Despite a pandemic and unwelcoming circumstances, women’s decades-long struggle to achieve more rights and equal status in Turkish society continues. During this year’s International Women’s Day, Turkish women took to the streets to protest worrisome femicide trends, discrimination, and a lack of representation in higher office. Despite police pushing back protesters and restricting access to the protesters in central Istanbul, Al Jazeera reports, the crowd (mostly women) marched on.
Turkish women have been largely left out of their country’s decision-making process, both inside and outside politics. These trends have recently begun to improve. “In 2007, only 9.4 percent of Turkish ambassadors were women,” Balkan Insight reports. “That rose to 25 percent by 2020 … In 2007 only 9.1 per cent of the 600 Turkish parliamentarians were women, but in 2020 this rose to 17.3 per cent.” While these trends do appear promising, women in Turkish society still remain underrepresented.
While most Women’s Day protests in Turkey have been peaceful, some have turned violent at times partially due to the use of force by authorities. According to Al-Jazeera, during International Women’s Day 2019, police “fired tear gas at thousands of people who gathered in central Istanbul for a march to celebrate International Women’s Day in defiance of a protest ban.” In 2016, there was a similar incident in which some women were attacked while protesting against women’s violence. Clearly, this is not new. What is new is that more of these issues are being put in the spotlight, in part due to social media and investigative reporting. Both involve lots of risks, given that Turkey has cracked down on journalists before.
“In 2020, 408 women were murdered,” Balkan Insight reports, “and hundreds of others assaulted by men … as of March 8 this year, 68 women have been murdered by men, meaning more than one murder for each day in the first quarter of the year.” This is worrying enough, but there has also been a distinct lack of action by Turkish authorities. If women have been protesting against femicide and violence they face for many years, Turkish authorities have not done enough to resolve the issue.
One possible explanation for this is Turkey’s male-dominated society, which may make it difficult to advance these issues. Another closely related factor includes societal norms. Women in Turkey are expected to have more traditional roles rather than seeking office or being executives like their male counterparts. These factors combined make it challenging for women to make advancements in society without facing scrutiny, sexism, and discrimination.
Other persisting issues under this umbrella include domestic violence. A 2019 article by an O.W.P. correspondent notes that Turkey “is a nation that enforces a visible division between femininity and masculinity, encourages inequality and validates discrimination [and violence] against women.” This falls in line with current trends, which have either failed to improve or have outright worsened in the past two years.
One would expect that reporting domestic violence would help, but in Turkish society, women who report such things “are blamed, shamed and murdered.” The country’s leadership, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has also played a role in discouraging women from coming forward. The aforementioned O.W.P. article notes that in 2016, Erdogan commented that “the role of women is to bear children and those who cannot or chose not to are deficient.”
“For Turkey to overcome the gender issue and put a stop to domestic violence, cultural, political and mental mindsets must change first of all,” the O.W.P. article says, “and secondly effective and efficient implementation of the laws must be observed.” This is an important start, but Turkish lawmakers and authorities must also lay out a concrete plan that will take on women’s violence, discrimination, and femicide.
Earlier this March, Erdoğan announced a “Human Rights Action Plan” that would place Turkey in a better position in terms of international affairs, relationships with Western countries, and improve the country’s image overall. The plan is lacking in many key issues, such as its failure to firmly address freedom of expression violations, journalist crackdowns, and democracy in the country. Women’s rights and protections are also notably absent from and/or not firmly addressed in this plan. If Erdoğan wants to improve his country and elevate its image, addressing femicide and women’s violence is a place he can begin. Simply condemning the issue will not be enough, because what many will want to see is an action plan demonstrating that authorities have a way to handle the issue.
Additionally, the “effective and efficient implementation of the laws” is another crucial step in addressing femicide and violence. For this to happen, the Turkish judicial branch must be reformed such that there is little to no political influence on the process. This will help to ensure transparency for women seeking justice. Another step is to increase support for women that have been victims of violence and destigmatizing the topic. In a male-dominated society, this will be a challenge, but remaining consistent about the message, launching support groups, and having more oversight in the courts are key steps to ensure accountability.
Despite the crackdowns on freedom of expression, social media continues to be a powerful tool in bringing light to the issues women face in Turkey. Support groups, organizations, and message campaigns can use this tool to highlight the violences women face to a broader society. The more people know about women’s struggles, the more likely other members of society will take notice. The government can attempt to crack down on this messaging, but given both how widespread social media is and the speed of online message campaigns, it will be increasingly difficult for the Turkish government and legislators to ignore the calls for women’s rights.
It is possible to change the concerning trends women face in Turkey, but it will require an effort by both the government and the people to make it happen. There must be more specific and targeted legislation that addresses these issues, and society must acknowledge the great challenges women must face in their everyday lives. Social media and judiciary reforms are by no means the only ways to address this, but these lead in the right direction. More scrutiny will make it harder to ignore the issue, and failure to properly address it may bring more unwanted international attention, which will concern Turkey’s allies and foreign relations. Without concrete action by authorities, these trends will not only continue, but will become “normalized.”
The exclusion of women’s rights from Erdoğan’s Human Rights Action Plan signals a continued failure to address femicide and violence. These trends are not linked to one single reason, but rather a combination of factors, such as the country’s society’s expectations for women, what the government leadership thinks about the issue, and the stigma that women face when they come forward about these issues. A modest increase in women holding leadership positions is a step in the right direction, but a greater increase in female legislators or governors may help to bring more attention to the issue, although this is dependent on how willing Turkish society is to accept the new leadership. The widespread use of social media is one way to bring the issue to more audiences, but it will need to be combined with government reform, including, but not limited to, judicial reform, laws that punish those who commit femicide, protection for women who come forward about their experiences, and overall transparency in the judicial and legislative process. Implementing these steps is a crucial step in reducing women’s violence, discrimination, femicide, and shifting away from traditional society norms towards ones that encourage accountability.