Two new hashtags dominated our news feeds in the last week of July: #challengeaccepted and #womenempoweringwomen. What looked like a light-hearted social media challenge soon opened the floodgates of debate. Questions about the origins of the challenge have erupted, with critiques pointing out the “feel-good” nature of it. Black-and-white selfies dominating our social media feeds with cis-, white, and able-bodied images, people claimed, bore little ostensible relationship to women’s empowerment. By being overly focused on the what-is-the-origin debate, many have failed to realize, on the other hand, that two more hashtags have accompanied the black-and-white photos coming from Turkey: #kadıncinayetlerinidurduracağız and #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır, which can be translated as #wewillendfemicides (we will end femicides) and #istanbulconventionkeepswomenalive (Istanbul Convention keeps women alive).
This social media challenge coincided with the brutal murder of a young woman from Turkey, Pınar Gültekin, by an ex-boyfriend. When the two hashtags and Pınar’s murder became more visible, the international public realized that people in Turkey were using the old black-and-white photo challenge to raise awareness of two different but deeply interrelated issues: first, the skyrocketing numbers of femicides in the country, and secondly, the Turkish government’s recent attempt to withdraw from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (better known as the Istanbul Convention).
What has been presented in the global media first as a light-hearted campaign and later as a campaign of “Turkish feminists” about femicides of “Turkish women,” however, glosses over another critical issue: the entanglement of the Turkish state’s assimilationist policies with gender-based killings and the erasure of Kurdish women’s narratives even in femicide stories. Pınar’s hidden narrative is a striking example of this multi-layered picture since her Kurdishness has yet to be acknowledged in either the local or global debates about femicide in Turkey.
Decolonizing Local and Global Narratives on Violence against Women
Pınar was a twenty-seven-year-old woman who recently graduated from college. On 21 July, her body was found in Muğla after she had been missing for five days. Pınar’s murder by thirty-two-year-old Cemal Metin Avcı, who confessed to the killing while being questioned by the police, created massive public outrage. Pınar’s story was yet another example of the increasing number of femicide cases in Turkey, which cut across sexual, ethnic, religious, and class-based boundaries. It was similar to Şule’s, Hande’s, Münevver’s, or Özgecan’s stories, where women were brutally murdered at the hands of men.
Pınar’s narrative, however, has been assimilated into the discourse of gender-based violence in a way that itself perpetuates violence by erasing her Kurdishness. When Pınar’s story started to gain more public attention, she was presented by local and global media outlets as yet another young “Turkish woman” who became a victim of patriarchy. Yes, Pınar was another victim of the patriarchal system in the form of intimate partner violence. But failing to acknowledge her full story as a Kurdish woman erases the multi-layered violence that Kurdish women in Turkey experience as a result of the simultaneous exposure to heteropatriarchal structures and colonial state policies.
Pınar was a Kurdish woman from the city of Bitlis in Turkey’s Kurdistan. Her family migrated from Bitlis to western Turkey in 1993—the very same year she was born. This coincides with the height of the civil war between the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and the Turkish military. Though we do not know the whole story of the Gültekin family, we know that during the 1990s, many Kurdish families were dispossessed by the state and forcibly displaced to various regions of Turkey due to their alleged support for Kurdish guerrillas. Families like the Gültekins who resettled in Turkish-dominated cities have had to deal with discrimination, exclusion, and assimilation in addition to the impoverishment and trauma caused by their displacement.
Erasing the particularities of Pınar’s story by depicting her as yet another Turkish woman also prevents us from seeing Pınar’s resilience, as well as her strategies to overcome the state’s impoverishment of her family. During a press interview, Pınar’s brother mentions how she was determined to get an education like “other Kurdish girls” who became nurses, doctors, or lawyers. She stood up to her father, who initially did not want to send her to school, but later agreed to do so due to Pınar’s determination. As a result, Pınar became the only one out of her five siblings who was literate. By erasing the details of Pınar’s life experience, the media and the mainstream public disavow her resilience as a Kurdish woman who seized control of her education, pursued her dreams, and stood up for herself in the context of state-imposed disenfranchisement.
Erasing Kurdishness from women’s stories of violence in the context of Turkey also obscures the complicity of the Turkish state in this violence, as well as Kurdish women’s further disenfranchisement based on their ethnic identity. There is a long history of violence against Kurdish women in Turkey since the early years of the republic. Kurdish women who resisted the assimilationist policies of the Turkish state have faced different forms of physical, sexual, and structural violence, including forced displacement, kidnapping and disappearance, rape and torture, and systematic exclusion from public spaces due to the state’s ban on the Kurdish language.
Fatma Altınmakas’ murder, which took place around the same time as Pınar’s murder, is further evidence of these dynamics. Fatma Altınmakas was killed by her husband on 14 July 2020. Two days before her killing, she went to Malazgirt Gendarmerie Station to report her husband’s brother’s sexual assault. As a Kurdish woman, however, she did not speak Turkish, and was not assigned a translator while she was giving her testimony. As a consequence, state officials denied her the opportunity to express herself adequately. Fatma, furthermore, was not given temporary protection as required by the Istanbul Convention and Turkey’s Law No. 6284 on the prevention of violence against women. Instead, she was sent back home to her husband, who killed her two days later. The Turkish state’s refusal to recognize Fatma’s Kurdishness in her attempt to file a complaint not only reflects ongoing state colonialism but also makes the state directly complicit in her murder.
