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Pulling Out of the Istanbul Convention: Women’s Rights and Homosexuality in the New Turkey

Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

Ten years ago, on 11 May 2011, the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence was opened for signature in Istanbul and subsequently this human rights treaty has become popularly known as the Istanbul Convention. A year later, 12 March 2012, Turkey became the first country to ratify the convention, and was then followed by 33 other countries in the period 2013-2019 – from Albania and Belgium to Sweden and Switzerland.

Last month, the leader of Turkey’s opposition Republican People’s Party (or CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu received a rather unexpected honour as a group of 13 LGBT individuals, with a certain Beray Göksu Eroğlu acting as their spokesperson, declared that they had “proclaimed the esteemed Kılıçdaroğlu to be an honorary member of the LGBT family” (12 April 2021). This admittedly somewhat strange act came about after Kılıçdaroğlu had defended LGBT individuals as posing no threat for the family or family values in Turkey on live television. And, family values are once again in the spotlight in the New Turkey, through the lens of women’s rights and the ongoing violence against women in the land.

Femicide in the New Turkey: Atatürk, the Champion of Women’s Rights

For, “Turkey has withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention,” as announced by the news agency Reuters: Turkey’s first popularly elected President took it upon himself to have his country pull out of the agreement in the midnight hour (19/20 March 2021). In the wee hours of Saturday (20 March), Reuters‘ Tuvan Gümrükçü and Jonathan Spicer wrote that the “Council of Europe accord, called the Istanbul Convention, pledged to prevent, prosecute and eliminate domestic violence and promote equality. Turkey signed it in 2011, but femicide has surged in the country in recent years,” adding that “[n]o reason was provided for the withdrawal in the Official Gazette, where it was announced in the early hours on Saturday.” The obvious-albeit-hidden rationale behind this drastic move seems to be the unending hatred for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) felt by Turkish (and other) Islamists. For, in Turkey, many (but not all) women do regard Atatürk as the ultimate champion of women’s rights – for he had been the one to break the shackles of the Sharia replacing god’s law with a secular civil code (1926): “The full emancipation of Turkish women took place after the proclamation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. This was because Atatürk made the advancement of women a central aim of his social, religious and legal reforms by means of which he transformed Turkey into a Western Democracy,” as expressed by Mehmet Birbiri, the host-nation advisor for the 39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs at Turkey’s İncirlik. Birbiri summarizes the nation’s founding father’s impact on women’s rights in the following succinct manner:

[Abolishing the Sharia] was the most important of Ataturk’s reforms which tremendously effected the status of Turkish women. Providing equality before the law, it also replaced religious marriage with civil marriage, made polygamy illegal and gave women equal rights of inheritance, guardianship of children and divorce. Previously, Turkish men could have as many as four wives at a time, and divorce them at will with no recourse or legal action. In 1934, the Election Law passed giving women the rights of election. In the next elections held in 1935, 18 women deputies were elected to the Grand National Assembly.

The Islamist attacks on the figure and the memory of Atatürk have been unrelenting in the New Turkey. Ever since the Justice and Development Party (or AKP) came to power in  2002, the government has been chipping away at the the Kemalist legacy and since 2014, the figure of Atatürk has been largely replaced by that of Tayyip Erdoğan (aka the Prez) in the official iconography of the Republic of Turkey. Last year’s reconversion of the Mosque of Ayasofya marked the “the starting shot of the countdown to 2023 . . . which will be the year the world will learn whether . . . Erdoğan is the man who can and will really bring back Islamic rule to Turkey.”

Rather than coming right out and admitting the real reason behind the sudden pull out, the AKP government has devised an ingenious rationale worded by the Presidency’s Directorate of Communications:

The Istanbul Convention, originally intended to promote women’s rights, was hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality – which is incompatible with  [Turkey]’s social and family values. Hence the decision to withdraw . . . The decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention by no means denotes that the State of the Republic of [Turkey] “compromises the protection of women.”  [The Republic of Turkey] will not give up on its fight against domestic violence by quitting the Convention. In relation to the issue, President Erdoğan strongly emphasizes that [the Republic of Turkey] will continue protecting the safety and the rights of all women and underlines that fighting domestic violence with the principle of zero tolerance will remain on top of the government’s agenda.

