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Protesters are angry that Turkey withdrew from a women’s rights convention. Will it hurt women’s rights?

Our research reveals that Erdoğan’s rhetoric and actions can change Turkish attitudes on gender.

Women protest the government's decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention in Istanbul on July 4. (Emrah Gurel/AP)

Turkey has withdrawn from the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, popularly known as the Istanbul Convention. Women and supporters protested nationwide, while the White House, the European Union, the United Nations and many others internationally criticized the decision. Internationally, some fear that Turkey’s withdrawal may encourage other European populist governments — in particular, Poland’s Law & Justice (PiS) party — to do so as well.

Liberal Turkish groups contend that the withdrawal will worsen gender inequality at home and in public life. Government officials and other conservatives disagree, saying that the convention hasn’t improved women’s rights — and in fact, threatens families.

The withdrawal decision seems to be an inevitable consequence of an increasingly conservative gender climate in the country. In our latest research, we find that the government’s gender initiatives and rhetoric have undermined gender equality.

Why withdraw from the Istanbul Convention now?

In 2012, Turkey ratified the convention, which aims to prevent violence against women, despite then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s anti-egalitarian views on gender. He has frequently urged women to have at least three children, called birth controltreason,” said that abortion is “murder,” and accused feminists of not understanding that “God entrusted men with women.”

Hilal Kaplan, a pro-government journalist with close links to Erdogan, argues that he decided to leave the convention because it undermines the “Turkish family institution” by giving women disproportionate power in the family and by promoting LGBT ideology. The president’s office issued a statement saying that the convention had been “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality.” Some observers view it as a cynical attempt by the government to alter the political agenda to distract from economic and political hardship.

Public opinion has shifted sharply

Whatever the motivations, Erdogan can sway public opinion on gender equality. According to a March 2021 opinion poll, 53 percent of respondents disapproved of the withdrawal decision while 27 percent approved. In a July 2020 poll conducted by the same polling company, the numbers were 63 percent and 17 percent, respectively. That’s a 10-point swing in less than a year.

Voters from Erdogan’s conservative, populist Justice and Development Party (AKP) are especially likely to have increased support for the withdrawal. In July 2020, 49 percent of AKP supporters disapproved of withdrawing from the convention while 25 percent approved. But in the March 2021 poll, those numbers almost reversed, with 47 percent of AKP voters declaring support for the withdrawal, with only 27 percent opposed. In between, Erdogan and the AKP had made the convention a political target. Did their arguments prompt the opinion shift?

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How much power do Erdogan’s words have?

To see whether elite cues have shifted public opinion about gender equality, we ran an original survey experiment conducted in person with more than 2,700 respondents in Turkey.

Our respondents were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group read Erdogan’s statement saying, “The natures and bodies of men and women are different. Equality between men and women is contrary to nature. Our religion has given women a position of motherhood and said that the priority of women is the role of motherhood.” The other group read nothing. We then asked all respondents questions about women’s role in society and politics.

Those who read Erdogan’s patriarchal statement were significantly less likely than the control group to support gender-egalitarian attitudes. Those who read the statement were, on average, 20 percent more likely to fully agree with the statement “There is no need for women to have more presence in politics and parliament” and 12 percent less likely to agree fully with the statement that “Women should have equal opportunities with men in the realms of work, education, and social life.” Strikingly, our results suggest that Erdogan’s statement increased opposition to gender equality even among those who said they supported the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) opposition.

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Withdrawing from the convention could hurt women’s rights

Government officials claim that the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention would not increase patriarchal attitudes or domestic violence. But our results suggest that right-wing populist elites’ accompanying anti-egalitarian rhetoric could slow women’s efforts to gain equality. Our results imply that when political elites’ message corresponds closely to the median voter’s attitudes, that may influence large segments of the society, regardless of party.

For now, public attitudes toward withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention appear to be highly partisan, with pro-Erdogan groups uniformly expressing support for the withdrawal while opposition parties oppose it just as uniformly. How prominent figures discuss the withdrawal will be likely to affect attitudes — and behavior — throughout Turkey.

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Tevfik Murat Yildirim (@tmyildirim) is an associate professor of political science at University of Stavanger in Norway, and the co-author of “Political Stability, Democracy and Agenda Dynamics in Turkey” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2020).

Alper Tolga Bulut (@AlperTBulut1) is an associate professor of political science at Karadeniz Technical University in Turkey, and the co-author of “Political Stability, Democracy and Agenda Dynamics in Turkey” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2020).

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