Analysis |

Erdogan Is Focused on His Image. Don't Disturb Him With Femicide

Turkey's president continues to reject any attempt at promoting human rights, instead using foreign policy to resuscitate his popularity

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A protest against violence against women in Istanbul, last week.
A protest against violence against women in Istanbul, last week.Credit: Kemal Aslan / AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Turkish website anitsayac.com is chilling in its simplicity. It has no glowing graphics, background music or carefully composed video clips. Its name translates to “memorial” in Turkish and it list the names of the hundreds of women murdered as a result of domestic violence.

The site, which is divided by year, lists murders from 2008 to the present. This year (which isn’t yet over), 355 women were murdered. Last year, according to the stark figure at the top of the site, there were 410 murdered women. In “better” years, the numbers ranged from 66 to 250.

Under the number, in small letters, are the names of all the women. Clicking on a name takes you to the victim’s individual page, where all her details and the circumstances of her murder are listed.

The site’s creators can’t be certain they have accounted for all the murdered women. They said the inquiries they sent to the interior, justice and health ministries have gone unanswered, so they have to glean most of their information from the media.

An unrepresentative sampling of the names shows that the women come from every segment of society. There are rural and urban women, educated women and women who never even finished elementary school, members of free professions and lowly laborers.

Women’s misery in Turkey’s male-dominated society has already received plenty of media attention. Films and television series, like Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s film “Mustang”; the Netflix series “The Yard” (the Turkish title, “Avlu,” means a prison yard), starring the excellent Demet Evgar, Ceren Moray and Nursel Kose; and the series “Ethos” directed by Berkun Oya have also shed a little light into these dark corners and enraged the bastions of Turkish male conservatism sitting in parliament, the cabinet and the presidential palace in Ankara.

When “The Yard” began airing, the Justice Ministry (which is responsible for the Turkish prison service) demanded that the state-owned radio and television network not run it because “Even though this series is billed as completely fictional, the characters give the public the view that the prisons use torture against prisoners. Promoting such views serves the goals of several terrorist organizations.”

Last week, another film joined the body of cinematic work dealing with the status of Turkish women. “Dying to Divorce,” directed by Chloe Fairweather, was chosen to represent Britain at the Oscars in the category of Best Foreign Film. It is a documentary about two women, Kubra and Arzu, who suffer severe violence at the hands of their husbands.

Arzu, a mother of six, sought to leave her husband after discovering that he had raped a disabled neighbor. The husband shot her in the arms and legs, turning her into a disabled person who will need a wheelchair for the rest of her life. He was tried and sentenced to 35 years in prison, including 20 years for attempted murder and 15 for rape.

Kubra, a television presenter, was beaten so severely by her husband that she lost her ability to speak. He was sentenced to one year and 15 days in jail.

Ipek Bozkurt, a lawyer and human rights activist who assisted in making the film, summed up the message it seeks to convey simply and clearly. In an interview with the website Al-Monitor, she said, “This country protects murderers who want to punish their wives, their girlfriends and daughters who want to have different things.” When Bozkurt says “this country,” what she means first and foremost is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A president who protects murderers

In March, Erdogan announced that Turkey would withdraw from the Istanbul Convention; the decision took effect on July 1. The Istanbul Convention is a binding treaty sponsored by the Council of Europe that requires signatories to enact a system of laws and regulations to protect women against gender violence. It’s one of the most important conventions the council has adopted in the field of human rights, and when it was released in 2011, after years of negotiations and rewrites, Turkey was the first country to sign it.

Erdogan at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, this week.Credit: Murat Cetnmuhurdar / Reuters

Erdogan, who made the decision by presidential decree rather than seeking parliamentary approval, said in a statement that he chose to withdraw because “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.”

The harsh criticism of this decision by the European Union, the Council of Europe and international human rights organizations didn’t bother him a bit. It’s no different from their demands to free businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala, which also haven’t managed to penetrate the white marble palace he built in Ankara.

Kavala was arrested four years ago on charges of espionage and terrorism. After a court ordered him freed a year ago, he was rearrested on charges of involvement in the attempted coup that took place in 2016.

The European Court of Human Rights, of which Turkey is a member, ruled in 2019 that Ankara must free Kavala immediately. When Erdogan rejected this ruling, as well as the international pressure over the case, the EU threatened sanctions on Turkey.

Businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala.Credit: Reuters

On Wednesday, the Council of Europe met to discuss imposing such sanctions, which could include suspending Turkey’s membership in the council and depriving it of voting rights, and possibly economic sanctions as well. It will be interesting to see whether the council manages to make a decision this time, since the issue has already been discussed and postponed at several previous meetings.

For the Council of Europe, this is a test of its authority, prestige and determination to implement its decisions not only in Europe, but also in other countries that violate human rights. For Erdogan, however, any such decision is unlikely to make much difference. He will probably condemn it and accuse the EU of meddling in Turkey’s domestic affairs.

He leveled a similar accusation against 10 European ambassadors who sent him a letter last month demanding Kavala’s release. He also informed them that he planned to declare them personae non grata and expel them from Turkey. The ambassadors eventually backed down and announced that they abide by the policy of nonintervention, and the threat of expulsion was rescinded.

But Europe now has a strong ally that has made human rights a key element of its foreign policy. Unlike former U.S. President Donald Trump, who was a fan of dictators, current President Joe Biden arrived in the White House with a different agenda.

President Biden in Washington, yesterday.Credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP

Biden inherited from Trump the issue of Turkey’s purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia over the objections of Washington and NATO. Turkey’s invasion of Syria, which included occupying part of the country and attacking the Syrian Kurds, got a nod from Trump but has developed into a metastasizing infection in Biden’s White House. Now, the explosive package known as “human rights” has been added to the mix.

Biden still isn’t threatening sanctions on Turkey, but he also hasn’t approved its request to buy F-16 fighter jets. And if the EU decides to impose sanctions on Turkey, he presumably won’t remain on the fence. That’s a much more serious threat than the EU’s contortionist messages.

Admittedly, Erdogan is in a slightly better position than Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who hasn’t visited Washington in three years because, following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he was told that he is persona non grata there. But even Erdogan waited months before Biden picked up the phone to him for a “frank” talk. During that conversation, Biden brought up the core issues likely to impede their relationship and informed Erdogan that he planned to recognize the Armenian genocide.

Erdogan had realized even before then that the tens of millions of dollars he wasted on expensive Washington lobbyists in an effort to pacify people in the administration and Congress accomplished nothing. In October, the Washington-based Center for International Policy published a report detailing Turkey’s lobbying activities, including the companies it hired to promote Turkish policy and the amount of money it paid.

In 2020, the report said, 11 lobbying firms represented Turkey. Together, they contributed more than $526,000 to political campaigns and held more than 2,500 phone calls, meetings and interviews with congresspeople, senior administration officials and journalists in an effort to sell Turkish policy. The report’s conclusion was that despite these investments, Turkey didn’t manage to sway the administration from its positions.

America’s cold shoulder and Europe’s fighting spirit come on top of Turkey’s deep economic crisis, which has diminished public support for the government and the president. One recent poll found that 42 percent of respondents plan to change how they vote in the next election, slated to take place in 2023. The ruling Justice and Development Party is also falling in the polls, plummeting to depths it hasn’t seen since it first took power in 2002.

Erdogan is still applying his unique economic theory, which holds that lowering interest rates will extricate Turkey from the crisis by encouraging production and jump-starting growth. “You just need patience,” he told the public, which is losing both its faith in him and its jobs.

Growth in recent months has proven him correct, and the International Monetary Fund predicts growth of at least seven percent this year. But meanwhile, prices have skyrocketed, inflation has reached around 20 percent and the Turkish lira has yet to hit any barriers in its downward slide.

Erdogan can take comfort in the fact that there are currently no other political players of his stature. Granted, the six opposition parties are expected to form an alliance that will seek to return Turkey to a democratic parliamentary system of government and promote human rights. But they still need to prove that they are capable of crossing the world’s highest electoral threshold, which stands at 10 percent.

Like during previous times of crisis, Erdogan is trying to use foreign policy as a respirator for his popularity. His resumption of relations with the United Arab Emirates, which promised to invest $10 billion in Turkey and will apparently deposit an additional $5 billion in Turkish banks to provide a cushion for the country’s shrinking foreign currency reserves, produced good headlines. All that was missing was the slogan “A leader in a different league,” coined by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This week, Erdogan promised that he intends to improve relations with Egypt and Israel, and he’s also exploring a breakthrough with Saudi Arabia. It’s hard to avoid a comparison with Netanyahu, who unveiled peace agreements with Arab countries not only as evidence of his greatness, but also as a counterweight to his greed, corruption and criminal behavior.

So, kindly don’t bother the Turkish leader with trifles like murdered women, political prisoners or human rights in general.

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