I remember the first time I could vote in Turkey. It was 2011 – three years after I turned 18 and became eligible to vote. I had been sad to miss the elections in 2007 as well as a referendum on changes to the constitution. It was June and I was back home for the summer from university and was excited. We went early in the morning as a family and then met friends for an election day brunch. It was an event of sorts and my first time voting was celebrated.

Voting has always been important in my family. I was taught early on its importance, and of making your voice heard through this democratic process. For me, it was our duty and not something that was optional. I’ve thought about this many times since then. How hard women fought across the world to gain the right to vote and with every chance we get, how we should be honouring their struggle by showing up.

But people always ask me why it matters – they say the vote of one person won’t make a difference or that those in power will cheat anyway. Even if that is true, I always thought that if we don’t even try and don’t vote, we legitimise those who would cheat and then they don’t even have to cheat anymore, because the people who should be holding them to account don’t even show up.

This week, all of this takes on a greater meaning.

Voting abroad for the presidential and the general elections in Turkey began on the 27th of April. The election in Turkey will take place on the 14th of May. For some, it is an election between democracy and the potential of a full-blown dictatorship.

As I went to the consulate to cast my vote I felt a sense of urgency and dread. Because it feels like this is the last chance that the Turkish people have to remove Erdogan and end his increasingly authoritarian regime. And his removal as president is now more important than ever for the women of Turkey.

Since his election as prime minister in 2002 and later as president, women’s rights in Turkey have deteriorated as a direct result of Erdogan’s policies.

The president has made his stance regarding women very clear. For him, they belong in the home and their main duty is to become mothers. He has previously said a woman who rejects motherhood and who doesn’t manage her own home will be half a woman no matter how successful she is in the business world. He’s also said that gender equality is “against nature” and has time and again been disrespectful of women and has targeted them, for example by calling protestors sluts, or going after female journalists and activists with his remarks. 

Under Erdogan’s government violence against women has drastically increased. According to the We Will Stop Femicides platform, 579 women were killed in 2022, up from 180 in 2010. In the last three years, there were a total of 914 femicides and 632 women were found suspiciously dead. 

But instead of addressing this increase in killings with further protections and the punishment of perpetrators, the government has in 2021 opted to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women. Those in the government have claimed that the Convention is being used to normalise homosexuality and that women’s rights are protected in already existing national laws.

The courts have also failed to implement protective orders and injunctions, leaving many women vulnerable to abuse. And it has gone after the We Will Stop Femicides platform, launching a closure case against it for allegedly acting against the law and morality. Behind the statistics is a mentality that views women as property and an idea that they exist to serve the men in their family, whether it is their father, brother or husband.

Despite all this, Erdogan has previously claimed that women have only started exercising their full rights thanks to him and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

To be fair, in the early days of the AKP some steps were taken to improve women’s rights in the country. The ban on wearing headscarves in universities and public offices, which kept many women out of the public sphere, was lifted in 2010. In 2011, Turkey became the first country to ratify the Istanbul Convention.

There were improvements made to the laws as well to protect women. For example, marital rape and sexual harassment were criminalised in 2004.

But those advances are long in the past.

Looking forward, the AKP and Erdogan’s goals are clear. Just look at the alliances he has made in the run up to the election. He has received the support of Islamist parties, including the New Welfare Party, which has demanded the abolishment of Law 6284 – a national law for the protection of women from violence. To make the alliance, the AKP accepted revising this law.

According to the document published by the alliance, “priority will be given to remove stipulations in existing laws to protect the unity of families, and to new legislation that will prevent acts against our moral values and perversions, as well as to prevent the victimisation caused by indefinite alimony rights”.

That can easily mean that the focus will be on protecting families, instead of women, potentially forcing them to stay in abusive relationships. In addition, the reference to moral values and perversions are so vague and subjective that they can be anything. In this case, it most certainly means Islamic moral values that will be forced upon people.

The AKP has also partnered with Huda-Par, which has connections to Turkish Hezbollah.

In light of these alliances and the increasingly regressive policies, even conservative women are withdrawing their support of Erdogan, according to reports.

In contrast, Erdogan’s opponent and the leader of the main opposition party CHP Kemal Kilicdaroglu has pledged to help women in Turkey, including by rejoining the Istanbul Convention and boosting equal employment opportunities. While the opposition still has to prove that it is indeed committed to gender equality and fighting violence against women, the choice in these elections is clear.

The women of Turkey have been enduring the roll back of their rights and an increase in violence for far too long. And going out to vote is the most important action we can take right now.

Written by Selin Bucak.
Selin is a freelance journalist based in Paris. Previously based in London, she writes on a variety of topics, from gender inequality and human rights issues to finance and economics. She also runs a weekly newsletter answering women’s questions on money, finance and economics called the Rebalancing Act.

Illustrated by Selen Sarikaya.
Selen is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer based in Florence, Italy. She mostly enjoys illustrating small intimate moments and arguably bigger societal issues. Her hobbies include being overwhelmed by where the world is going, mindlessly wandering the streets of Florence and secretly drawing anyone around.