INSTANBUL - A wave of protests sparked by the slaying of a young woman has been sweeping across Turkey as the government considers leaving an international convention that protects women against violence, despite warnings from rights groups about the rising number of killings of women.
Last week, police found the strangled and battered body of 27-year-old university student Pinar Gultekin. Local media, citing police sources, said she was buried in a bin encased in concrete, in woodlands in the Aegean province of Mugla.
Gultekin's killing triggered demonstrations across Istanbul and other cities with activists calling attention to reports of rising number of murdered women. At one protest last week in Istanbul's Kadikoy district, women chanted "we want to live," "end femicides."
In the Aegean port city of Izmir, police broke up a women's protest and detained several demonstrators.
Across social media, women placed videos of their protests. On Instagram, Turkish women are posting black and white images of themselves in protest at Gultekin's murder, in a campaign that has gone global.
"From secular women to conservative women, from working women or not working, women are angry," said Melek Onder of the Istanbul based campaign group, "We Will Stop Femicide."
"But we know that this anger makes women movement in Turkey becoming more powerful and strong," Onder added. "They are applying to our platform, saying we want to do something, we want to join the protests."
The protests in Turkey come amidst wider international protests against violence against women, much of which is a grassroots organized through social media, including the "me too" movement.
The "We Will Stop Femicide" web page records the grim death toll of murdered women, which rises nearly every day. In the first six months of this year, the group says there were 172 femicides, compared to 416 for the whole of 2019.
In a tweet, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned Gultekin's killing, but activists complain he has otherwise remained silent.
The protests are happening as the Erdogan government faces new criticism over its commitment to gender issues.
Erdogan’s ruling AKP party is openly questioning Turkey’s participation the international Istanbul Convention on protecting women against violence.
"I say that signing this Istanbul Convention was wrong," said the AKP's deputy leader Numan Kurtulmus in a recent television interview.
"There are two critical issues in the text of this convention that we should draw attention to that we can never accept. One of them is gender rights; the other is sexual orientation rights," Kurtulmus added.
Turkey's religious conservative media is backing Kurtulmus, accusing the Convention of undermining the family.
The AKP, in its early years in power, introduced sweeping legislation to protect women, culminating in being the first signatory of the 2011 European, "Istanbul Convention."
The Convention was the first legally binding set of guidelines that created "a comprehensive legal framework and approach to combat violence against women," focusing on preventing domestic violence, protecting victims, and prosecuting accused offenders.
But in recent years, critics have accused the government of increasingly backsliding in enforcing the agreement, in a bid to consolidate the ruling party's religious and conservative voting base. The AKP campaigns vigorously on defending what it says are "traditional family values."
Parliament is expected to soon start discussing Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul convention.
"We should evaluate well whether or not to abolish it," said Devlet Bahceli, leader of the MHP, which is the parliamentary coalition partner of the AKP.
Bahceli acknowledges the country is facing a problem, "If we cannot prevent the murder of women, we will all be buried under an avalanche," he said.
Erdogan has yet to weigh in on the future of the Istanbul convention.
Opinion polls indicate a majority against withdrawal from the Convention. Pinar Ilkaracan, a veteran women's rights campaigner who once worked closely with the AKP on gender reform, warns that Erdogan could pay a heavy political price if Turkey withdraws from the Istanbul Convention.
"In terms of women murders, there hasn't been a divide between secular and religious," she said. "A lot of women have been supporting the AKP government, religious women, and also the women in AKP have written against withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention."