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Another woman killed as Turkey mulls abandoning Istanbul Convention

With the Turkish government considering exiting a convention on violence against women, the killing of a 27-year-old student has sparked nationwide protests
A demonstrator wearing a protective face mask, holds a placard reading 'stop femicides' during a protest called by KCDP (We Will Stop Femicides Platform - Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracagiz Platformu) and Women’s Assemblies, for a better implementation of the Istanbul Convention and the Turkish Law 6284 for protection of the family and prevention of violence against women, in Istanbul, Turkey (AFP)
A demonstrator holds a placard reading 'stop femicides' during a protest called by the We Will Stop Femicides Platform in Istanbul, Turkey (AFP)

Pinar Gutelkin was reported missing last week. The discovery of the 27-year-old student's body in the woods in southwestern Mugla province on Tuesday sparked renewed protests and outrage over what activists have dubbed a "femicide" epidemic in the country.

An autopsy revealed she had been strangled and her body stuffed in a barrel, which was then burned and had concrete poured on it. Cemal Metin Avci, her former partner, has been arrested for the murder.

'I am calling out to the whole of Turkey from here: enough is enough'

- Sidik Gultekin, victim's father

Headlines about the killings of young women in Turkey have become a grimly regular occurrence Turkey.

Gultekin joins Sule Cet, Rabia Naz Vatan, Aysun Yildirim, Ceren Ozdemir, Ozgecan Aslan and others in the long list of women and girls who were killed or died in suspicious circumstances in recent years.

Since 2012, the number of murdered women has more than doubled, according to monitoring groups and campaigners.

Speaking at her funeral in the district of Hizan in eastern Bitlis province on Thursday, her father said the epidemic of women being killed needed to end.

"I am calling out to the whole of Turkey from here: enough is enough," said Sidik Gultekin.

"Are we supposed to assign a guard to accompany every single girl student in Turkey? Can't a girl student go and study in a province where she wants? It is an atrocity. I am at a loss for words, I really am."

Although street protests over femicide are not uncommon, recent demonstrations have been further provoked by threats from members of the Turkish government to withdraw from the Council of Europe's 2011 Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

Protests spearheaded by the We Will Stop Femicide platform popped up in cities around Turkey on Tuesday.

Activists held banners showing the faces of Gultekin along with slogans such as "We don't want to die", echoing the last words of Emine Bulut, who was murdered in front of her 10-year-old daughter by her husband in 2019.

Others carried photos of Rabia Naz Vatan, the 11-year-old whose death in 2018 has been the subject of a long-running campaign by her father, who alleges a local government cover-up. Or of Gulistan Doku, who has been missing since January in Tunceli province, where officials have begun draining a lake to try and find her body.

Some held placards reading "the Istanbul Convention keeps you alive", while many activists and celebrities on social media also adorned their profile pictures with the slogan or similar slogans.

Most on social media tweeted Gultekin's photo with the word "enough".

Withdrawal

There has long been discontent among conservatives in Turkey over the Istanbul Convention and the related domestic Turkish Law 6284, which was passed in 2012.

Abdurrahman Dilipak, a popular conservative Islamist columnist in Turkey, has previously described the convention as a "a devil with an angel’s face" and said it was a "trap" that would lead to the destruction of the traditional family.

There has been criticism, in particular, over the convention's apparent support for LGBT rights.

'If the parliament tries to overturn the convention, I think women rights organisations will try and take it to the constitutional court to request its cancellation'

- Meline Cilingir, Mor Cati

On 2 July, Numan Kurtulmus, deputy chair of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said it was "wrong" for Turkey to have ratified the convention and indicated that Turkey might consider withdrawing.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also stated he would be willing to withdraw from the convention "if people want to".

Feminist groups and domestic violence organisations have reacted with outrage, pointing out statistics from We Will Stop Femicide that suggest at least 474 women were murdered in 2019 alone, even with the convention in force.

A spokesperson from Mor Cati, an organisation that has tackled violence against women since 1990 and is a member of the Istanbul Convention Monitoring Platform Turkey, said any attempt to withdraw from the treaty could face a legal challenge.

“According to the Turkish constitution, international agreements on human rights are above internal laws, so if the parliament tries to overturn the convention, I think women rights organisations will try and take it to the constitutional court to request its cancellation," lawyer and activist Meline Cilingir said, adding that Mor Cati would support any legal and non-legal protest against the withdrawal.

Cilingir told Middle East Eye the feminist movement in Turkey was "very strong" and would not easily accept any attempt to undermine the convention.

"We take the Istanbul Convention very personally - not just because Turkey was the first signatory of it, but also the Grevio committee (Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women) has been led by Turkish women for its first round and we have contributed a lot for both the ratification of the convention but also for its writing," she said, referring to a Council of Europe body overseeing women's rights.

"I think we take this very personally. Therefore, we have a very strong reaction against this withdrawal issue."

Rising public anger

The scale of public anger over the killing of Gultekin - compounded by the deaths of so many other women - has put pressure on the government and its supporters over the question of violence against women.

"The violent killing of Pinar Gultekin yesterday grieved us. I condemn all the crimes against women," Erdogan said in a statement shared on his Twitter account on Wednesday.

Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and close ally of Erdogan, said that there should be "zero tolerance for women's murders" and called for Law No. 6284 to be "fully implemented".

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There have also been signs of a rift over the issue within Erdogan's ranks.

The Women and Democracy Platform (Kadem), a women's organisation seen as close to the AKP and co-founded by Erdogan's daughter Sumeyye Erdogan Bayraktar in 2013, has publicly defended membership of the treaty.

Writing on his website, journalist and commentator Murat Yetkin said the conflict over the Istanbul Convention risked a greater rift in the AKP ranks, particularly from female voters.

"For years, Erdogan got more votes from women. Women wearing the Islamic headscarf were able to go to universities and workplaces. They were able to work to support themselves... it won’t be easy to tell them that to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention against violence against women is the best for them," he wrote.

Cilingir said that legally speaking, Turkey was actually fairly strong on the issue of violence against women and women's rights in general. The main problem, she said, stemmed from actually enforcing those laws and tackling sexist attitudes in the wider society.

"We need to introduce gender equality as a class in primary schools and middle schools, introduce rape crisis centres and 24/7 helplines for survivors of violence," she said.

"If we actually apply the '4 Ps' of the istanbul Convention - prevention, protection, prosecution and investigation and comprehensive policies - then I think we would be able to tackle this issue."