Editor’s note: This story contains details of violence.
Protests across Turkey and a viral social media campaign in recent weeks have highlighted the rise of femicide — the murder of a woman because of her gender — and domestic violence in the country.
Pinar Gültekin, a 27-year-old Turkish woman, went missing and was found dead on July 21 in the city of Mugla. After Gültekin allegedly rejected her boyfriend Cemal Metin Avcis’ advances, he strangled her to death, burned her body in an oil barrel, and tried to hide it in the woods. The killing marked the 50th known murder of women in Turkey in 2020 alone and sparked outrage across the country. Women’s rights advocates and allies are urging the Turkish government to take action to prevent these deaths.
According to a 2009 study, 42% of Turkish women between the ages of 15 and 60 had suffered some physical or sexual violence by their husbands or partners. In 2019, 474 women were murdered, mostly by partners and relatives.
Gender-based violence is only expected to surge in 2020. Domestic violence and femicide have spiked due to lockdown measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19, Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Equality Now's Middle East and North Africa expert, told Global Citizen via email.
Protesters demanding justice for Gültekin and other murdered women were met with violent crackdowns by police and little commitment from the government to protect women. The demonstrators called on the government to uphold the Istanbul Convention, the first international binding agreement to prevent gender-based violence introduced in 2011, which few countries have enforced.
Women also turned to social media to raise awareness for the growing gender-based violence in Turkey. They relaunched the “Challenge Accepted” campaign using #kadınaşiddetehayır and #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır, which roughly translates to “Say no to violence against women” (kadına şiddete hayır) and “Enforce the Istanbul Convention” (Istanbul sözleşmesi yaşatır).
Originally created in 2016, the campaign started out to increase cancer awareness and has had many iterations since. Turkish women drew from the concept and posted black-and-white photos of themselves online to signify they could be the next to appear in a newspaper as a femicide victim. Women around the world joined in to use the hashtag as a symbol of female empowerment around the world but received some criticism for drowning out Turkish women’s voices. The campaign continues to bring more global attention to the issue of femicide in Turkey.
Global Citizen spoke with Nihan Damarli, a volunteer at the Turkey-based Foundation for Women's Solidarity via email about the recent protests, spikes in femicide, and the “Challenge Accepted” campaign. Read the full interview below.
Global Citizen: The murder of Pinar Gültekin sparked protests across Turkey, but the demonstrations were met with violent crackdowns by police. How did this represent the general treatment of women who stand up against gender-based violence in Turkey?
Damarli: The government in Turkey has increased oppressive and prohibitive policies, especially in the last few years, and wants to prevent opposition groups from coming together and especially being seen on the streets. They aim to silence dissident voices from every segment of society; thus, target the women’s movement, being Turkey’s most powerful rights-based movement.
Actions such as shutting down some women’s organizations via statutory decrees, closing women’s centers and shelters, banning of the International Women’s Day marches in Istanbul, and tear-gassing protestors were only some of the indicators of this. In this incident, what we saw was that instead of stopping perpetrators and protecting women who have been subjected to violence, the police took action to stop women who are protesting femicides.
Overall, there is a lack of government collaboration with independent women’s organizations in policy-making. Especially in the last few years, this lack of political will has turned into systematic steps against gender equality. Crashing the protests against Pınar Gültekin’s murder did not conflict with this general atmosphere.
Why is femicide on the rise in Turkey?
Unfortunately, each year, more women are murdered by their intimate partners or family members. We do not have the exact numbers since the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Family, Labour, and Social Services do not keep and/or share such statistics.
On the one hand, while women are becoming more and more conscious and want to take control of their own lives, laws to protect women and prevent violence are not effectively implemented. We see that many women who were murdered were killed when they took concrete steps to move away from violent men. In cases of violence, impunity encourages perpetrators.
The government does not show an integrated approach and a political will with regards to the implementation of policies for combating gender-based violence. Instead, political leaders almost legitimize gender-based discrimination and violence via their discriminative and sexist discourses. I believe that all these factors not only prevent the mentality transformation towards gender equality, but they also increase gender-based violence.
#Kadınaşiddetehayır and #Istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır went viral, and quickly picked up steam with women around the world participating in the “Challenge Accepted” campaign. Some people argued that the connection to violence against women in Turkey was lost when the campaign grew in popularity. What do you think of this campaign as a way to draw attention to gender-based violence in Turkey?
Social media is a medium where content and agenda changes very fast. The campaign has spread very rapidly and even surpassed the borders of Turkey. I think sometimes it might be inevitable to lose some meaning while standing out among a lot of content on social media. There were also a lot of explanatory texts in circulation to remind the context of the campaign.
I think the focus of the campaign and the reason for sharing black-and-white photos are actually very striking and reflect the emotional state of women in Turkey directly. Due to the increasing violence, women now live with the fact that they may be exposed to gender-based violence, and moreover, that they can be killed. However, women no longer accept this fact as their unchangeable fate and try to raise their voices in every environment they can find in these oppressive times.
siyah-beyaz fotoğraflarımız bir gün hiç tanımadığımız insanların anasayfalarına düşmesin diye, bugün hep beraber el ele mücadele! 💜♀#challangeaccepted#istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatırpic.twitter.com/pj5JEGFGYD— arya Ⓥ (@arilendiniz) July 27, 2020
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan posted on Twitter about Pinar’s murder but has done very little to implement the Istanbul Convention even though Turkey was the first to ratify the treaty. How would you like to see him and the government take a stand against gender-based violence in the country?
Even though women’s and LGBTI+ organizations, networks, and platforms have been very effective in the past to push for women’s rights, the government is not currently welcoming collaboration and dialogue with independent rights-based organizations. What we, as women’s and LGBTI+ organizations that are active in the field of combating gender-based violence, expect from political leaders is not tweets on social media after a woman is murdered, but actual political will to effectively implement protective and preventive policies. The shadow NGO reports of the Istanbul Convention Monitoring Platform (consisting of women’s and LGBTI+ organizations) and the GREVIO country evaluation report show exactly what should be done step by step. However, while our advocacy efforts are for the effective implementation of the Istanbul Convention, the government is discussing withdrawal from the convention. We want the government to hear women’s voices, and take women’s and LGBTI+ organizations words into account while making decisions on women’s lives.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.