Reflecting on the Black and White Campaign in Turkey and the Country’s Long Overlooked Problem of Femicide

Source: Mythreyee Ramesh, “What #ChallengeAccepted Has to Do with Turkey — And Femicide”, The Quint (2020)
https://www.thequint.com/neon/gender/what-challenge-accepted-has-to-do-with-turkey-a-femicide

Rights! / January 18, 2021

TROEETA BHUNIYA AND INDRASHISH MAJUMDER

The international community is quick to forget that about 6 months ago, Ms Pinar Gültekin a 27-year-old University student, was brutally beaten and burned to death by her ex-boyfriend on 21 July 2020 in Turkey, adding to the country’s long list of femicides. The victim was reported missing for six days before being found dumped in a garbage bin. She was strangled to death by her former partner for refusing to reconcile with him.

The news of Ms Gültekin’s death ignited demonstrations all across the country, and women and men alike took to the streets in protest of violence against women. However, the occurrence of Ms Gültekin’s death, as well as similar atrocities against women in Turkey, inevitably raises a few questions. What should happen when a 27-year-old woman – her name was Ms. Pinar Gültekin –is strangled to death and burned to a crisp by her ex-partner? What are the repercussions when a mother – her name was Ms Emine Bulut – is stabbed to death by her husband in a café in front of her 10-year-old child? What happens when a college student – her name was Ms Ozgecan Aslan – is stabbed and burned to her death because she resists rape? What happens when the mysterious death of an 11-year-old child – her name was  Ms Rabia Naz – is improperly deemed a  “suicide” by the judiciary? Maybe the answer to these questions lies not in what happens as a result, but rather how it happened in the first place. While the atrocities may be perceived by some as merely interpersonal, their prevalence hints towards the institutionalisation of violence against women, abetted by a patriarchal society with deeply rooted chauvinism against women.

Violence against women existed long before the expression “femicide” was devised in 1976 by Diana E. Russell at the first International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women in Brussels, Belgium. While the term is defined by the United Nations Office in Drugs and Crime as the gender-based homicide of women, it refers to much more than the killing of women; it also condones the entire system of any given judicial administration that fails to safeguard women and prosecute the perpetrators of crimes against them. The concept is similar to “rape culture” except it applies only in cases of murder concerning a women’s sexual orientation, indigenous identity, dowry-related issues, or other issues related to socially constructed gendered concepts. However, contrary to common perception, under no circumstances are these acts unrelated and spasmodic. They are abetted by a society in which unequal power structures and conventionally defined gender roles often force women into the margins. Encouraged by Right-Wing Populist Parties, the above-mentioned manifestations of violence against women in Turkey – as exemplified by the cases of Rabia Naz, Emine Bulut, Pinar Gültekin, and Ozgecan Aslan – have increased exponentially over the decades.

The misogynistic, heteronormative dogmas that exist within much of the Turkish population are hard to ignore. The 2018 Global Study on Homicide conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that 409 women were killed in Turkey in 2017. Turkey has been ranked 114th  of 167 countries in the “Women, Peace and Security Index, 2019” and 130th of 149 countries in “WEF’s the Global Gender Gap Index, 2020”. These numbers, as explained by Turkish investigative journalist Burcu Karakaş, alone glean the status and treatment of women in the country.

Legal Obligations Of Turkey

Ironically, unlike many countries, Turkey has already adopted laws criminalising gender-based discrimination. In 2011, Turkey was the first country to ratify the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, also referred to as the Istanbul Convention. The convention criminalises all kinds of discrimination against women and Turkey, as a signatory, is obliged to ensure that measures exist to prevent any kinds of gender-based violence. Law No. 6284 to Protect Family and Prevent Violence Against Women, was enacted by the Turkish Government in 2012, and, accordingly, the AKP implemented a national action plan promoting gender equality. Article 10 of the Turkish Constitution bans any discrimination based on gender and sex while granting women equal rights. However, the government’s patriarchal ethos makes the implementation of this legislation difficult, consequentially leaving women unprotected against violence from men. As Karakaş in her article titled “Femicide in Turkey : What’s lacking is political will” Turkey’s ruling party, AKP, and its neo-liberal economic policies move in consonance with “religious conservatism” and propound socially constructed beliefs, such as deeming “motherhood” to be “sacred” and reinforcing the traditional “Turkish Family Model”. Under the AKP, violence against women has greatly escalated over the years, with more than 3,000 women having been murdered since 2010. The majority of the killings happen as a reaction to women choosing to live independent lives governed by their own decisions, spurning proposals from men, or breaking up with their partner.

The United Nations Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women  (CEDAW), was ratified by Turkey in 1985, and it defines discrimination against women as; “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made based on sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”. Specifically, Article 13 and 14 are crucial recommendations for resolving Turkey’s femicide issue in rural communities. These laws promote sensitivity along with taking the required steps in the training of non-violent conflict resolution in interpersonal relations. By ratifying CEDAW, States agree to enact measures to end discrimination against women in all forms.

However, the effective implementation of the aforementioned legislation is obstructed due to a persistent lack of political will that is cultivated by the sexist comments of famous populist figures such as President Recap Erdogan. The President, as reported in the website of Middle East Institute, while condemning feminists for rejecting “motherhood”, asserted that “women and men could not be treated equally, as it is against nature.” Karakaş argues how Erdogan’s anti-feminist, chauvinistic, traditional-family-centric rhetoric renders significant ramifications on the implementation of the existing policy, as manifested by the recent controversy surrounding Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention in April 2020. The president sparked the debate by asserting, in the typical populist vogue, “If people want us to leave it, we will”. While toxic populism is a sign of the times, the underlying reasons snubbing the convention are deeply rooted in centuries-old anti-feminist dialogues, and unfounded claims prejudicial claims that the convention destroys families by empowering LGBT+ groups.

