Turkey: Erdoğan quits convention on the abuse of women as femicides skyrocket

Protests erupted across Turkey on Saturday 20 March after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a decree withdrawing Turkey from the Istanbul convention, an international treaty to prevent and combat violence against women. The withdrawal has sparked anger, thousands have taken to the streets at protests throughout the country. 

Femicide – the intentional killing of women for their gender – and domestic violence are widespread issues in Turkey, and lockdown measures and unemployment have led to spikes in both femicides and domestic abuse. 

The anger that has erupted isn’t so much about the treaty, but the message Erdoğan is sending by withdrawing from it: that the lives of women will not be protected, that men can kill and abuse women with impunity.

Islamists within Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and in various other parties and organisations, have been calling for the withdrawal, saying the treaty threatens “traditional values and the family structure” and “normalises homosexuality” for its support of LGBT rights.  

The treaty, which Turkey was the first country to sign in 2011, requires governments to enact laws to prevent gender-based violence, to protect victims, to prosecute the perpetrators and to eliminate violence against women. Governments are obligated to implement measures such as running awareness campaigns, improving media portrayals of women, providing shelters, ensuring investigation of allegations and offering counselling services to perpetrators. 

But as soon as the treaty was signed, its implementation came into conflict with capitalism. It became clear there are limits as to how far women could be protected against violence under this violent system.

Since the start of the year at least 116 women have been murdered in cases of femicides. On the eve of Erdoğan’s announced withdrawal, four women were murdered. Two days later, six women were murdered within 12 hours – four of them by their partners for wanting to end their relationships. 

Since 2011, the year the treaty was signed, femicides in Turkey have more than doubled.

Femicides and oppression: a symptom of social rot

The majority of femicides happen despite women’s complaints to the police. Sertap Şahin had filed 60 reports with the police before her husband drowned her to death in 2020. Ayşe Tuba Arslan had filed 23 reports before her ex-husband murdered her in 2019. In her last report she wrote: “I am receiving death threats from this individual. Will you help me after I am killed?”

Femicide cases are regularly ruled suicides and are closed by the police. Şule Çet, a 23-year-old student was raped and thrown from the 20th floor of a high-rise building by two men, a former boss and his friend. Her case was ruled a sucide and only reopened after months of pressure from activists. The trial lasted six months and it was the presence of regular demonstrations outside the courthouse that finally led to the convictions of the perpetrators.

In another case, Ayten Kaya, a 35-year-old woman in the Kurdish province of Diyarbakir, was found hanging in her own home. Police ruled her death a suicide and closed the case. Ayten’s family says she was murdered by her husband. Her body was found covered in bruises and – despite the autopsy results matching the time of her death to her husband’s last visit to the house – police refused to reopen the case. There have been other similar cases since Ayten’s death, with police again refusing to investigate them.

These are the cases that make it to the news. A woman is killed every day in Turkey. A study by Sage found that 42 percent of women in Turkey aged 15 to 60 have experienced sexual and domestic violence from a current or former partner. According to the World Health Organisation, 38 percent of women in Turkey will experience violence from a partner in their lifetime. Violence against women happens in the home, on the street, and in the workplace. Cases of femicides, violence and sexual harassment against women are so rampant that it almost seems ‘natural’, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Violence against women, the oppression of women, did not always exist, but is the product of class society. Ever since society became divided into classes, for thousands of years, women have been subjugated and reduced to domestic slaves. The social role assigned to women under class society, their enforced dependence on men and cultural views about their inferiority, that reflect their economic subjugation, have made women vulnerable to the most atrocious abuses. 

Under capitalism, women have been drawn in increasing numbers to the workforce in large parts of the world. This was a progressive development insofar as it pulled women out of isolation into public life and the class struggle. However, it has always meant that working-class women are doubly oppressed: as wage labourers, and in the home, where the majority of domestic labour continues to fall on their shoulders.

In employment, the capitalists impose inferior wages and working conditions on women, which they use as a downward pressure on the wages and conditions of the entire working class. Although capitalism has drawn women into social production, it must also promote the idea that their main role is in the home – rearing children and taking care of their family.

The oppression of women is extremely profitable to the capitalists. The ruling class uses sexism as a tool of division, relying on the propagation of sexist attitudes to keep the workers divided, and thus maintain their rule. Some bourgeois politicians like Mehmet Şimşek, former Deputy Prime Minister, have even directly cast the blame for workers’ suffering under capitalism on working women, claiming: “The reason our unemployment rate is high is because women are also looking for jobs”.

According to the United Nations, “there is no region of the world, no country and no culture in which women’s freedom from violence has been secured”. One-third of women and girls around the world have experienced physical or sexual assault by an intimate partner. UN research also reveals that no country has been able to close the gender wage gap.

A recent report by the Turkish trade union confederation, DISK, found that women in Turkey earn on average a third less than men. Women make up half the population, yet their labour participation is only 34.5 percent. Almost half of working women, 40 percent, leave their job after getting married and having a child. 60 percent of these women say they are unhappy with the decision. Access to childcare is not only a barrier to accessing education for the child’s development, it is also a barrier to the economic freedom of working-class women. This economic inequality continues to leave women vulnerable to violence.   

Cultural and social norms about gender roles and stereotypes also contribute to violence against women. Namus is a word for male honour in Turkish and it is defined through the woman. Men are taught to "uphold and defend” their namus. It is estimated that at least one femicide per week in Turkey is an honour killing – the murder of a woman who has brought “shame” to her family or partner. She is usually killed by a brother or her father. Because of the social role assigned to women under capitalism, the ruling class heavily limits sexual freedom for women, consigning them to the home and child-rearing. It is for this reason Erdoğan has publicly called women who do not have children “deficient” and stated that “men and women are not equal”.

