In Turkey's Referendum, Women's Rights Are on the Ballot

Turkey women
Women shout slogans during a rally in southeastern province of Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 8, 2017. Umit Bektas/Reuters

For most of the last century, Turkey has been the go-to example of an Islamic country that doubles as a secular democracy, where women enjoy vast freedoms unlike in many Middle Eastern countries.

On Sunday, this liberated vision of Turkish women could disappear into the photo albums. Turks will vote on a constitutional referendum to abolish the office of the prime minister and transfer its powers to the longstanding president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist and strongman whose conservative and sexist views are pummeling women's freedoms into dust.

Polls show the 'Yes' vote, which would grant Erdogan sweeping new powers, stands above 51 percent. But whichever way the vote goes, women stand to lose.

For the last three years, we have been reporting from and living in Istanbul as journalists making the documentary Dying to Divorce about Turkish women fighting a rising tide of domestic violence. The relentless series of violent extremist attacks shuttering restaurants and chilling public life have taken a toll—one of us left the country with her family for good in January; and the other makes only quick visits to report—fearful she will join the hundreds of journalists now imprisoned in Turkey on the flimsiest of charges.

Read more: Terror and a state of emergency threaten Turkish civil society

Both of us watched women's freedoms come under threat, time and time again. Until around 2012, Erdogan had been a champion of women's rights—he rose to power in Turkey advancing women's rights—and as prime minister he pushed through laws on child custody, divorce, and protections against violence that many women's groups applauded.

But even before term limits forced him from the prime minister's office in 2014 into the ceremonious role of president, he began to play to his religious base with public pronouncements denigrating working women; he also abolished the ministry of women, replacing it with the ministry of family and social policies, and declared that men and women weren't equal.

In 2016, Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) tried to amend the penal code to make it possible for men who rape girls under 18 to be exonerated if they marry their victims; they are also tried to reduce the alimony payments a divorced man must make to his wife; and mandate a wife—even one who is a victim of domestic violence—go through a government "reconciliation process" before leaving her husband.

"A 'yes' vote could mean negative legislation like this will get passed so much easier," says Sehnaz Kiymaz of Women for Women's Human Rights- New Ways, an independent women's NGO based in Istanbul. "It would be mean the gains women have made would be taken away to ensure that women are seen as wives and mothers and within their traditional gender roles."

The president's national campaign has fetishized Erdogan as a 'strong man.' That championing of a male-dominated society has seeped into family life, where many men feel undue pressure to dominate—physically, if necessary. Violence and abuse of women has been on the rise. Many fear this pattern will only continue if Erdogan wins the referendum.

"I am frightened and I feel suffocated, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think about what will happen if there is a 'Yes' vote, the whole system will change and it's terrifying," says Ipek Bozkurt, a human rights attorney in Istanbul who advocates for women's rights.

"Women are saying 'No' because we all know that giving all the power to one man to make decisions on the behalf of all women can only be limiting. Alternative voices will be silenced and he will get the final decision on all issues. We will lose representation of all voices, especially those of women."

While the freedom of an unchecked authoritarian ruler to restrict women's freedoms is terrifying, there is little to suggest a 'No' vote will leave the situation any better for women.

We were in Turkey when President Erdogan lost his last grab at power—in the summer of 2015, when his party lost its parliamentary majority in elections.

For a few weeks, many celebrated the vote as a reaffirmation of Turkish democracy. Instead, Erdogan reignited a civil war with the Kurds, which destabilized the southeastern border and led to the deaths of more than 2,000 people, according to the United Nations. He then began arresting journalists, opposition leaders and NGOS, including women's groups, under accusations of supporting terrorism. More journalists were jailed last year in Turkey than in any other country.

The violence will worsen if Erdogan loses again this Sunday, says New York Times contributor Elmira Bayrasli, co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted and a professor at Bard College's Globalization and International Affairs Program.

"Turkey's president is a fighter and he will go to any lengths to get what he wants," she wrote in the Times on Wednesday. "In the face of a defeat at the ballot box, he is likely to amp up his war against the Kurds, making him seem like an embattled defender of the nation."

This will be terrible for all Turks. The impact on women is extraordinary—something we have seen firsthand while covering war in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Women and girls there often feared even walking on the streets. The threat of physical, and sexual, violence—ranging from verbal harassment, to groping, to rape—was enough to drive women and girls into their homes. That meant abandoning school and professional pursuits—and ultimately ceding the national conversation to one gender. Women lost their voice.

It's something that women in these societies have long known—and Turkish women feel it too. Pollsters have told us "women vote for stability." Sadly in Turkey today, that could translate into women voting for authoritarianism just to keep themselves and their children safe.

"What the data shows globally is that once conflict and polarization increases within a society we know that violence against women also increases," says Kiymaz.

"It is also true that once an economic crisis takes place in a society, services for women's health and to protect them against domestic violence are first to go. So you have domestic violence increasing and the services decreasing. If you combine that with unjust rulings where perpetrators go unpunished, it creates a nightmare scenario for elimination of violence against women."

For these reasons, she and others are voting against Erdogan. But whether Turkey's women can hold on to their rights at all will require a fight that reaches far beyond this Sunday.

Christina Asquith is Director of Across Women's Lives, and Founder of the Fuller Project for International Reporting.

Chloe Fairweather is a BAFTA-award nominated filmmaker and director of the forthcoming, Dying to Divorce.