Femicide, violence against women and so-called ‘honour’ killings are deeply rooted issues in Turkey. Last week, the country was rocked by the brutal killing of Pınar Gültekin, a 27-year-old student, who was allegedly killed by an ex-boyfriend.
Campaigners are also deeply worried about fresh efforts by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party to repeal a Council of Europe treaty known as the Istanbul convention, ground breaking legislation from 2011 that protects victims of domestic and gender-based violence and effectively prosecutes offenders.
International obligations: The Istanbul Convention
Women's rights groups now hope that the public pressure generated by such cases will bring about a social transformation, one that is supported not only by civil society but also by politicians.
Here, many Turkish women are putting their faith in the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe agreement from 2014 on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The signatory nations committed themselves to creating the requisite conditions for fighting the problem. Turkey ratified the agreement five years ago and gave it a legal basis as a law for the prevention of violence against women and the protection of the family.
But critics say that in practice, the legal norms of the Istanbul Convention are not being applied and the intended assistance and protective measures for women are not being implemented. Violence and discrimination against women, they say, can be prevented only when the judiciary and prosecution authorities act on the guidelines contained in the agreement.
There must be a certain awareness on the part of justice officials and politicians if laws to protect women are to be put into practice, says the Berlin-based women's rights activist Sehnaz Kiymaz Bahceci. But, she says, "the government lacks the will to meet the obligations of the agreement."
Gokce Yazar from the Sanliurfa bar association sees patriarchal family structures and cultural customs as the problem. "It is normal for a woman who is threatened by her husband and fears for her life to seek protection from the state. The legal provisions are clear, but even so, they are often told: 'Go back to your husband.'"
Even if members of the government are now reacting with shock to the murder of Ceren Ozdemir, no political will to combat violence against women in any sustained way is discernible. The left-leaning, pro-Kurdish HDP had proposed setting up a parliamentary commission to look into the issue, but the ruling AKP and the ultranationalist MHP rejected the idea in November.
And when some 2,000 women gathered in Istanbul on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25 to protest against femicides, among other things, police broke up the rally with tear gas and plastic bullets.
The Movement: #ChallengeAccepted
Challenge Accepted Movement, with more than 6m black-white Instagram photos shared by women, has been viral in the last days. All of us have most probably seen at least a couple of those pictures on our Instagram flow. Women from all around the world share their black and white pictures with #ChallengeAccepted and #WomenSupportingWomen hashtags.
#ChallengeAccepted, or also known as Challenge Accepted Campaign became originally viral in social media way back in 2016. The intention then was spreading positivity to tackle cancer and for cancer awareness. The challenge later became popular in July 2020 triggered by the aftermath impact of the global George Floyd protests. Later, social media users launched it again to spread positivity amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
This time, it has a deep rooted meaning to it; hear it from a Turkish:
Turkish Twitter user, Imaan Patel, shared the real reason behind why the movement was started and her post has been a point of reference for many looking for clarity. She wrote, “I see many of my non-Turkish friends sharing black and white photos of themselves as a “challenge” but not knowing the reason or origin of the challenge. So here is my attempt to educate the little following I have. Please share this information if you want to support this movement so the message does not get lost in translation and so that the challenge won’t lose its meaning.”
She went on to add how Turkey is one of the top countries when it comes to femicide. According to the We Will Stop Femicide online platform, in 2020 alone, over 27 women were murdered by their jealous spouses, partners or in honour killings, while a further 23 suspected femicides have been recorded as well. In fact, it was the recent killing of 27-year-old student Pinar Gültekin by a jealous ex-boyfriend - who strangled and beat her before killing her, then dumped her in a bin and filled it with concrete when he was unable to burn her body - which sent shock waves through Turkey. Women from Turkey, especially the country’s west, took to the streets to protest and express their anger about Pinar’s killing, calling for protection of women.
Imaan’s post went on to explain, “Turkey is one of the top countries when it comes to femicides. Just on 2019 we have had almost 500 RECORDED femicides. Sadly many of them remain unrecorded and we have no real number as to how many women are murdered here every year. Just this week, we have had several women murdered. The government and our justice system does nothing to stop these crimes. Most often the murderers barely get a slap on the wrist or no charges at all.”
She went on to explain the Istanbul Convention and how abolishing certain parts of it would hamper women’s safety in Turkey, “As if this is not enough, our government is trying to abolish certain aspects of Istanbul Convention which is a human rights treaty that protects women against domestic violence. So not only are they not trying to stop it, they’re literally trying to make it legal for them to not stop it.”
Imaan then explained how the social media trend that has gone globally viral began in Turkey, “Turkish people wake up every day to see a black and white photo of a woman who has been murdered on their Instagram feed, on their newspapers, on their TV screens. The black and white photo challenge started as a way for women to raise their voice. To stand in solidarity with the women we have lost. To show that one day, it could be their picture that is plastered across news outlets with a black and white filter on top. I have seen many of my international friends participate in this challenge without knowing the meaning. While I am aware that there is no ill will, it is important to remind ourselves why posting a picture with a black and white filter is a “challenge” to begin with.”
Marches in four Turkish cities last week mourning Gültekin’s death and calling on Turkish politicians to uphold the Istanbul convention were accompanied by hundreds of thousands of social media posts: one initiative involved posting photos on Instagram in black and white to emphasise how pictures of murdered women end up in black and white in the pages of newspapers.
The black and white challenge have repurposed the idea along with appeals for women to tag others who inspire or support them and hashtags such as #challengeaccepted and #İstanbulSözleşmesiYaşatır, or “Enforce the Istanbul Convention”, quickly took off in Turkey.
“The black and white photo challenge and #challengeaccepted movement did not start in Turkey, but Turkish women sparked the latest round of pictures because we are worried about withdrawing from the Istanbul convention. Every day, after the death of one of our sisters, we share black and white photographs and keep their memory alive,” said Fidan Ataselim, the general secretary of the campaign group We Will Stop Femicide.
“The Istanbul convention keeps Turkish women alive. We call on women from all over the world to spread this message and stand side by side with us against inequality.”
Chef Nigella Lawson’s original #challengeaccepted post was followed up with an apology after activists pointed out the original meaning of the campaign.
“I have only just found out that this challenge was originally meant to draw attention to the growing number of murders of women in Turkey, and am mortified didn’t know when I posted. It seems inappropriate now, and hardly fitting for the serious and terrible issue of femicide. I apologise,” she wrote.
Despite the fact Turkey has the highest femicide rate among 34 OECD countries, conservative elements in Turkey’s political sphere have repeatedly petitioned for the country to withdraw from the Istanbul convention on the grounds that it encourages divorce and ‘immoral lifestyles’.
Gültekin is one of 120 women who have been killed in Turkey so far this year, mostly by partners and relatives. A total of 474 women were killed in 2019, the highest rate in a decade in which the numbers have increased year on year. The figures for 2020, affected by coronavirus lockdowns, are even higher!