The erasure of Kurdish women in debates about violence against women in Turkey has a complicated history. The issue of violence against women became an important agenda for women’s and feminist groups in the late 1980s, especially during the feminist campaigns of the 1990s. One of the main criticisms towards the movement’s discussions and strategies at the time, particularly from Kurdish women, was that the movement was focusing exclusively on the issue of domestic violence, but not talking about state violence towards Kurdish women. The 2000s, on the other hand, witnessed an overemphasis of Kurdishness in violence narratives. The popular media started to highlight the ethnic identities of victims and survivors in domestic violence narratives, framing these cases as so-called “honor crimes,” embedded in “the roots of Kurdish tradition.” In other words, the discursive construction of “honor crimes” reproduced the colonialist and racist discourse of the Turkish state over Kurds as the “backward others.” Consequently, women’s and feminist groups withdrew from specifying Kurdishness in narratives about violence against women to avoid reproducing these hegemonic discourses.
As these debates show, the issue of violence against women in Turkey, as elsewhere, is much more complicated than what is presented in local or global media. The issue brings together different strands of various feminisms through active engagement, self-criticism and reflection, and collective action. Women’s and feminist groups in Turkey are now trying to raise awareness on the issue of violence against women through different means, ranging from organizing street protests and social media campaigns to attending femicide trials and funerals. When it comes to covering a femicide case, therefore, the international public should pay attention to these local debates and decolonial frameworks instead of quickly singularizing a movement or a woman’s story around one (hegemonic) ethnic group. Only then can it amplify the movement’s voice, rather than reproducing patriarchal and colonial structures against which the movement has been fighting for a long time now.
Defending Istanbul Convention without Singularizing Women’s Stories
According to We Will Stop Femicide Platform’s records, 235 women have been murdered by strangers, partners, or relatives in Turkey in just 2020. This number is increasing every day, which speaks volumes about the urgency of the issue of femicide in the country. The high number of femicides also reflects the issue of impunity, in which the state fails to take steps to protect the victims or survivors and instead sides with the perpetrators. In most of the cases, the state and its legal system do not believe women’s testimonies, refuse to provide proper protection to them, and/or give reduced sentences to the perpetrators.
The Istanbul Convention is one of the regulations that attempts to address the issue of legal impunity in femicide cases. It is a human rights treaty designed by the Council of Europe to address domestic violence and violence against women. The convention was opened for signature in Istanbul in 2011, and Turkey was the first country to sign and ratify it. The convention urges its signatories to protect women against domestic violence, including by taking into account the multi-layered racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious differences that comprise and exacerbate women’s vulnerability. The Turkish government is now trying to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, arguing that there are two items in the treaty that go against traditional Turkish family values: First, the convention defines gender as a socially constructed category with roles and behaviors imposed by society for women and men, and secondly, it recognizes sexual orientation and gender identity as essential categories to consider in the implementation of the convention.
This attack by the Turkish government has significant consequences for every woman in Turkey. It is important, however, to pay attention to women’s racialized and ethnicized experiences with violence as well. Women’s and feminist groups in Turkey, especially the Kurdish women, have long addressed the systematic erasures within the movement itself, and simultaneously developed strategies to fight against them. Today, while terms such as “Turkish women” or “Turkish feminists” are sweeping global media outlets, we once again need to remind ourselves, our feminist circles, and the international public of the long struggle to decolonize the feminist movement in Turkey.
Labelling a diverse movement composed of not only Turkish women but also Kurdish, Armenian, and Arab women, among others, as singularly “Turkish” is a form of epistemic violence. Therefore, we should insist on using terms such as “women and feminists in/from Turkey” to stress the multiplicity in the movement, which has been constructed particularly through the active advocacy of its non-Turkish members over many years. Moving beyond terminologies dictated by nation-states and nationalistic ideologies would also enable us to acknowledge the differential experiences of women based not only on ethnicity but also class, religion, and citizenship.
From this standpoint, while celebrating the mainstream recognition of our local practices of resistance, we should simultaneously feel responsible for voicing the history of decolonizing feminisms in Turkey and highlighting the many erasures in the stories being told. A social media campaign that erupted at the same time as the deliberate efforts of women’s and feminist groups in Turkey to raise awareness of femicides and the Istanbul Convention should not be depoliticized as a “feel-good,” light-hearted social media campaign, stripping it of its broader socio-political context. At the same time, we must resist the whitewashing and erasure of the multi-layered nature of women’s experiences with gender- and ethnic-based violence, as well as the Turkish state’s complicity in such violence. The question is when we are going to accept the real challenge of telling a multi-layered story that cannot be reduced to black-and-white.
Acknowledgments: We want to thank Ruken Işık, Songül Tuncalı, Öykü Tümer, and the editors of Jadaliyya for their comments on an earlier version of this piece.
 For a detailed documentation and analysis of this history, see Eren Keskin and Leman Yurtsever, Hepsi Gerçek: Devlet Kaynaklı Şiddet (Istanbul: Punto, 2006).
 For a comprehensive analysis of how colonialist discourses of “honor crimes” frame racial and ethnic difference, see Dicle Koğacıoğlu, “The Tradition Effect: Framing Honor Crimes in Turkey,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 15, no.2 (2004): 118–151 and Nükhet Sirman, “Kürtlerle Dans,” Kültür ve Siyasette Feminist Yaklaşımlar, 2 (2007): 119-125.