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Women’s Rights as Human Rights

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Degum Burak

Turkey’s human rights record has been on decline in recent years. Women’s rights issue is at the heart of this debate. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has withdrawn Turkey from the Istanbul Convention through a presidential decree issued last Saturday. The move shocked everyone as country has been reeling from high-profile domestic violence cases and femicides. Turkey was the first country to sign the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence in 2011.

Data show that violence against women has been on the rise in Turkey. Apart from domestic violence and violence against women problems, the headscarf issue until the lift of the ban in 2013, and today the rights of imprisoned mothers are critical discussions about the failure to establish strong and transparent protection mechanisms addressing human rights violations.

Unlike the headscarf issue, the imprisoned mothers issue has been underrepresented in traditional media. Social media platforms have been successful to make the problem visible to some degree but concrete activism initiatives and social awareness are required to solve the issue.

This article is an attempt to analyze women’s rights issue within the scope of headscarf issue and the imprisoned mothers. This article argues that the human rights of women are an inalienable and indivisible part of universal human rights.

Headscarf Issue

Since the late 1960s, the headscarf issue has been a thorn in deteriorating human rights record in Turkey. Rather than finding a solution, the ruling elites at the time saw it as a threat to secularism and preferred to ban the headscarf. Some women resisted this decision. In 1968, when Hatice Babacan, a student of theology faculty at Ankara University refused to remove her headscarf when  entering the campus was expelled from the university. Following this decision, hundreds of students invaded the Theology Faculty demanding that Babacan’s place at the university was restored. Babacan is the aunt of Ali Babacan  who is the leader of the Democracy and Enterprise Party (DEVA). Previously, Babacan served as Deputy Prime Minister responsible for the economy and as the Minister of State in charge of the economic affairs and as the Minister of Foreign Affairs under  the Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

On the other hand,  in the 1990s, Merve Kavakçı, a computer engineer ran for the parliament as a representative  of the Islamist, Virtue Party in 1999. The day when Kavakçı arrived in parliament on May 2, 1999 to take her oath, the assembly ran her out of the parliament in protest. Kavakçı was seen as a threat to secularism by the military elites and mainstream media. The then prime minister Bülent Ecevit saw Kavakçı as an agent of foreign forces. In a speech addressing the members of the parliament,  Ecevit said, the parliament was “not a place in which to challenge the state.”

The tides began to shift under the leadership of the ruling AK Party. In 2013 within the framework of a democratization package, the government lifted the ban on headscarf  for women working in government offices. At the time, the then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, “the regulation that has hurt many young people and has caused great suffering to their parents, a dark period is coming to an end.”

Decades after Hatice Babacan’s protest, students across all universities in Turkey are free to wear their headscarves.  The women once victimized for their choice of dress are no longer excluded from public offices and campuses.

Imprisoned mothers

While the issue of headscarf is no longer a heated discussion, in an environment of backsliding democracy, women in Turkey continue to face challenges and rights violations and one of the groups neglected the most are the woman inmates often serving jail time, together with their children. The number of children locked up in prisons with their mothers has increased to 780 in November 2018 according to an Ankara-based human rights organization. Accordingly, a leading human rights activist the expelled HDP deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu in his Twitter profile noted the following about that issue:

In Turkish prisons, there are at least 780 children, who are 0-6 years old, with their mothers. Some of them are not allowed to return to prison for 8-10 months, which they left due to the pandemic, and the mothers & babies are longing for each other!”

Hatice Sahnaz  was arrested in September 2018 when she was three weeks pregnant and accused of being a member of FETO terrorist organization. In May 2019, five days ahead of delivery, Şahnaz’s mother asked the authorities to release her daughter. Şahnaz was taken to hospital where she  gave birth to a baby girl but was sent back to prison to serve  the remainder of her six year sentence together with her new-born baby.

The 2018 report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described the detention of hundreds of women and their babies or young children as alarming.  The OHCHR noted that at least 50 cases of women who had given birth just prior to or right after being detained or arrested.

Turkey has been undergoing a process of democratic backsliding in recent years. In such an environment, one of the discourses the ruling elites adhere to is the rhetoric of “liberalization of women through lifting the headscarf ban”. However, today there are other human rights violations women face such as the detained mothers with their babies. For a government that values women the lifting of the headscarf ban is not enough for truly protecting women’s rights. The true protection has a long and challenging path.