Feminists meet virtually across borders to resist the attacks on the Istanbul Convention -15.10.2020

Nearly 200 women from fifteen countries met online on October 15 to coordinate resistance to right-wing groups’ and governments’ attacks on the Istanbul Convention, which is the short name for the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

The Women’s Platform for Equality, Turkey (EŞİK, Eşitlik İçin Kadın Platformu) organized this meeting as the first step towards establishing a transnational feminist network that would support women’s groups across borders and enable them to carry out their activities within their own countries more effectively. Such a network would also unify national and local efforts and make them heard and recognized at international forums and intergovernmental organizations. The meeting focused on the Istanbul Convention, which has been increasingly under attack in several countries.

The meeting brought together 170 women from 15 countries, including: Turkey, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria, Finland, Estonia, Slovakia, Georgia, Germany, Austria, England, Spain, Canada and the United States. Fatma Aytaç and Efsa Kuraner from EŞİK, moderated the event.

Opening the first part of the meeting, moderator Fatma Aytaç emphasized the need “to carry our struggle beyond borders and collaborate and fight jointly with the international women’s move-ment.” She said, “We will continue to defend our rights and lives, and strive to make the Istanbul Convention a worldwide cornerstone of gender equality.” Presentations on the situation in five countries showed that the arguments used against the Istanbul Convention in each country are prac-tically the same. Noting these ideological commonalities, meeting participants emphasized the need to act together to counter the attacks on the Convention and on gender equality.

Professor Feride Acar, former chairperson of GREVIO, the independent expert body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Convention, opened the proceedings with an overall assessment of the implementation of Istanbul Convention. Acar discussed some improvements made after the Convention took effect, but also drew attention to some challenges and persistent failures in implementation. While the Convention brought about positive legal changes in many countries, such as the introduction of new categories of crime and sanctions in penal codes, she noted that in several countries the political will to implement the Convention remained weak. Acar stressed that in such cases, public financial resources allocated for the implementation of the Convention have been inadequate and the project-based activities that exist have limited sustainability. Following Acar, speakers from Turkey, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Croatia reported on the situation in their own countries.

Özlem Altıok, a feminist scholar and EŞİK co-founder, emphasized the historic importance of this transnational meeting. She stated that the significance of the Istanbul Convention flows from its recognition of the prevention of violence against women as “a public and political problem that must be addressed and which thus calls for public resources and political will.” Turkey was the first country to sign and ratify the Convention in 2011 – with the unanimous vote of members of parliament, including those from Erdoğan’s still-reigning ruling party. Altıok pointed out that the ruling party’s recent announcements that Turkey was considering withdrawal from the Convention have fueled attacks on it – attacks that are based on misrepresentations of the treaty as undermining the “family” and “promoting homosexuality.” Altıok reiterated that the Convention is not about either of these but about preventing violence against women and domestic violence. She suggested that the group produce a common statement to demonstrate feminists’ resolve to work together across borders to defend women’s hard-won rights and promote gender equality.

Rada Borić, a feminist scholar, activist and a newly elected member of the Croatian Parliament, began her speech with an account of the September 23 request by seven feminist activists in the Croatian parliament that their fellow parliamentarians observe a moment of silence to honor women killed in femicides. Although Croatia ratified the Istanbul Convention, a coalition of right-wing politicians, the Catholic Church, and well-funded organizations from outside Croatia, which are all against women’s and LGBTI+ rights and claim that the Convention would harm the family, has led a campaign to withdraw from the Convention. The Croatian government issued an “interpretative declaration” to satisfy its conservative domestic base, which argues against the incorporation of “gender ideology” into the country’s legal and educational systems. Borić argued that since those who oppose the Convention imitate the tactics of feminists, women should focus on devising more creative actions, such as ‘The Handmaid’s Tale protest’ carried out by women in front of Croatia’s parliament, to draw attention to the dangers of a dystopic society in which women are controlled by a totalitarian and religious government.