New Turkey’s Piety and Homosexuality

Nearly a year ago now, on 24 April 2020, Dr Ali Erbaş, the Director of the Diyanet (or Directorate of Religious Affairs) said in a Friday Sermon that “Islam curses homosexuality. What is the reason of that? The reason is that it brings with it illnesses and decay to lineage.” As such, the 21st-century Sheikh-ul-Islam (Şeyhülislam) appears to object to homosexual behaviour as, by definition, such sexual relations do not lead to the continuation of the species or human procreation. On this issue, the Quran says: “Wealth and children are the adornment of this worldly life” (18:46). These succinct words ever so subtly convey that predestination and the acquisition of god’s favour are the bedrock of religion in the New Turkey: the believe that god rewards true believers. This Quranic verse all but exemplifies the AKP approach to Sunnification. On the one hand, Turkey’s Islamist rulers are on best terms with the country’s business community, with avarice oftentimes combining with outright corruption, nepotism or the gratuitous display of wealth and opulence. At the same time, the AKP leadership busily advocates the pursuit of offspring as a sacred duty, which quite naturally translates into the propagation of traditional (or polygamous) family values and the condemnation of alternative modes of sexual self-expression and fulfillment.

In connection with the issue predestination or predeterminism or what as it is called in Turkish, kadercilik (most commonly translated as fatalism), the Middle East specialist Dr Andreas Krieg mentions the work and influence of the Arab historian and polymath Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406):

According to Ibn Khaldun a fatalistic vicious circle develops where one [state] demises as it attains a certain level in favour of an upcoming [state], which will demise as it attains a certain level of development.

The Ottomans had been well aware of Khaldun’s anthropomorphic imagery and verdict (from birth to death) and tried hard to break this ‘evolutionary’ circle. The Ottoman historian Mustafa Naima Efendi (1655-1716) first popularized this mode of thinking in an Ottoman or Turkish context and in the New Turkey, the name Ibn Khaldun has once again crept up – the Ibn Haldun University’s (IHU), for instance, was set up in Istanbul’s district of Başakşehir in 2017. Rather than simply accepting Ibn Khaldun’s verdict that the Ottoman state was bound to wither and die, Naima suggested that this vicious circle could be broken by a skillful leader, which in his case was none that his patron Amcazade Hüseyin Paşa (1644-1702). In the 21st century, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is supposed to be the one to break the circle and guide the state’s ship into safe and secure waters, the safe and secure waters of the Islamic faith. And advocating god, or rather, Allah’s will is in this context, but a prerequisite for success and glory. For, the upshot of the above-quoted Quranic verse is that worldly success (and abundant offspring) denote divine favour and sanction. In fact, the Prez all but builds upon his politico-religious base – the Naqshbandi order and M. Zahit Kotku (1897-1980), the founder of the influential İskenderpaşa lodge. Kotku thought that “building an Islamic society was impossible without an Islamic capital.” The foundation of MÜSIAD in 1990, as a “religious business association,” established by a “group of young and well-educated business people with strong Islamic orientation” also came about as a result of the growing influence of the Naqshi way on the affairs of the state and the development of business opportunities.

Whereas, Erdogan and his AKP cohort can easily find Quranic sanction for their open pursuit of neoliberal economic policies and their seemingly endless avarice, “there is no prescribed [punishment or even] execution for homosexuality in the Quran or in Islamic law. Instead, [Islamic] scholars say, the Quran implies that retribution is in the hands of God,” as worded by the Christian Science Monitor‘s Taylor Luck. In other words, Dr Ali Erbaş’s anti-gay position seems to have been more political than religious in nature.

Mythologizing the Past: Family-Loving Ottomans

Turkey’s Minister for the Interior Süleyman Soylu appears to be a very popular and hence powerful politician in the land, with some even seeing him as a possible successor to Tayyip Erdoğan in years to come. And last month, this popular Soylu appeared on television to make some very serious statements, very serious statements that painted a purely heterosexual picture of the Ottoman past, while repeating the oft-heard trope that perversions from the West are to blame for the moral (and sexual) breakdown of Turkish society:

[This thing] known as LGBT, which does not fit with out values and does not comply with our territories, is a phenomenon that has been presented to us by the West. Were there things like LGBT in our past? There were, but we don’t know. These are things that happen in the West.

