foreign encroachment. The targeting of the Istanbul Convention clearly indicates how populist leaders effectively and intensely use the discourse of gender in the construction of an antagonist “Other.” In demonizing this “Other,” populist leaders seek to benefit from the chaotic atmosphere to consolidate more power for themselves.

References

Dietze, Gabriele & Roth, Julia. (2020). “Introduction.” In: Right-Wing Populism and Gender: European Perspectives and Beyond, edited by Gabriele Dietze and Julia Roth.

Eslen-Ziya, Hande. (2020). “Right-wing populism in New Turkey: Leading to all new grounds for troll science in gender theory.” HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies. 76(3):1-9. DOI:10.4102/hts.v76i3.6005 

Kuhar, Roman & Pajnik, Mojca. (2020). “Populist Mobilizations in Re-traditionalized Society: Anti-Gender Campaigning in Slovenia.” In: Right-Wing Populism and Gender: European Perspectives and Beyond, edited by Gabriele Dietze and Julia Roth.