Michael Fanizadeh: Despite the difficult situation in large parts of Turkey after the earthquake, presidential and parliamentary elections will be held on May 14. What are the expectations of the women's movement in terms of change?
Berfu Şeker: All opposition parties and civil society movements are aware that this is a very important election because it means that we can end the 21-year rule of the AKP (the Justice and Development Party) and its allies. This government has thrown the country into a deep economic crisis, a human rights crisis, a refugee crisis - many crises have been experienced by this government. And there is no policy to stop inflation and the economic crisis ... Another point is women's rights: since the AKP came to power in 2002, women's rights have been slowly eroded. Women’s legal rights have been targeted by the AKP governments and family oriented policies have been put in in place. Since 2010, this policy of the AKP has gained momentum: There have been many attacks on gender equality and sexual rights. Now there is this presidential alliance that AKP is part of, and AKP is cooperating with ultra-nationalist and very fundamentalist Islamist parties. The political agenda of these fundamentalist parties is against women's rights and gender equality. For example, they want to repeal Law No. 6284. This is the law for the protection of women against violence, which was introduced right after the Istanbul Convention. They negotiate on the repealing of this law and other women's rights in the laws, for example they demand that adultery should be prosecuted. They demand that women should work only in jobs that “correspond to their biological gender,” such as nursing, cleaning, domestic work.... And they demand that women should bear many children and stay at home. That is why we see these elections as particularly significant.
In terms of the women's movement and struggles since the AKP came to power in 2002: What has changed in Turkey in terms of gender and sexual politics?
When the AKP came to power, Turkey experienced the EU accession process, and the women's movements, the LGBTIQ movements, and the Kurdish movement raised their demands. This was a hopeful scenario for democracy in Turkey. Especially the women's and LGBTIQ movements had an impact on the parliament and the laws. They reformed some of the very patriarchal laws that had been in place since the founding of the Turkish Republic when the AKP came to power.
After 2010, there was a decisive change in the AKP government's discourse. In 2010, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that he did not believe in equality between men and women; and in 2012, they wanted to change the law that abortion on demand is legal up to 10 weeks. They wanted to reduce this to four weeks. Erdoğan said any abortion is murder. But there was huge public resistance, especially from women, and they had to step back. But what happened after that is that in state hospitals, abortion on demand is not introduced. So we have this right, but it is not being implemented. If the AKP can't change a law, it has stopped implementing it.
We also saw government-organized “non-governmental organizations” (GONGOs) spreading, which are very close to the AKP: Men's groups started to proliferate, saying that women's rights made them victims, the Istanbul Convention destructs families, and they demanded the Law for the Protection of Women from Violence and the Istanbul Convention to be withdrawn. This parallels what we see on the international stage: The anti-gender groups are very present in Poland, Hungary, and the U.S., speaking out against abortion rights and against gender equality, in Europe there are anti-gender groups targeting Istanbul Convention, saying gender is an ideology, and attacking LGBTIQ communities. The discourses are pretty much the same in Turkey against raised by the fundemantalist parties and groups. These groups have been backed by the AKP and especially after the Gezi Park protests in 2013 and after the 2015 elections, state violence against women's rights activists and LGBTIQ activists increased. There are massive attacks on freedom of protest, which is a constitutional right in Turkey. Since the pandemic, the AKP has deliberately pushed an agenda of demonizing LGBTIQ people by portraying them as the source of all bad things happening in Turkey and targeting them, as well as LGBTIQ organizations.
What is the role of conservative women's organizations?
There are some women’s GONGOs founded by AKP, one of them is KADEM, which is headed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's daughter. According to them, there cannot be equality between the genders because we are biologically different, but there can be justice, so they first wanted replace the term gender equality with gender justice. And also they aimed to replace the women's and feminist movement with these GONGOs in policy making and international spaces auch as the UN too. But as time has past, we see that we have started advocating for same issues . They also defend the Istanbul Convention; they defend Law No. 6284 for the protection of violence against women. Like feminists and idenpendent women’s rights defenders they are being being attacked by fundamentalist newspapers that are very close to the AKP for advocating for these issues. What we have seen now is that women parliamentarians who say that the Protection of Women Law is our red line are being attacked by their own parties, by the supporters of the AKP.
What is the relationship of the general women's movement to the Kurdish women's movement?
Well, there is a difference between the women's movement and the feminist movement. The feminist movement has always been in a very close relationship with the Kurdish women's movement. We act together, make politics together. For example, there are initiatives that were created by Kurdish and non-Kurdish feminists to end the conflict and bring peace to Turkey and also to end racism against the Kurdish people. We have always had close relations with the Kurdish women's movement, and yes, that is very inspiring. In parliament, the HDP has the highest number of women parliamantarians, and there is also this principle of co-chairmanship. That is politically very influential.
As for the women's movement, they mostly work together with the Kurdish women's movement as well. But since the AKP has polarized the country in terms of race, gender and sexuality, we have seen some tensions against Kurdish activists - in the women's movement, there are not only feminists, but also nationalist women. When the AKP attacked the Kurdish movement after the 2015 elections, because Erdoğan lost those elections because of the HDP, AKP started a very massive attack on Kurdish cities, communities, movements, etc. During that time, there were some tensions with some nationalist groups in the women's movement and the Kurdish movement, but that never became a crisis. We are still working together as a feminist movement, women's movement and Kurdish women's movement.
You are advocacy coordinator at Women for Women’s Human Rights– New Ways in Istanbul: Can you tell us something about this initiative?
Women for Women’s Human Rights – New Ways (WWHR-New Ways) is an independent women’s non-governmental organization that advocates for women’s human rights, equality and non-discrimination in Turkey and on the international level. It was founded in 1993 with the aim of promoting women’s human rights in Turkey and around the globe. Its name was inspired by the affirmation of women’s rights as human rights in the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna the same year. WWHR-New Ways supports the active and widespread participation of women in the establishment and maintenance of a democratic, egalitarian and peaceful social order as free individuals and equal citizens on both the national and international level.
Over the years WWHR-New Ways has become a well-known women’s organization not only in Turkey but across the globe. With the persistent activism, advocacy work and networking efforts it has carried out ever since its founding, it has contributed to numerous legal reforms, an increased rights awareness and the realization of women’s human rights in Turkey, as well as working for the advancement of sexual and bodily rights in Muslim societies, and promoting women’s human rights at the United Nations level.
Final question: We have already talked about your expectations after the elections: What are your immediate wishes for a future government?
If the opposition wins, one of the promises is that it will return to the Istanbul Convention. But that is not enough. Because when we had the Istanbul Convention, we worked for its implementation. It was never truely implemented. I would also like to see stronger connections among the mainstream opposition, the women's movement and the LGBTIQ movement. I hope the opposition realizes that democracy means equality, that democracy means LGBTIQ rights. Democracy is composed of human rights, without human rights we cannot have a real democracy. If we want full democracy, the new government should seriously consider this. But I don't think it will do so in the way we want. We need a change in the political arena. More women and LGBTIQ activists should therefore be in parliament, should be in decision-making positions.