Istanbul, Turkey Turkish police fired tear gas and rubber bullets on Thursday to repel thousands of people, many of them women, who took to the streets of Istanbul to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
The protests, part of a week of nationwide mobilization, came amid calls for Turkey to rejoin the Istanbul Convention, a landmark agreement to protect women covering 45 countries and signed in Turkey’s largest city in 2011.
Turkey was the first country to sign the convention, but in July it was also the first to withdraw from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, claiming that the initiative had been “hijacked by a group of people trying to normalize homosexuality”.
Turkish women have held mass protests twice over the withdrawal, in March when Erdogan first announced his intention to withdraw, and again in July, when the move became official.
Erdogan has argued that existing laws in Turkey already provide adequate protection for women, but women’s rights groups in the country say the convention provided a roadmap for important legislation that the government has never fully implemented.
At least 285 women have been killed by men so far in 2021 in Turkey, according to the We Will Stop Femicide platform, a non-governmental organization that tracks such incidents and lobbies to prosecute murderers.
On Thursday, Turkey’s interior minister acknowledged that his own ministry’s statistics on homicide in the country showed that this year was about to exceed last year – with 251 women killed on November 15, compared to 268 in 2020 – but the government was working to get that figure. down.
“This is not just statistics, this is a matter of human life, and we need to address this issue quickly,” Süleyman Soylu said at a meeting to review a national reporting system for domestic violence. “We see violence against women as a humanitarian issue, and we can not tolerate even a loss of human life.”
But for many women in Turkey, the government’s claims that it is interested in protecting them are hard to believe, especially after it withdrew from the Istanbul Convention.
“Women are filling the streets of Turkey and around the world, increasing male violence,” 25-year-old Gokce of the Women’s Defense Network, an organization that connects women activists across the country, told Al Jazeera. Like many others at the protest on Thursday night, she also took part in the march in Istanbul in July. “We are on the streets to demand the right of women to defend themselves, to demand justice for women who were killed, for their right to work, for the rights of lesbian women.”
Gokce said the Istanbul Convention was the result of years of work by women’s rights activists, and that although Turkey never fully complied with its obligations, the withdrawal was a shock.
“Erdogan withdrew from the Istanbul Convention overnight, with the excuse that it spreads homosexuality,” she said. “Feminists wrote this convention and they fought to get it enforced. They went from one court to another to get it enforced and it is still not fully enforced in Turkey. It should not just be a man’s decision to withdraw the.”
“Victim of violence”
Hundreds of women gathered as Gokce spoke, shortly after sunset, near the southern end of the city’s most famous pedestrian street, Istiklal Avenue. Soon the crowd grew to several thousand, with three groups converging from three different directions under the watchful eye of hundreds of riot police blocking the way north to Taksim Square, the city’s traditional endpoint for political meetings.
“I came because I am a feminist, and I think there must be a women’s struggle in this country,” Hilal Akcan, 22, told Al Jazeera. “And I came because I believe the Istanbul Convention is necessary and to support my sisters.”
“I do not think they will let us march,” Akcan said, looking up at the street at the mass of riot shields and a double layer of metal barricades blocking the road. “They have already closed exits and entrances to get here, and I think we will march a little and then the police will intervene.”
Protests like this used to attract large, diverse crowds to mark occasions such as International Women’s Day, but since a failed coup attempt in 2016, the police have handled such public displays of dissent with an increasingly harsh hand.
Rising consumer prices and a devaluing Turkish lira sparked small protests across the country earlier this week, with police quickly intervening and imprisoning dozens of people in Istanbul on Wednesday night demanding the government resign.
During the protest against women’s rights on Thursday, participants also chanted slogans urging Erdogan to resign, along with placards and rhymes calling for the reunification of the Istanbul Convention, and an end to what many see as daily cases of brutal violence against women.
“Every day in our homes, on the streets, in our workplaces, we are exposed to violence,” said a woman who gave her name as just Nihal to Al Jazeera. “We’ve had enough.”
During the protest on Thursday, many women wore placards with the number “6284” on them, which referred to the name of the law that Erdogan’s government adopted in 2012 to implement the Istanbul Convention.
Among other measures, the law on the protection of the family and the prevention of violence against women made it easier to obtain a restraining order and required the construction of hundreds of special shelters for victims of domestic violence. Rights groups say that while some shelters were established, they fell far short of the hundreds that were intended to be made available. To keep the pressure on the government to pursue that law and other reforms, they say the Istanbul Convention needed to be kept in place.
However, President Erdogan has criticized feminists “who begin every sentence with the Istanbul Convention” for their calls to rejoin the agreement.
“We have completely removed the Istanbul Convention from our agenda because we already have the steps to be taken in this agreement in our own laws on the agenda,” he said on November 17 in Ankara.
As protesters continued up Istiklal Avenue on Thursday night, police gradually withdrew to allow them to march, but then, just a few hundred meters from where the rally began, they suddenly stopped. Hundreds of riot police gathered behind barricades, backed by half a dozen water cannon trucks and dozens of buses to transport potential prisoners. Groups of policemen fanned out with rubber pellet guns and launchers for tear gas containers, while others put on gas masks and fastened plastic ties from their belts.
The fight between police and protesters lasted for almost half an hour when protesters chanted “open the barricades!”
Moments later, the riot police took hold and fired rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at the sidewalk, beginning a gradual strike against the crowd until it was dispersed almost an hour later.