Social Media “Slactivism” and its Limitations

The brutal murder of Ms Gültekin triggered protests throughout the country and sent shockwaves across the world. Women took to the streets in over ten cities and began posting on social media, both in protest of her death and to show support for the Istanbul Convention. However, the Turkish government’s efforts to preserve the narrowly defined idea of “family unity” at the cost of individual autonomy continues to be abominable. The government’s inaction is decimating the country’s legal machinery, leaving many aggrieved, concerned citizens at the mercy of brute police force and tear gas without any hope for justice. The government has been denigrated for its meaningless condolences and sanctimonious silence concerning the crimes committed against women and it continues to fail to take appropriate actions to protect women from such crimes.

However, amidst the hypocritical silence and inactiveness of the Turkish government, Turkish women instituted the social media campaign “#Challenge Accepted using “#kadınaşiddetehayır” and “#istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır” which roughly translate to “Say no to violence against women” (kadına şiddete hayır) and “Enforce the Istanbul Convention” (Istanbul sözleşmesi yaşatır) respectively. Turkish women posted black and white pictures of themselves online, symbolising how they could be the next victim of femicide, ending up in the newspaper. The hashtag has been perceived as a symbol of female empowerment and has caused a brief but widespread international response to the issue of femicide in Turkey. The hashtags written in Turkish continue to circulate on social media, but the #ChallengeAccepted hashtag is no longer associated with the campaign.  

Though the campaign gained great prominence, even by engaging female celebrities in the United States, it cannot overshadow the responsibility of the Turkish government to step up and take accountability for the atrocities committed against their women, harmful gender norms, and age-old patriarchal beliefs. The government must own up to their shortcomings by strengthening mechanisms for the protection of women. Additionally, it needs to be understood that  social media “slacktivism” comes with its limitations. For instance, there was some initial confusion about the intent of the challenge, because a lot of people were using the challenge to boost their own social media profiles. Considering the main hashtag of the #ChallengeAccepted campaign was about women supporting women’s empowerment, pictures like the one attached below often failed to reveal what exactly this empowerment was really about.

Screenshot Sources: (left) https://www.instagram.com/p/CDJtwasD-Am/ ; (right) https://www.instagram.com/khloekardashian/

Showing solidarity on social media is inspiring and sororal, so long as the show of support does not prevent other people from doing more constructive work towards actually achieving social justice. If people are using the same hashtag, it is presumed that they are in a similarly problematic situation. Pictures like the ones shown above often distract from the campaign’s objective and denigrate it to merely social media “influencing” without any real impact.

Conclusion and Suggestions

We mustn’t forget that Turkey was the first member of the Council of Europe to sign the Istanbul Convention. At that time, it was seen as a constructive step towards handling the country’s problem with femicide. But now, it is very clear that the country has failed to uphold its obligations under the convention.

Various key steps must be taken to tackle Turkey’s femicide problem. Changing patriarchal views is no easy task, and the first step must be realising that there is a problem, then educating men and women on how to recognise it, and ultimately responding to it. The Turkish government should initiate educational and advocacy programmes that ensure that both Turkish citizens and the international community are aware of the various types of abuse that women face in Turkey. In particular, gender equality education is relevant in regions where honour killings are more prevalent. Formal education and training should be introduced in combination with awareness-raising campaigns. These campaigns should be pro-feminism and organised by women. Besides, the Turkish people themselves need to raise awareness about the current issues and stand in solidarity with the country’s women’s rights campaigners. Men and women need to be taught that violence against women is unacceptable starting at the local level — in their schools, communities, and homes. A survey conducted on 27 June 2020 by Istanbul Economics Research delineated that 51 per cent of those surveyed were not aware of the provisions of Istanbul Convention.

News outlets and reporters play a vital role in effecting change, but they need to address femicides in a way that reflects the complexity of the issue and provides support to those who might be undergoing spousal abuse. Newspapers have an effect on public opinion, and are responsible for keeping citizens aware of femicide cases, commenting on the judicial process, pointing out the shortcomings where necessary, and covering demonstrations that condemn Turkey’s current lack of a response to the issue.

With that said, more feminist programming must be initiated both in Turkey and around the world. The recent viral hashtag of “#ChallengeAccepted” has effectively shown how quickly an awareness campaign can lose value, and while the future of the Istanbul Convention’s application in Turkey hangs in the balance, we need more momentum to tackle femicide in Turkey and the international community must reciprocate with greater immediacy. What we need is the effective amalgamation of online social media campaigns and physical manifestations on the streets to best ensure that women’s voices are heard. An example of the same kind has been set by Gülseren Onanc, the co-founder and vice-president of the Equality, Justice and Women Platform, via her new project “The voice of women”. The program aims to empower women through social media platforms by engaging them in tasks relating to politics, organising creative media campaigns, and hosts the Equality, Justice and Women Conference every year to foster collaboration with foreign activists. Ultimately, their work engages women from across the world—including advocates, scholars, and journalists–in vibrant discussions on the issues facing women belonging from third world countries while trying to formulate common solutions. Such a program not only engages women across social media but also empowers them through offline activities by hosting civil society campiagns and events to reach a more global audience, as explained on the organisation’s website. Onanc argues that a heterogeneous mixture of online and in person activism is the need of the hour in order to alleviate the suffering of thousands of women, like Pinar Gülktekin, across the world that may currently remain as silent victims of the patriarchy.

Troeeta Bhuniya and Indrasish Majumder are students of the National Law University Odisha in India.

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