In the last few days of July, black-and-white photos began filling up Instagram feeds around the world. Generally, they were solo, selfie shots of women, with hashtags like #womensupportingwomen and #challengeaccepted. Many celebrities jumped on the trend, including Cindy Crawford, Kerry Washington, Kristen Bell, and Jennifer Aniston, using everything from old glamour shots to close-up selfies in order to, ostensibly, demonstrate their general solidarity with women. In a pandemic rife with internet challenges and online activism, it seemed, at first glance, another trend meant to bind us together with a vaguery, when everyone was looking for some form of connection.
Within a few days, #challengeaccepted had more than 3 million posts on Instagram. Now, it has nearly 6.5 million. But despite the trend’s well-seeming intent, it was soon met with backlash. Activists from around the world began pointing out the black-and-white photos’ supposed origin, protesting femicide in Turkey. After the murder of 27-year-old Pinar Gultekin by her ex-boyfriend in Southern Turkey, Turkish activists began posting black-and-white photos of Gultekin on social media, mourning her death and calling for the government to take action against femicide. Female users then began posting pictures of themselves in black and white, as a way of saying “next time, it could be me, too.” All of this unfolded as the Turkish government discussed withdrawing from the Council of Europe Convention (also known as the Istanbul Convention) on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
Though there are debates as to whether the Turkish movement spurred the global iteration, with many saying it started with a journalist’s post in Brazil, it is doubtless that the trend’s co-opting by celebrities and influencers obscured its critical message. As with the #blackouttuesday fiasco of two months ago, the trend-based nature of platforms like Instagram spurred many to post #challengeaccepted photos without understanding their meaning, ultimately diluting the message (and overwhelming the algorithm, burying activists’ original posts). But now, as the Turkish government enters into much-delayed talks on whether to remain a part of the convention, it is critical to understand what drove Turkish women to begin posting black-and-white photos, and what is at stake for women around the world if the Turkish government decides to withdraw.
Gultekin, a student living in the province of Mugla, was first reported missing by her family on July 16. Her body was found in the woods six days later, on July 21, burned, stuffed into a barrel and covered in cement. Her ex-boyfriend, a married bartender named Cemal Avci, was detained after he made contradictory statements regarding his knowledge of her whereabouts. After police showed Avci security footage of him buying two cans of gasoline near where Gultekin’s body was found, he confessed.
“She threatened to let my wife know about the relationship,” Avcı reportedly said. “She was asking for money. I killed her in a moment of rage.”
Though Gultekin’s death may seem like an extreme aberration, hers is just another name on a long list of Turkish women killed each year. According to data compiled by the We Will Stop Femicides Platform (Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracagiz Platformu), 236 have been killed by men so far in 2020; 474 were killed in 2019, 440 in 2018, and 409 in 2017. That number has doubled in the last 7 years– in 2013, 237 women died by femicide. Further, many believe the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown has increased violence against women–in April of this year, support calls to the Platform increased by 55 percent.
The Istanbul Convention was adopted by the Council of Europe in April 2011, and was opened for signatures in May of that year. Turkey was one of the first to sign, on May 11, 2011, and stood firmly behind the legislation, which “creat[ed] a legal framework at pan-European level to protect women against all forms of violence, and prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence.” Particularly, the convention aimed at putting in place international measures to combat sexual violence, rape, stalking, forced marriage, forced abortion, and gender-based murder. This February, however, President Erdogan announced that the convention would come “under reconsideration,” due to complaints from several members of the AKP. Among those complaints were allegations that the Convention was “disrupting the family structure” and that due to the legal parameters of the Convention, divorce rates had increased, while marriage rates have decreased.
With talks starting this week, Ankara is set to decide whether it will withdraw from the legally-binding convention, thereby freeing the country from enforcing laws preventing violence against women. This move could have long-lasting impacts in the region, and around the world. Already, Poland has announced its departure from the Convention, and many nationalist governments have attacked the Convention as counter to traditional family values. Russia, which is a part of the Council of Europe, has never signed the Convention.
The U.S. is not a signatory to the Convention, since it isn’t a part of the Council of Europe. But the alignment of nationalism and traditionalism with the rejection of the Convention’s tenets has troubling implications here, too. At least three women are killed by a current or former partner each day, according to FBI data released by the Violence Policy Center in 2019. This violence greatly increased in the past few years, under the Trump administration. From 1996-2014, the rate of women murdered by men dropped from 1.57 per 100,000 in 1996 to 1.08 in 2014. However, in 2017, that rate increased to 1.29, a 19 percent increase from 2014.
In the U.S., the problem is exacerbated by guns. According to a study conducted on violence between intimate partners, women are more likely to be killed by a firearm than by all other methods combined. Further, a Department of Justice study showed that women are more likely than men to be the target of violent crime, and that women are more at risk in the home than in any other location. Availability of firearms and firearms in the home has been directly linked to those weapons being used against women.
The Clinton administration passed the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. Like the Istanbul Convention, it aimed to increase both legal and community responses to gender based violence and assault, and the Violence Prevention Center credits it with the nearly 20-year decrease in violence through 2014. But the act expired on February 15, 2019. The Democratic-led house of representatives passed a bill to reauthorize the act on April 4, 2019, but after more than a year, it has yet to be passed on in the Republican-led Senate, largely due to partisan disagreement over statutes concerning firearms possession in the bill. Particularly contentious has been a statute that would expand a ban on firearms purchases for perpetrators of domestic violence to those who commit dating violence or stalking.
This all goes to demonstrate a troubling trend in international attitudes toward gender-based violence. The more countries that use the excuse of family values to step back from agreements like the Istanbul Convention, or that institute abortion bans and other laws infringing on women’s rights, the more normalized these attitudes against women will become. Though the U.S. iteration of the black-and-white photo trend dropped the reference to femicide, that original message would have directly applied here, too. As countries around the world– including the U.S.– scrap laws meant to protect women, it’s critical that we realize that femicide is not just a problem faced by Turkey, or countries in the Middle East, but rather afflicts most of the world.