Nearly 500 women were killed in gender-based violence in Turkey last year, continuing a steady increase in femicide cases each year over the last decade. Aslı Bâli, faculty director of the UCLA School of Law’s Promise Institute for Human Rights, worries the coronavirus lockdown in the country may produce an even greater spike in domestic violence and killings in 2020.

This disturbing statistic — unbeknownst to so many Americans — is the true origin story of this summer’s hottest Instagram campaign. Almost overnight in late July, users found their feeds inundated with black-and-white images of women’s faces. Instagrammers were posting pictures of themselves and tagging other women friends, all with somewhat cryptic use of hashtags like #challengeaccepted and #womensupportingwomen. Celebrities and everyday users were part of the mix.

Criticism around the flood of black-and-white images was almost as swift as their emergence. Savvy social media users quickly began pointing out the similarities between what became an unspecific glamour-shot moment among American women, and a very specific campaign that started among women activists in Turkey as a means to bring light to femicide in the country.

An expert on human rights law, comparative law and Turkey, Bâli shared insights into the critical human rights issues at hand in the country and her thoughts on the selfie trend that emerged in late July and what impact it could have in Turkey.

What is happening in Turkey and how are women in peril there? How are activists using social media to shed light on that peril?

The social media campaigns related to the hashtags #challengeaccepted and #womenempoweringwomen in the U.S. coincided with a campaign in Turkey to raise awareness of femicide in that country following the brutal murder of a young woman, Pınar Gültekin, by her ex-boyfriend. That murder triggered massive public outrage and protests in Turkey. Like the murder of George Floyd in the United States, Gültekin’s killing was emblematic of longstanding forms of structural violence made possible by acts of omission and commission by the state and its policing functions. Gültekin’s killing proved to be a tipping point this summer in Turkey, with demonstrations organized in multiple cities followed by a social media campaign to raise awareness of gender-based killings.

Mirroring the photos printed by Turkish newspapers covering femicide cases, women posted photos of themselves to social media conveying the message that any one of them could be the next to appear on the country’s frontpages.

The urgency of the issue of domestic violence and the murder of women by current or former partners in Turkey — where as many as 40% of women have experienced violence from a partner — is partly driven by government indifference to, and at times even complicity in, the violence.

What are the larger moves at play within the Turkish government that could have a major impact on human rights and violence against women? What is the Istanbul Convention?

The Gültekin murder coincided with signals from the Turkish government that it plans to withdraw from the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. Ironically, that human rights treaty is better known as the Istanbul Convention, named for the city where it was opened for signature in 2011. The Istanbul Convention requires countries that have ratified the treaty to criminalize different forms of violence against women including domestic violence, stalking and sexual harassment — the convention focuses on prevention, protection and prosecution. The ruling AKP party, led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was in power when Turkey joined the treaty, but now, plans to pull out altogether, claiming the Istanbul Convention is contrary to the commitments of its conservative and religious constituency. (Turkey is not alone in threatening to withdraw, sadly—Poland announced its withdrawal this summer, citing alleged conflict between the convention and the religious beliefs of Polish citizens.)

For the moment, no concrete steps have been taken toward Turkey’s withdrawal, but the government’s record on violence against women and gender equality is dismal. Women who go to the police to report domestic violence are often turned away and advised not to file a complaint that will provoke their spouses. Politicians and security officials make statements blaming victims for domestic disputes and suggesting that women pursuing their right to education or workforce participation may be undermining traditional family structures.

Last fall, a demonstration in Istanbul to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women was disbanded by police using tear gas and rubber bullets. When women in Izmir organized a protest following the Gültekin murder, the police engaged in another violent crackdown with activists reporting that they were illegally detained and beaten. In short, the policing apparatus of the state not only frequently denies women in Turkey protection from abuse but also deploys violence against them to silence their protests over femicide.

The most important aspect of the Istanbul Convention is its members’ recognition that women and girls deserve protection of their most basic human right: a life free from violence.

After media coverage, some high-profile women went back and apologized or added to their Instagram selfie posts. Did the backlash actually help the cause of the activists in Turkey by bringing new light to their efforts?

Greater international attention to the Turkish government’s threat to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention is welcome. Criticism of the move may slow these plans, though in the long run it is unlikely to deter the government. Unfortunately, there is also a risk that the global coverage of the campaign may allow President Erdoğan to portray feminist activists in Turkey as pawns of a Western campaign. Politicizing human rights is part of Erdoğan’s populist strategy of governance. As a result, activists face a complex landscape as they work to stop femicides and raise awareness — garnering international attention can at times be a double-edged sword.

Still, for the moment, the short-term effect of increased attention has meant more mainstream coverage of the issue in Turkey, which is good. Another undeniably positive effect of the media coverage in the U.S. is greater awareness internationally of the Istanbul Convention. While femicide and domestic violence are extraordinarily serious problems in Turkey, most other countries also do too little to address violence against women, and femicide rates worldwide demand more attention and action. 

If Turkey withdraws from the Istanbul Convention, it will not only confirm that government’s complicity in the forms of private violence women in Turkey face, but it will also offer one more example of a state signaling its unwillingness to take women’s human rights, gender equality and gender-based violence seriously.

This story is part of a series highlighting UCLA women whose teaching, research and scholarship centers on racial and social justice.