The Istanbul Convention: A Chronicle of the Feminist Struggle


Since the 1970s, feminists around the world have been struggling to put male violence against women at the forefront of political agendas. These early efforts didn’t only increase our awareness and equip us with notions we continue to use today, but also paved the way for critical transformations and mechanisms in addressing male violence against women. By setting up safe houses and solidarity centres for abused women, feminist methods proved effective in fending off male violence and helping women start new lives. Such feminist struggles and notions combined, have provided systems for identifying violence and have further sought to eliminate gender inequality – a root cause of male violence.

Along with introducing the most encompassing definition on the prevention of male violence against women, the Istanbul Convention became the first legally binding instrument on this matter. Turkey’s acquaintance with the Istanbul Convention started after a femicide case was brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In this case, the state failed to protect the applicant Nahide Opuz, who was subjected to years of prolonged violence at the hands of her husband. The insensitivity displayed by both the police and the judiciary to repeated death threats from the husband towards Opuz and her mother had eventually resulted in a lethal armed attack, leaving Opuz’s mother dead. In the case of Opuz v. Turkey, for the first time, the Court found that a government denied a woman the right of life by failing to prevent male violence against women. This judgment was also a ground-breaking one since it elaborated the nature of state obligations with respect to the prevention of violence against women and measure to protect women against violence. When the Istanbul Convention was introduced for signature in Istanbul in 2011, Turkey became the first signatory and the first country to ratify the Convention. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government repeatedly benefitted from the Convention, using it to burnish its international prestige and never shied away from presenting it as yet more evidence of its determination to tackle violence against women. The Convention also served as a benchmark for Law No. 6284, which was adopted in 2012. Law No. 6284, or the Law on the Protection of Family and Prevention of Violence Against Women in its full name, aims to protect women, children, family members and victims of stalking who have been subjected to violence or are at risk of violence. The law also seeks to regulate procedures and principles regarding preventive measures on violence against these individuals. As its title clearly indicates, rather than putting an emphasis on gender inequality, the law seeks to protect the family. Yet, despite its pitfalls, the law still provides for much needed support and mechanisms facilitating women escaping the violence trap and continues to play a vital role for many women.

While treaties and laws are primarily legal texts binding states, they aren’t isolated from social struggles. The Istanbul Convention is one of these legal texts imbued with experiences gained from women’s decades-long struggle against male violence across the world as well as in Turkey. Legal battles over such rights have consistently been a critical component of women’s fight against male violence in Turkey. Similarly, keeping a close watch on the rights acquired over time has also been an essential element of these struggles. In the case of the Istanbul Convention, unlike other countries, feminists in Turkey didn’t feel the need to resort to campaigning, as other dynamics such as Turkey-EU relations had been serving as the driving force for ratification. The battle fought by women’s associations in Turkey was, however, an entirely different one: Campaigning for the implementation of the Convention against a self-boasting state. It has always been an uphill battle since putting up a fight against the significant gap between the treaties and legal frameworks and their implementation in Turkey also means a fight for the truth. Thus, one of the critical tasks before the civil society is extensive monitoring and reporting in order to expose how access to pledged rights still largely remains an illusion.

International treaties also give certain leverage to civic actors and women’s movement in Turkey in their efforts to overcome entrenched resistance to policy and practice changes. In this connection, one must also emphasize the uniqueness of the Istanbul Convention comes not only from its role as the most far-reaching convention in tackling violence against women, but also from its conviction which rightfully identifies gender inequality as the root cause of male violence against women, and therefore, points to the need for structural change. Thanks to feminists’ unwavering efforts in Turkey and elsewhere, violence against women has finally become a mainstream issue and compelled states to accept their responsibility. Yet, this mainstreaming also fostered enormous divergences in the analysis of violence. That is, in this crowded realm, approaches dismissing the very notion of gender do not only obfuscate dynamics engendering violence against women, but also sap much of the vitality of the struggle against it. While conservative neo-liberal countries such as Turkey continue to introduce policies seeking to normalise gender roles and replace gender inequality with family policies; in other countries, gender-neutral practices are on the rise. It is precisely for this reason the emphasis on gender inequality in the definitions section of the Istanbul Convention remains a critical tool for rights defenders.

Since the Convention’s inception, women’s organisations in Turkey have been actively struggling for effective implementation and pushing public authorities to adopt women-friendly policies by making direct references to the Convention’s provisions. As a matter of fact, the battle for the Istanbul Convention in Turkey began with women’s organisations putting pressure on the government for the implementation of its provisions at much earlier dates. Even before the Convention’s entry into force in 2014, women were calling on the government to live up to its obligations to ensure the compatibility of existing practices with the Convention and identified a number of gaps and challenges in doing so. Notwithstanding, several initial steps, including the adoption of Law No. 6284, taken towards harmonisation, however, in the ensuing days, we observed a persistent failure to put these steps into practice as well as severe implementation problems. Thus, as the gap between the law and its implementation continues to loom large, monitoring efforts are now even more pressing. In this vein, one of the most critical components of these efforts was the shadow reports submitted to GREVIO, an expert body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Istanbul Convention.