Culturally, boys are taught that masculinity is defined as having economic and physical power over women. Fulfilling the deeply ingrained cultural norm of the male “breadwinner” is becoming more and more impossible under capitalism. The pressures of daily life under this system exacerbate these tensions, and can lead men to use violence as a means to regain a sense of control and power over their lives.

A lot of these cases of femicides are directly tied to the pressures of everyday life under capitalism, and this pressure has only increased with the deepening economic crisis.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women all around the world, threatening decades of reforms won through class struggle. Women's participation in the workforce has dropped more than 8 percent in Turkey over the last year, throwing women in Turkey back 20 years. The unemployment rate among women now stands at 45.3 percent. As women have been forced out of the workforce, they have been pushed into the home where they are trapped with abusive partners.

Mor Çatı, a prominent women’s shelter in Turkey has reported a spike in calls to their hotline from 944 in 2019 to 2,300 in the past year. In the first month of the pandemic, violence against women soared nearly 28 percent. Turkey, a country of more than 80 million people, has only 144 shelters. These shelters cannot cope with demand, and many are turned away. Women in rural areas meanwhile don’t have any access to shelters, which are all located in urban areas. 

Why now?

Why has Erdoğan decided now, at a time when women in Turkey are facing unprecedented hardship, to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention? In reality it reflects how isolated he and his regime are becoming.

The global economic crisis sparked by the pandemic has pushed the Turkish economy, which, in the past few years, has been plagued by high inflation, a depreciating currency, and rising debt, further into crisis. Inflation has now soared past 16 percent. Unemployment is being reported at more than 30 percent and the Turkish Lira has lost more than a fifth of its value against the US dollar in the past year alone. The cost of living has been rapidly rising and millions are struggling to buy basic goods, facing poverty and hunger.

Womens oppression Istanbul Image Ozge Sebzeci FlickrErdoğan's decision to withdraw from the Instanbul Convention at a time when women in Turkey are facing unprecedented hardship, reflects how isolated he and his regime are becoming / Image: Ozge Sebzeci, Flickr

This economic crisis has increasingly isolated Erdoğan from his base in the last several years, leading to election losses. Erdoğan is finding himself more and more isolated as the economic crisis deepens, and is desperate to shore up support from any layer he can, including the most reactionary layers, in order to hold on to power. He has been promoting divisions on national lines, and has now moved to ban the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). He has also been promoting divisions on religious lines, and in an attempt to rally the Islamists behind him too, he is pandering to their reactionary demands, including their clamour about “family values” – hence his withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. 

Every time the capitalist system goes into crisis, the burden of the crisis is thrown ever more heavily on women and other marginalised layers.

The ruling class needs to encourage and promote every possible division within the working class in order to rule over and oppress all workers. By encouraging sexism and other forms of discrimination they seek to prevent the working class from uniting against its common oppressor, while driving down wages for everyone. The dehumanising conditions capitalism forces the majority to live under deeply impact us, distorting how we relate to each other as human beings, including how men relate to and treat women.

It is not enough to ‘educate away’ violence. Targeting cultural beliefs, societal views and media portrayals of women alone cannot eliminate violence against women. The material conditions that divide workers based on gender, sexual orientation, race, and so on will exist as long as capitalism exists. Ultimately, it is the economic system that determines the social relations in a given society.

Capitalism is a system run for profit, not for human need. It cannot provide the material conditions required to establish genuine equality between men and women. The struggle to eliminate violence against women, the emancipation of women, cannot be separated from the struggle for socialism – the struggle for a classless system planned and run for human need.

A socialist plan of production would lay the basis for materially liberating women. Full employment with equal pay for equal work would give women economic freedom to leave abusive relationships and to be independent. Equal, well-paid maternity and paternity leave would mean the burden of child care wouldn’t fall disproportionately on women, whilst universal state-provided childcare and nurseries would remove barriers preventing mothers from pursuing an education or a career and so on. Men and women would be brought fully into the running of society as equals.

These are the conditions that would provide the material basis for genuine equality between men and women and remove the factors that have historically made women vulnerable to violence. This does not mean women’s oppression will disappear the day after the socialist revolution. Women's oppression has existed for thousands of years so it is very deep rooted, but once we do away with the material basis, these prejudices will wither away along with the violence they breed.

We cannot trust the police, who exist to serve the interests of the capitalists, to protect us and we cannot trust the courts of the ruling class to deliver us justice. The only way to challenge violence against women is through collective organisation from below. The student and trade union movements must campaign and organise until justice is served. This requires the unity of all workers, women and men. Students and workers of all genders are oppressed under capitalism, and their struggle needs to be linked on a class basis to end all oppression. It is through the struggle for reforms and progress, and to defend the hardwon gains of the past, that the working class learns and develops class consciousness. It is also through the class struggle that the working class sheds prejudices, including prejudices against women and their role in society.

We must demand and fight for many reforms: for the protection of women against violence; measures and action against sexual harassment and abuse and domestic violence; free child care; for equal pay for equal work; a job and house for everyone, and all other demands to better the lives of women and the working class.

However, we must understand that reforms under capitalism are always partial and temporary, especially in times of crisis. In order to eliminate oppression of women and all forms of violence and exploitation we must eliminate class oppression. The working class must overthrow capitalism, where the majority are exploited and dominated by a minority and lay the foundation for a classless society.

Imagine the kind of a society we could build if the means of production were collectively owned and democratically run to meet all of our needs. Once we have freed women and men from the mortifying competition for material things, which distorts and diminishes human relationships, we can create the social conditions for the establishment of real human relations between people. Only then can the relationship between women and men develop and flourish on the basis of genuine equality.