On a purely semantic level, Soylu is somewhat correct as the term ‘homosexuality,’ which has now evolved into the unwieldy acronym LGBT (or LGBTQ), was apparently coined in or around the year 1868 by the Austro-Hungarian journalist and man of letters Károly Mária Kertbeny (formerly Karl-Maria Benkert, d.1882). As expressed by Dr İrvin Cemil Schick, “the German term Homosexualität is itself both modern and Western.” The late appearance of the term does not mean that homosexual relations and/or activity should be seen as a fairly modern or even Western practice. Soylu’s words of moral outrage are also repeated by many popular Islamic figures currently populating Turkey’s media landscape and influencing public opinion. The popular television preacher Cübbeli Ahmet Efendi (which is a pseudonym adopted by Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü), for instance, last year came out saying that “[t]his agreement [referring to the Istanbul Convention] legitimizes homosexual relationships,” going on to describe homosexuality as a “movement of corruption and depravity.” And as a result, Ünlü argued for the outright “abolition” of the “agreement.” The popular preacher spoke these words at the Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi Vakfı, a religious foundation established on the grounds of the tomb (or türbe) of the saintly figure of Mahmud Hudayi (1541–1628), located in the district of Üsküdar (on İstanbul’s Anatolian shoreline), a location with a particular pious flavour as in Ottoman times the annual holy pilgrimage to Mecca (or the Hajj) started here, which in turn led many members of the Ottoman family as well as grandees and dignitaries to erect mosques and other structures with a special religious function. Though he might have the appearance of a outright clown and harmless buffoon, Cübbeli Ahmet is an influential figure in today’s Turkey whose presence on the nation’s television screens and internet assures him of a captive audience. At the same time, as an apprentice (or, mürid) of the Naqshi sheikh Mahmut Ustaosmanoğlu (born 1929), his close ties to the notorious İsmailağa Mosque and community in Fatih (Istanbul), an offshoot of the Naqshbandi brotherhood, are also well-known. This Naqshi connection also explains why this figure is more than just tolerated by the AKP establishment, which itself is part and parcel of the whole Naqshi complex as I have explained in detail back in 2018.

Whereas Cübbeli represents popular Islam in the New Turkey, Mehmet Boynukalın, the Head Preacher of the recently re-converted Ayasofya Mosque, represents the legalistic (or scholarly) and official version of the faith in the state – known as the İlmiyye in the Ottoman tradition. In fact, one could say that Boynukalın is a member of the New Turkey’s ulema (the plural of the noun alim, commonly spelt as ‘ulama’ in English transliteration and referring to the “the learned of Islam, those who possess the quality of ʿilm, ‘learning,’ [or knowledge or scholarship] in its widest sense”). In the New Turkey, this class of ‘the learned of Islam’ is incorporated into the office of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (known as the Diyanet, in Turkish): “in Ottoman times, the population [of Istanbul] looked to the Ayasofya for guidance, where the sermons delivered on Fridays carried special meaning, as the figure of the preacher had been appointed by the palace,” as I explained earlier. And today, Boynukalın eagerly plays the part. A few hours after Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, Ayasofya’s Head Preacher took to social media happily tweeting the following: “The Istanbul Convention has been abrogated. Praised be god. May Allah be pleased.” For all intents and purposes, Boynukalın appeared to have been trying to become a latter-day Vani Mehmed Efendi (d. 1685), the preacher who had a hold in the city’s population as well as Sultan Mehmed IV (1648-87) and his retinue in the latter part of the 17th century. Alas, the 21st-century preacher’s ambitions appear to have backfired as he suddenly (was forced to) abandon(ed) public life to return to the world of academia, promulgating the news of his decision on social media on 8 April 2021, specifically citing the controversy surrounding the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention as one of the reasons.

“The Guard of the Harem” oil on panel by Rudolf Ernst (Austria, 1854–1932) Image courtesy of Artnet.

Reinterpreting the Past: Lustful Turks

The AKP interpretation of the Ottoman past as a heterosexual preserve couched in traditional (or polygamous) family units reduces human interactions and relationships to the production of offspring, with women being relegated to the care of the children in the house, while men run society and accumulate status, power and riches. As if men and women did not interact in the past and do not in the present either, effectively dividing the world into harem and selamlık sections with women and children occupying the first and men the latter. As a result, this Ottoman image of the past is presented as an icon of moral rectitude for the present and the future. In this way, the AKP imagination has turned the Ottomans into pious adherents observing the strictest strict segregation of the sexes as proscribed in Islam. On the other hand, a strict segregation of the sexes cannot but lead to a proliferation of same-sex relations (and relationships): “In polygynous societies females are put at premium, and virtually all marry. Homosexual relations are especially likely to happen in a single-sex setting, where contact with members of the opposite sex is entirely cut off, or when females are segregated and guarded,” as related by the anthropologist Dr Jelena Čvorović. The Ottoman centuries contain ample proof for Dr Čvorović’s thesis.

In the 15th century, for example, the Ottoman poet Mercimek Aḥmed (aka Merd̲j̲ümek or Ahmed b. İlyas, late 14th/early 15th century) produced a translation of an eleventh-century Persian book of counsel known as Qābūs-nāma (Book of Qābūs). This so-called ‘mirror for princes’ had been composed by Kay Kāʾūs b. Iskandar, a king of the short-lived Western Persian dynasty called the Ziyarids, containing advice for his favourite son. The King gave his son the following advice regarding the conduct of sexual relations:

In the Summer, lean towards women, and in the Winter, towards boys, so as to be healthy. For a boy’s body is warm, and two warms during the Summer will lead the body astray. And a woman’s body is cold, and two colds during the Winter will dry up the body. And that is how it is.