While the Turkish state ratified conventions on addressing violence against women and enacted new legislative framework, at the same time, it has not stopped reproducing discourses and practices that seek to pull women back into traditional roles. In recent years, we also witnessed how the state and other male groups mounted sustained attacks on women’s vested rights. The most recent attacks on the Istanbul Convention are yet another example of these efforts. By circulating spurious claims, such as the Convention aims to undermine traditional family structure and promotes homosexuality, these groups were never shy to launch campaigns for Turkey’s withdrawal from the Convention. The AKP’s family policies have always been in contradiction with the Istanbul Convention and even law 6284, as they both provide space for women’s wills to determine their own rights. The rising discomfort among the AKP’s conservative men regarding the vested rights of women has motivated the AKP to withdraw from the convention. With government officials’ remarks, stating these demands shall be debated, we have, once again, witnessed how misogynist rhetoric can easily gain a solid foothold at the state level. 

Yet, this hostility toward the Convention also fuelled an unprecedented response. That is, not only women’s organisations and rights defenders, but also broader segments of the society including women in the AKP, have raised their voices in support of the Istanbul Convention, and demanded its effective implementation. As femicide and other forms of violence against women in Turkey remain burning issues, the government’s move to prompt a discussion on the Convention, in which the primary objective is tackling violence against women, was perceived as a threat posed to fundamental rights and freedoms. For the first time, the state’s failure to fulfil its core obligations in preventing violence against women, a problem repeatedly raised by women’s organisations, was articulated by the broader public, and signs of backing the Convention laboured this point. Large masses adopted a wide range of activism tactics and strategies such as generating content or sharing videos on social media where they read the Convention’s provisions aloud. Moreover, women’s organisations also took various actions, including social media campaigns and street protests. Thus, the mobilisation of public support for an international convention on such a scale was, by all means, an unprecedented achievement.

As rising authoritarianism narrows the space for civil society in Turkey, protesting women are the only dissident group that continues to take to the streets. Even though police tried to prevent Istanbul Convention protests, women came together with anger and rebellion. Women's demands for their own lives, which encompass all women, do not fit into the discriminatory discourse the state often uses to marginalize the opposition. For this reason, it continues to influence politics from the street while maintaining its legitimacy. 

We have seen all these discussions create a divergence within the AKP. Women from the AKP, especially KADEM, a government-organized non-governmental organization founded by high profile women from the AKP, were uncomfortable with the misogynist attitude within their party, and even shared their discomfort with the public by supporting the convention. Opponents of the convention have taken the matter as far as insulting these women. This increased the discomfort within the party and strengthened the position of women in this discussion. Women from KADEM and the AKP changed the conversation on homophobic and transphobic discourse produced against the anti-discrimination clause of the treaty, saying the treaty was not limited to this clause, though, however, they maintained their anti-LGBTİ+ position. This stance has brought the discussion to the axis of reservations about the related article (no. 4/3). On August 13th, in a long speech by Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he began by explaining what he had done for women during his years in power, before taking down those who insulted AKP women and ending by saying that we needa local and national contract.” While this speech silenced opponents of the convention, it left questions about what the local and national convention might be.

With the AKP’s constituents and several members of the party joining the objections raised by the public at large, plans for discussing the fate of the Convention in a cabinet meeting have been shelved, at least for now. Yet, past experiences indicate it would be very likely for authorities to rake up this old quarrel when confronted with similar conditions in the future. Given the rise of authoritarianism and the shrinking civic space in Turkey, it is, however, possible to argue proponent’s success in mobilising public support for the Convention inspires hope. Since violence against women continues to draw wide condemnation in public realms, it has contributed greatly to the formation of a broad consensus. Similarly, a large fraction of the public, including municipalities, women’s organisations, civil society organisations, media, celebrities, and artists, have joined forces to seal an alliance for an international convention and, once again, reiterated that such instruments aren’t merely texts affording legal mechanisms, but also carry a symbolic significance for rights and freedoms. Although there is now a greater emphasis on the relationship between violence and inequality thanks to debates over the Convention, it is still hard to tell whether feminists’ fundamental argument – i.e. that traditional family structures and gender roles are the root causes of male violence – is embraced by the broader public. Thus, this gap allows us to see discourses on violence against women are often defensive, rather than empowering, and thereby have a potential to restrict women to traditional gender roles. Articulating the systemic and historical nature of persistent inequality between women and men during the Istanbul Convention debates was a remarkable achievement for feminists. On the other hand, eliminating gender inequality is a protracted battle. This is why all feminists across the world persevere in their commitment to continue the fight.