Turkey: Women’s human rights in Turkey – challenges and prospects

An interview with Pinar Ilkkaracan from Women for Women’s Human Rights – New Ways.
AWID: Could you please tell us about the work of WWHR - NEW WAYS?

Pinar: Women for Women's Human Rights (WWHR) - NEW WAYS was founded in 1993 in Turkey, inspired by the success of the women's movement at the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. We aim to promote women's human rights on the local, national, regional and international levels. We have adopted a multi-faceted approach in our work, linking human rights education, training, advocacy and lobbying, research and publications, and networking. On the international level, we have been working on advocacy for women's human rights at the UN level.

We have also initiated and coordinated the first solidarity network of NGOs and academics working for advocacy and lobbying towards sexuality and human rights in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia. The network works under the name The Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies. Our most recent activity in this area is an upcoming conference titled ''Gender, Sexuality and Law Reform in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia'', which will be held in Istanbul at the beginning of April.

On the national level, WWHR has been a leading organization for advocacy and lobbying for legal reforms. In 1997 and 1998, we initiated and coordinated the Campaign against Virginity Testing and the Campaign for Protection Orders for survivors of domestic violence. In 2000-2001, we acted as the secretariat for the Campaign for Full Equality in the Turkish Civil Code. In 2002, immediately after the success of the Civil Code Campaign, we initiated and coordinated the Campaign for the Reform of the Turkish Penal Code from a Gender Perspective, which continued until 2004. These campaigns resulted in the enactment of protection orders, a ministerial ban of virginity testing, full equality in the Turkish Civil Code and more than 30 amendments in the Turkish Penal Code towards gender equality.

Our Human Rights Education Program for Women, which started in 1995, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The program has a nation-wide outreach through the Community Centers located in 30 provinces spread throughout all seven geographic regions of Turkey and has reached to more than 4000 women up to date. The ultimate aim of the program is to encourage women to form grassroots organizations around their needs and more than 15 women's associations and initiatives were formed by women who participated in the training. We also have several publications, including books and research articles in English, Turkish and Arabic (for a full list of our publications, please see our website, www.wwhr.org ).

AWID: How would you describe the women's rights situation in Turkey? What are the important campaign areas?

Pinar: The last decade has witnessed major advancements towards the realization of women's human rights in Turkey, largely due to the determined and successful advocacy efforts and campaigns organized by the women's movement. Until the late 90's, the national legislation in Turkey contained various discriminatory provisions and an overarching patriarchal perspective, be it in civil, penal, or labor laws, despite the constitutional gender equality principal and numerous international documents Turkey is signatory to.

This situation has rapidly been transforming due to several campaigns, beginning with the adoption of the law on protection orders aiming to prevent domestic violence in 1998, followed by the reform of the Civil Code in 2001, and most recently the Turkish Penal Code Reform in 2004. Through these reforms, women have attained the legal basis to exercise their human rights and demand full gender equality to a large extent. The previous legislative system granted men supremacy in marriage; restricted her decision making power in the family; regarded women's bodies and sexuality as commodities of men, the family or the society and legitimized human rights violations like forced marriages, marital rape, honor killings etc.. This has been extensively changed with the reforms of the Civil and Penal Codes.

We are now working on two campaigns - a campaign to realize our remaining demands in the Turkish penal Code and a campaign to increase public awareness for these reforms and ensure their implementation.

AWID: What are the remaining reforms in the Turkish Penal Code that you mentioned, and what have been the gains from the campaign?

Pinar: More than 30 amendments to ensure gender equality and sexual and bodily rights are made in the new Turkish Penal Code. For example, the notion that women's bodies and sexuality are commodities of the society and men, and that sexual offences are to be regulated in reference to patriarchal social constructs such as ''society's traditions of morality'', ''chastity'', ''honor'' have been stamped out. This crucial amendment legally acknowledges women's ownership of their bodies and sexuality in accordance with global human rights norms. Just to name a few other reforms, sexual crimes such as sexual abuse or rape are finally named as such, with progressive definitions, defining them as crimes against ''sexual integrity.''All references to patriarchal concepts like chastity, morality, shame or indecent behavior are eliminated. Previously existing discriminations against non-virgin or unmarried women are abolished. Sexual harassment at work place is criminalized for the first time. Sexual assaults by security forces are defined as “aggravated offences''.

During the campaign, we experienced the highest resistance by the parliament against our demands around the issues of honor crimes, virginity testing and sexual orientation. Although an amendment was made to include a sentence .in the justification of the article on ''Unjust Provocation,'' that this article cannot be applied to grant reductions to honor killing perpetrators, our demand to define honor killings as ''aggravated homicide'' was only partially accepted. Instead of ''honor killings,'' ''killings in the name of customary law'' have been defined as aggravated homicide, which does not encompass all honor killings. Our impression is that they have intentionally tried to leave a door open to grant sentence reductions to perpetrators of honor killings.

Our demand to explicitly ban and criminalize virginity testing under all circumstances has been declined. Although our demand to explicitly criminalize ''discrimination based on sexual orientation'' was initially accepted by the justice commission, it was later removed by an intervention of the Minister of Justice. A similar development took place with the extension of the abortion period from 10 weeks to 12 weeks, although it was initially accepted, it was removed later.

One of the most problematic issues with the new penal code is a new article which penalizes consensual sexual relations of youth aged 15 - 18 upon complaint. Even the old penal code did not have such an article, and in that sense, it constitutes a grave backlash.

AWID: We have all been shocked to see the media coverage of the violent crackdown on the International Women's Day demonstrators. What are your insights into this event, and how does this reflect on women's rights in Turkey in general?

Pinar: Unfortunately, I cannot say that the police violence on the International Women's Day came as a surprise to us, as those living in Turkey. None of the reforms I have summarized above have been an easy, ready-made accomplishment for the women's movement in Turkey. On the contrary, we were often faced with a combination of resistant conservative forces from the Parliament and government officials. We had to overcome the challenge of not only of finding effective and diverse strategies of advocacy to overcome the resistance of governments to gender equality, but also of making our demands heard in a rather volatile political atmosphere. Turkey has been going through a very difficult phase in the last years with a strong demand from the civil society for protection of human rights on the one hand, and increasing religious right and nationalist movements on the other hand. In case of the women's movement, we have first hand experience that the reforms we have realized have taken place due to a very efficient campaigns and advocacy and despite the strong resistance of the present and previous governments. I think the police violence witnessed on the International Women's Day reflects this conflict.

AWID: As an organisation you have never used potential EU membership as a platform for pushing for full recognition of women's rights – promoting instead the simple fact that women's rights are human rights. What do you think will change for women, however, if Turkey becomes an EU member?

Pinar: Yes, we have never used potential EU membership as a strategy to push for full recognition of women's rights in our campaigns, instead we have always underlined that the reforms we demand should take place not because of Turkey's candidacy to the EU, but because WE, AS WOMEN LIVING IN TURKEY WANT THEM AND because we have a full right to gender equality as equal citizens! Apart from the fact that this was the right strategy as we believe, we also wanted to prevent any backlash which might come from the religious and nationalist right wing movements, which could argue that gender equality is an agenda of the West, forced on Turkey or that sexual rights, for example are incompatible with our so-called ''national or religious values''. However, now that the reforms are realized, I think EU membership will be very useful to prevent any backlash that might come from the religious and nationalist right wing movements and to ensure an effective implementation of the reforms.