This seasonal advice for switching between hetero and homosexual relations indicates that members of the Ottoman upper-classes had been well-aware if not well-versed in the finer points of human sexual relations. Archival documentation appears to attest that the Qābūs-nāma had been in the palace holdings under Sultan Murad II (1421-44, 1446-51).   In fact, there even seem to be indications that young male prostitutes, possessed their very own “guild” in the urban framework of Ottoman commerce and trade, as illustrated by the investigative journalist and writer Rıza Zelyut who published a very telling book in this context. A historical fact that all but underlines the fact that positing the Ottoman era as a time of carefree heterosexuality is all but a flawed proposition. Albeit, that “there is officially no room for homosexuality or homosexuals within Islam,” it seems clear that Ottoman gentlemen did on occasion very well engage in same-sex relations.

Killing Women in the 21st Century: The New Turkey

Reports of violence against women are on the rise globally in the 21st century. And Turkey is no exception. As expressed by the Lake Forest College undergraduate Caroline Warrick acting as ‘article writer’ for the Borgen Project:

The Turkish government practically encourages gender-based violence. The rise of female independence has led to what feminist scholar Fatmagül Berktay calls a “crisis of masculinity.” She claims that the reduced need for men to be breadwinners has caused them to feel displaced, and as a result, they often engage in physical, sexual, psychological or economic abuse against their partners. Political tension in Turkey also promotes gender-based violence. Religious militarism is a rising state ideology in Turkey, which promotes misogyny and makes women easier targets of abuse. In addition to these factors, the government’s benign attitude toward violence against women encourages male offenders and, by extension, femicide in Turkey.

A bleak reminder that the situation for women is very dire in the New Turkey is a website dedicated to listing the name of each individual woman that had been murdered in the country, originally set up in 2013: ‘Anıt Sayaç’ or ‘The Monument Counter: A Digital Memorial for Women Killed by Violence.’ Ever since the official withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, protests against this decision have sprung up across the country, for Tayyip Erdoğan’s unilateral action is clearly seen by many as a direct attack on Turkish women: “women [have] poured on to the streets of Turkish cities to protest,” reported the BBC’s Esra Yalçınalp. The AKP leadership’s willingness to return Turkey to an imagined Ottoman past, to an imagined past of Ottoman heterosexuality as a haven for arguably polygamous family units, has now apparently led to a veritable real life battle of the sexes in the land, with male police manhandling female protestors. This battle of the sexes that been going on for a long time, as illustrated by an article that appeared in the İstanbul  newspaper İkdam on 24 September 1908. Apparently written by a woman calling herself Keçecizade İkbal Hanım in response to another piece advocating women’s rights. İkbal Hanım did not mince her words:

Muslim ethics accept antifeminism and we are responsible for protecting this principle. Men ought to be superior to women. Men possess this superiority by birth. We women neither have physical strength like men, nor  are our minds equal to theirs. How can it be possible to get along in a family  in which men and women are equal? Such a family will only breed problems.

These early 20th-century words are anathema to early 21st-century values and attitudes, but arguably reflect the position espoused by Tayyip Erdoğan and his followers. Once again, the future of the country appears predicated on its past and the recent withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention is nothing but another stepping stone towards the establishment of a male-dominated wholesome Islamic state known as the New Turkey.

Rather than admitting that Erdoğan’s recent midnight action is somehow part of his long-term project of forging a wholesome yet male-dominated Muslim society in the land, the AKP establishment has used the incompatibility of homosexuality and Islam to justify Turkey’s departure from the Istanbul Convention. The officially-sanctioned attack on homosexuality is congruent with the AKP ideology and its policy of Sunnification. Yet, the reality on the ground seems to be that Turkey has now left the Istanbul Convention in an effort to undermine the legacy of Atatürk and his promotion of women’s rights as a prelude to a full-blown return to Islamic mores and habits, when once more the segregation of the sexes will become a religious duty in line with Allah’s will and law.

Will the upcoming centenary really bring back Islamic rule to Turkey, and will Turkey once again become a country where women will be relegated to a purely subservient role, supposedly fulfilling Allah’s will as mothers producing offspring in seclusion away from public life and hidden from view? Only time will tell, but leaving the Istanbul Convention now seems like a well-timed effort…

21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent historian and geo-political analyst who used to live in Istanbul. At present, he is in self-imposed exile from Turkey. He has a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans, the greater Middle East, and the world beyond. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the revisionist monograph “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In Istanbul, Erimtan started publishing in the English language Turkish press, culminating in him becoming the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. Subsequently, he commenced writing for RT Op-Edge, NEO, and finally, the 21st Century Wire. You can find him on Twitter at @TheErimtanAngle. Read Can’s archive here.

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