Genoveva Tisheva, Bulgarian feminist, UN CEDAW Committee member (2019-2022), and chair of the most recently established Working Group on Gender Based Violence Against Women, related the Bulgarian Constitutional Court’s 2018 decision, which found the Istanbul Convention unconstitutional. Among other things, the Court stated that the Convention’s definition of gender as a social construct “relativises the boundary between the two sexes and thus risks complicating the fight against violence against women.” Tisheva discussed the flawed and arbitrary nature of this decision. She also discussed the efforts of Bulgarian women’s organizations to continue to assist survivors of domestic violence and to ratify the Convention, but pointed to the challenges on both fronts. She suggested joint actions, such as organizing a meeting of experts from countries where movements against the Convention are strong, as well as issuing joint reports.

Réka Sáfrány, Chair of the Hungarian Women’s Lobby, discussed the regression in women’s rights, the promotion of “family” instead of “gender equality,” and the increasing opposition, especially since 2017, to the Istanbul Convention in her country. She explained how the Hungarian government’s anti-immigration approach and opposition to the Convention converge. The Hungarian government formed a group of experts on domestic violence but excluded experts from women’s organizations. However, the government consults representatives of men’s rights and fathers’ rights NGOs that actually include perpetrators of violence against women. Sáfrány noted that the government tries to create the impression that both sides have equal weight and exploited the conflict between these sides. Taking advantage of the pandemic lockdown, when women could not protest on the streets, the Hungarian Parliament adopted a political declaration that mentions women’s and children’s rights but rejects the Istanbul Convention. Pointing out how governments in different countries tend to “copy and paste” from one another, Sáfrány suggested that further transnational meetings, like this inaugural one organized by EŞİK, should be held to illustrate women’s shared interests and solidarity.

Ursula Nowakowska, founder and head of the Women’s Rights Centre and co-founder of Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE), stated that the Polish government had also recently announced that it was considering withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention, which it had signed in 2012 and ratified in 2015. She explained that the government had referred the Convention for review by the Constitutional Court, whose members are appointed by the government. Nowakowska noted that legislation regarding women’s rights has been shaped by the upward trend of conservativism in Poland and that the struggle between the government and women’s rights groups mainly centers on two issues: domestic violence and reproductive rights. In Poland, opponents of the Convention invoke “Polish values,” claiming that the Convention undermines the “traditional family,” encourages same-sex marriages, and paves the way to the adoption of children by LGBTIQ+ parents. At the same time, groups such as Ordo Iuris and Christian Social Congress spearhead a “citizens’ legislative initiative” to demand that Poland withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. These groups aim to pass a “Family Rights Agreement” instead of the Istanbul Convention. The group is seeking to collect 100,000 signatures to place such a motion on the parliamentary agenda.

The meeting continued as an open forum moderated by EŞİK member Efsa Kuraner. Kuraner highlighted “the similarities between women’s struggles within their own countries’ and their governments’ attempts to erase women as individuals and market the idea of the heterosexual family as the only legitimate and worthy way to live.” This forum revealed the commonality of the themes, arguments and strategies of the right-wing attacks on the Convention carried out in all five countries. Forum participants shared their experiences, suggested actions and strategies to defend women’s rights, and underlined the need to increase transnational cooperation and solidarity among women’s groups to promote gender equality.

EŞİK member Zehra Kabasakal Arat, a feminist scholar, offered closing remarks. She underscored the need to go beyond reacting to daily attacks on different rights from different directions, treat these as systematic attacks, and be proactive. She stressed the need to design a plan of action that would pressure national parliaments and governments to follow universal values and the principle of equality in human dignity, and also pressure intergovernmental organizations to take gender equality seriously. Noting that “no struggle for equality, justice and human rights has been easy or complete,” she added that women’s task has been rendered even more difficult by “the rise of overtly hostile, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic groups to power.” Reiterating the calls for solidarity and joint action voiced by participants throughout the meeting, she concluded: “We all leave this meeting with renewed hope, inspiration, energy, and commitment. Acting in sisterhood and transnational solidarity, we will continue to challenge our challengers.”

Women’s Platform for Equality, Turkey
October 20, 2020