International Women’s Day is a day for women around the world to celebrate their achievements, advocate for gender equality, and demand an end to gender-based violence. The occasion has become divorced from its roots in the labour movement as a day to celebrate women’s roles as workers, celebrated primarily by socialist governments, and is now sometimes little more than a vehicle for liberal feminist slogans, but it remains an annual reminder of historic gains in women’s rights across the past century – as well as how much further we still have to go.
However, the situation is rather different in Turkey. In the nation which still styles itself as a democracy, the period around 8 March is often marked by police brutality, government repression, and attacks on Kurdish women. Throughout the year, Kurdish women’s political and cultural organizations are routinely banned, and their members are harassed, arrested, and imprisoned without trial. Here, International Women’s Day remains a highly politicized event.
The Turkish police frequently use excessive force to disperse peaceful demonstrations organized by Kurdish women’s groups. In recent years, they have used tear gas, water cannons, and other repressive measures to disperse crowds. In 2021, the police in Istanbul arrested thirteen women who had gathered to protest against gender-based violence, absurdly accusing them of engaging in “rhythmic jumps” while chanting anti-Erdoğan slogans, prompting condemnation from Human Rights Watch, among others. Last year, Turkish riot police again used heavy-handed methods to attack women demonstrating across the country – with chants of “we are not scared, we don’t back down” heard in Istanbul’s city centre.
This year’s demonstrations have already taken on a particularly political dimension, in the context of the deadly earthquake which has claimed over 45,000 lives to date in Turkey alone, and put the spotlight on the domestic policy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Speaking at a vigil for those who died in the 6 February catastrophe, Turkish feminist organizer Fidan Ataselim said: “We will end this government. It is enough. It is possible to prevent the destructiveness of the earthquake. When our people tried to make their voices heard in the earthquake, (the government) restricted the internet. We will build cities that we will not burn in, that we will not die in.”
Along with highlighting the disproportionate burden suffered by women during the economic crisis prior to and the humanitarian catastrophe following the earthquake, women’s groups also highlighted ongoing moves to erode women’s formal legal rights in the country. Some 334 women were murdered by men in 2022, while 245 women were found dead under suspicious circumstances in the same period, according to Ms. Ataselim’s We Will Stop Femicides platform.
Bringing an end to this tidal wave of violence against women remains a key demand for Turkish women’s organizers. In particular, they spotlight Turkey’s controversial 2021 withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women and domestic violence.
But as the earthquake catastrophe reminds us, police assaults on peaceful female demonstrators, and the murder of female Turkish citizens, are, tragically, only the thin end of the wedge. Women in Turkey also suffer massive disenfranchisement, lack of opportunity, and discrimination. It is they who will have to work, unremunerated and unnoticed, to rebuild communities torn apart by the deadly natural disaster. Now, more than ever, Turkey needs a female-led response to this catastrophe created in part by the greed of chauvinistic, nationalist male politicians and their cronies.
On this International Women’s Day, we must stand in solidarity with Kurdish and all women in Turkey and demand an end to the violence and repression they face. We must also call on the Turkish government to respect the rights of all its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity or gender. Protests in Turkey are never just symbolic, but charged with the urgent question of who is allowed to speak in public, assert their identity, and participate in the country’s civil and political life. This year, more than ever, Turkish women’s voices must be heard.
Robin Fleming is an American Researcher who worked with the Rojava Information Centre and specialises in North and East Syria.