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Controversial #ChallengeAccepted selfies are leading to a small win for women’s rights in Turkey

The Turkish government’s subtle omission of the Istanbul Convention from their agenda is a small yet meaningful victory for women, but the LGBTQI+ community is now under fire.

17 Aug 2020

Trigger warning: This article contains mentions of violence.

If you have been on Instagram in the past couple of weeks, you might have seen an abundance of black and white photos, mostly by women, posted with the hashtag #ChallengeAccepted. Although many put them up before knowing the origin, it was not simply a “selfie trend” as The New York Times’s Taylor Lorenz claimed, but instead, a social media protest against the rising number of femicides in Turkey. Women were sharing their pain and reminding themselves and others that any day, it could be their black and white photos circulating the internet as a tribute.

Gender-based violence and femicides are not a recent problem in Turkey, but the number of deaths has been consistently on the rise in the past couple of years. In 2020 so far, 236 women have already been killed due to an increase in domestic violence cases with Covid-19 related lockdown restrictions. The reason why this number is on such a dramatic year on year rise comes from the combination of a deeply rooted toxic masculinity issue in Turkish society, as well as the lack of legal action taken following a case.

Most of these women get killed by their current or former partners, family members, and sometimes by men they had never even met who wanted to have a relationship with them out of a sense of entitlement. Murderers often get reduced sentences if they claim to have acted on impulse, claim to be religious or even dress smartly in court. The fact that the legal system allows this normalises gender-based violence and femicides, and creates an impression that murder is easy to get away with for potential offenders.

The Instagram challenge, which saw women posting black and white photos of themselves in solidarity with the victims, gained traction after the brutal murder of Pınar Gültekin, a 27-year-old university student from Muğla. She had been missing since 16 July when her remains were found days later. She had been strangled, stuffed into a barrel, burnt and concrete had been poured over her body. Her former partner Cemal Metin Avci was later arrested and confessed to the murder. He is currently awaiting trial.

Her case, amongst many others, was a reminder that women in Turkey desperately need the Istanbul Convention –a 2011 human rights treaty that safeguards women’s rights – to be kept and put into action.

“Women started posting black and white photos of themselves in solidarity with the victims, sharing their pain and reminding themselves and others that any day it could be them”

On top of the legal system being already weak when it comes to protecting women’s rights, ultra-Conservatives have been trying to get Turkey to back out of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence since May of this year. The convention has clauses against offences such as psychological and physical violence, stalking, sexual violence and forced marriage, amongst many others that are needed to protect women on a daily basis. The Conservatives’ argument is based on allegations that the convention imposes Western values and threatens traditional Turkish family structures due to having a clause on protecting LGBTQI+ rights and social gender equality. If Turkey had backed out from it today, women’s rights would have much less legal protection than they do now. 

Realising the lack of English sources on the matter, I decided to make an infographic explaining how serious the situation is and the reason behind the challenge. Some informative English posts, including mine, started going viral and the case suddenly started getting an incredible amount of international attention. The viral photo protest, while calling all women to empower other women, urged the Turkish government to not back out of the Istanbul Convention. This movement also triggered a series of physical protests all around the world, from New York to Helsinki. 

The outrage against such a proposition was an intersectional one and was not just limited to the secular opposition of Turkey. During a debate on Turkish TV channel HaberTurk on 12 August, conservative journalist Nihal Bengisu Karaca called the convention “the last hope for fighting violence against women”. Even KADEM (Women and Democracy Organisation), a non-profit women’s organisation chaired by President Erdogan’s daughter, has urged the government to keep the convention in a press release. This shows that the current fight for women’s rights in Turkey is ubiquitous. 

The initial meeting of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Executive Committee where a decision was to be reached had been postponed from 5 August, yet the meeting on 13 August had no mention of the topic. But, according to recent reports, as of 15 August, there are talks of annotating the 4th article on fundamental rights, equality and non-discrimination in order to remove the words sexual orientation and gender identity from it. This will be discussed during the ruling party’s executive committee meeting later this week.

While the committee has ignored calls from staunch conservatives to withdraw from the treaty, this new approach could spark debate. If the meeting decides to lodge objections of sexual orientation and gender on the basis that it disrupts traditional family values, it will essentially mean that unless they are heterosexual, individuals will not be protected as part of the convention. It would be a huge step backwards for LGBTQI+ acceptance in Turkey, as it would also limit gender to “female” and “male”. But as the government are already not applying the convention properly, we can’t be sure what it will mean in the long run.

So, even though Turkey recognising the importance of the women’s rights clauses of the convention is good news, it is not yet a cause for celebration, as the government should still be urged to leave the protections surrounding gender identity and sexual orientation in place, implement the clauses of the convention, such as article 35 on criminalising physical violence, and strengthen the legal system to protect women in order to prevent tragedies like the death of Pinar from happening in future.