On July 1, Turkey formally withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, designed to protect women against violence, claiming a section on sexual orientation and gender identity counters Turkey’s “family values.”
Hundreds of women gathered on Istanbul’s Istiklal (Independence) Avenue, carrying banners, purple flags and signs in support of the Istanbul Convention — an international treaty to prevent violence against women.
The 2011 Council of Europe treaty, originally opened for signature in Istanbul, requires participating governments to prosecute a slew of gender-based crimes, including domestic violence and forced marriage.
Related: In Turkey, a conservative push to remove domestic violence legislation
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decision to withdraw from the treaty — without debate or votes in Parliament — set off months of protests throughout the country.
“The number of femicides have increased since the day they said they would cancel the convention,” hotel worker Sevdi Aycil said. “The men who kill women are encouraged by this.”
Women’s rights activists in Turkey say the country is rife with intimate partner violence that goes unpunished. The We Will Stop Femicide Platform has documented 189 killings of women since the beginning of the year — many of them by boyfriends, former partners or family members.
In March, Erdoğan’s conservative government defended the decision to leave, by claiming that the document had been “hijacked by group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality, which is incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values.”
In a speech on the day of Turkey’s removal from the international agreement, Erdoğan outlined his own plan to prevent violence against women — which largely focused on raising awareness.
“The fight against violence against women is also the struggle to protect the rights, law and honor of our mother, wife and daughter,” Erdoğan said. “Each of whom is a part of our lives.”
Poland’s right-wing government, which is closely aligned with the Catholic Church, has also signaled an intention to leave the agreement, citing objections to the treaty’s “ideological nature.” A bill called “Yes to Family, No to Gender,” winds its way through the country’s Parliament.
The Turkish government’s rationale for exiting the Istanbul Convention — that it normalizes homosexuality — is part of what activists say is a growing effort on the part of the government to marginalize the LGBTQ community.
Protesters carrying rainbow flags or pro-LGBTQ signage are often forbidden from entering gatherings, or targeted by police for arrest.
“Hate crimes are happening in public places, and there were eyewitnesses,” Tar said. “Half of them remained silent. A quarter of them joined the attackers.”
But Tar remains hopeful and thinks Turkey’s population is more open-minded than its government. In Tar’s outreach work in recent years, even conservative, Muslim communities who often oppose homosexuality on religious grounds, welcomed Tar into their spaces. Some even requested Tar to share presentations in the evening, after Friday prayers, so they could join.
“It’s not about LGBT vs. religion in society,” Tar said. “In society, there’s a change. I think the government is trying to reverse that change — but that’s a hopeless effort.”
In June, local authorities banned Pride events and arrested dozens in unauthorized gatherings throughout the country.
When 22-year-old Lizge Biter tried to attend a small march in one Istanbul neighborhood, the group was tear gassed and 25 people were arrested, including an AFP photographer.
As recently as 2014, tens of thousands of people attended a Pride march down Istanbul’s longest pedestrian thoroughfare — the largest in the Muslim world. Today, that feels like a distant reality.